Onward and upward: The 911th Airlift Wing wins a reprieve from closure

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The 911th Airlift Wing attached to Pittsburgh International Airport will stay in operation through 2014. This news, announced last week by the Air Force, cheered the base's many supporters throughout the region who rallied to save it.

But make no mistake. The Air Force did this area no favor, although the benefits of the decision are great. The locally focused coalition did the Air Force the favor, by making a military argument for keeping the base open that was too strong to ignore.

In a time of soaring deficits, the defense budget must be cut just like other federal spending. As this newspaper argued more than a year ago when the Air Force was first ordered to make force structure changes because Congress could not agree on a rational deficit-reduction plan, the Pittsburgh area could not hope to succeed simply with a NIMBY argument -- Not in My Back Yard -- of economic self-preservation like other communities also affected by base closures.

Of course, the economic stakes were high. The 911th has about 1,400 reservists and 300 civilian personnel and its regional economic impact is put at $127 million a year. But that argument was the last and most desperate. The Air Force fights wars; it isn't in the business of economic boosterism.

The base's local supporters had to argue the major advantages of the 911th's geographic location near major population centers and its home at an underutilized airport that could easily accommodate military missions. They had to remind the Air Force of the value of the base as a recruitment magnet in an area rich with veterans. Most of all, they had to emphasize the superior record of the unit in carrying out its mission worldwide.

In short, they had to argue that the value of the base open was worth much more than its cost closed. And this they did, at least for the time being. "In the end, the Air Force finally agreed that the 911th is one of the most efficient, skilled and mission-ready airlift units in the country," said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. The base will stay open for now with eight C-130 aircraft assigned to do the job.

It wasn't easy. The Air Force, perhaps driven by internal politics that can only be guessed at, seemed reluctant to get it. Unlike previous threats to the base in 1995 and 2005 during the Base Realignment and Closure Commission process, this effort required educating Air Force brass in what they had in Pittsburgh. "Time and again during this process, we had to tell the Pentagon about the great things happening at the 911th like the new Navy Reserve Center and commissary -- assets the Pentagon didn't even know it had," Mr. Murphy said.

This success has many authors, including Mr. Murphy; Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican; Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills; a newcomer to office, Rep. Keith Rothfus, D-Sewickley, and some past officeholders, Democrats Jason Altmire and Mark Critz; Republican Gov. Tom Corbett; Democratic Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald; the Military Affairs Coalition of Western Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce. Party labels don't matter when a community asset is threatened.

And they will probably have to come together again. The Air Force has made clear that, come 2015 and with the sequester adding to the need to make careful budget decisions, it will reconsider its force structure. Keep that military argument polished.

opinion_editorials


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