By Representative Bill Shuster
As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and Western Pennsylvania congressional delegation, I am proud to work with Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, as a strong supporter of the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, home of the 911th Airlift Wing and the 171st Air National Guard. These important units are strategically positioned to provide critical military support in the event of a national emergency and have served our nation with honor. Closing this base at this time is flat out wrong.
On April 17, first lady Michelle Obama met with families from the 911th and posed for pictures with them. The first lady came to honor airmen who have made repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, another indication of the dedication of the war fighters and their families on this important base. According to media reports, family members asked about the possible base closure and the first lady expressed her sympathies and wished that the base could stay open. But the 911th deserves better than platitudes and political photo ops.
Located along the heavily populated northeastern corridor, the 911th and 171st can reach 70 percent of the nation's population within 90 minutes flight time. The 171st was stationed over New York City within 45 minutes of the attacks on 9/11 to execute critical refueling operations, just as it did recently over the skies of Libya. The 911th also deployed the first aircraft to arrive in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, supplying essential humanitarian assistance as part of its continuous homeland security mission.
Having the Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station as the base of operations for the 911th Airlift Wing is one of those rare opportunities when we can realize both cost savings and enhanced readiness, an ideal combination for our military leaders. Unfortunately, as part of a recent cost-savings proposal, the Air Force has recommended closing the Airport Reserve Station and removing four KC-135 refueling aircraft from the 171st Air Refuel- ing Wing.
Reducing the federal deficit and achieving fiscal responsibility requires difficult choices by the Department of Defense and Congress, but I am disturbed that the preliminary decision to close the 911th and reduce the 171st was made without a thorough cost-benefit analysis, given the impressive capabilities and cost efficiencies available at the Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station.
The station enjoys a unique partnership with Pittsburgh International Airport, which results in $10 million in annual savings for the Air Force. This partnership allows the Air Reserve Station to operate with limited overhead and with the full support of a major international airport, which operates four active runways. Other air bases in the United States share the capabilities of the Pittsburgh station but lack its strategic location and budgetary advantages.
The Air Force also overlooked categories of DOD employees at the 911th in determining that its head count was under the threshold of 300 that requires congressional approval for base closures. When all civilian employees are properly counted, the number far exceeds 300. Closing the base should require congressional approval, and the Air Force should not be trying to circumvent congressional intervention just to take a chunk out of its budget. It should provide Congress with base-closing options based on accurate data and analysis.
Both the 1995 and 2005 base-closure processes reversed preliminary decisions to close Pittsburgh's Air Reserve Station because of its strategic value and cost efficiency, as well as Rep. Murphy's passionate opposition.
I am confident that if an adequate level of analysis is conducted by the Department of Defense, it will find the same is true today. The Air Force must look for more cost-effective force structure changes that will actually save taxpayers money without sacrificing our national security.
Bill Shuster, R-Blair, represents Pennsylvania's 9th District in Congress (www.shuster. house.gov)