By Charles S. Johnson
A federal judge on Monday dismissed the state's lawsuit against the Defense Department over its plans to move F-15 fighter jets from the Montana Air National Guard base in Great Falls to California.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, represented by state Attorney General Steve Bullock, had asked U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon to dismiss the lawsuit.
The state officials said they decided to drop the lawsuit after receiving assurances from Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley that the 15 fighter jets couldn't be transferred from Great Falls to Fresno, Calif., before the C-130 cargo planes promised to replace them are moved here.
At the state's request, Haddon dismissed "without prejudice" the lawsuit it filed in late June to immediately stop the transfer of the F-15s until a replacement mission is secured. That allows the state to re-file the lawsuit later if the Air Force reneges on its agreement.
"It is essential that the Montana Air National Guard retain the ability to carry out its dual role mission of effective response to domestic emergencies," said Schweitzer, the commander in chief of the Montana National Guard. "This lawsuit helped protect the people and the mission of the Montana Air National Guard and was effective in halting the transfer."
The state had argued in the lawsuit that transferring the F-15 jets without the governor's consent would violate a federal law that says that "no change in the branch, organization or allotment of a (National Guard) unit located entirely within a state may be moved without the approval of its governor."
Schweitzer had opposed the transfer, and Bullock argued in the lawsuit that it shouldn't be implemented.
"The lawsuit my office filed last month made it very clear to the Department of Defense that gutting the Montana Air National Guard's mission was simply not acceptable," Bullock said, calling the mission "vitally important to Great Falls' and the state's economy."
About 800 Montana Air National Guard servicemen and women are directly tied to the 120th Fighter Wing, the two officials said. The loss of the F-15s without replacement aircraft may have endangered the ability of pilots to maintain their accreditation or gain training for the highly specialized mission, they said.
These jobs had an estimated impact of $66 million in Montana in 2011, while the Air National Guard also spends about $15 million annually for fuel produced from a local Montana refinery.
Montana's two U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Democrats, said last month their work on the issue in Congress had resulted in the F-15s staying in Great Falls.
In a press release June 22, the senators said the Defense Department told them that the Air Force is suspending all aircraft transfers for the rest of the year, with the anticipation that Congress will pass a provision Baucus and Tester added to the Defense Authorization bill to block all transfers through the end of fiscal 2013.
"Jon and I were proud to lock in the F-15 mission in June and together, we're rolling up our sleeves to make sure the C-130 mission arrives on Gore Hill as planned," Baucus said.