New Mexico leaders invite Defense Department to visit Cannon AFB

Jennifer Talhelm: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — New Mexico leaders are inviting Defense Department officials to visit Cannon Air Force Base, hoping that will help convince the Pentagon the base should stay open.

The request comes days after the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted to move Cannon’s three F-16 fighter squadrons elsewhere, reducing the base to an enclave. If a new mission can’t be found by Dec. 31, 2009, Cannon will be closed, taking with it as many as 4,700 jobs on and off the base.

The Pentagon had recommended closing Cannon as part of its plan to streamline military bases throughout the country, but BRAC commissioners said Friday the base was valuable and could have future use.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld written Monday, the state’s congressional delegation and Gov. Bill Richardson suggested Acting Deputy Secretary Gordon England should come to Clovis to discuss possible new missions for Cannon. They also asked to meet with Rumsfeld soon.

“We stand ready to assist in your review of Cannon and the determination of its new role,” the letter reads.
State officials noted in interviews that members of the BRAC

Commission who visited the base later supported keeping it open. A visit would give Pentagon officials an up-close-and-personal view of what the base has to offer, they said.

“Seeing the capacity and the potential of a place has more impact than just reading about it in a memo from your staff,” Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., said. “It’s important to give them a chunk of time to focus on Cannon.”

Dan Goure, vice president and defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think-tank in Arlington, Va., said the BRAC commissioners were trying to do the best thing for the military when they designated Cannon as an “enclave.”

“They were sort of inventing things as they went,” Goure said. “You have to give them some credit for that.”

But they also left open a lot of questions.

Goure said the BRAC commissioners didn’t hand New Mexico any favors by voting to hold the base in limbo for five years.

For example, state leaders still don’t know whether construction projects planned for the base can continue, how many people will be left after the F-16s are moved out or what the military could do with the empty Air Force base.

“Mothballing is not in anyone’s interest,” Goure said. “There’s no income for public or private good, and the military is unlikely to use it except in emergency. I wonder if the New Mexico delegation and politicians are saying, ‘On second thought, no thank you.”’

State officials say they are beginning work immediately to lobby for new uses for Cannon. They also are asking that military construction money designated for improvements at the base be spent at Cannon as planned.

That includes work on a consolidated airman center — a central gathering place for airmen similar to a college student union — which was suspended when Cannon was put on the base closure list.

Officials are optimistic the Army may be interested in using the base — possibly to house troops returning from Europe. They also will continue to lobby for new Air Force missions, such as the joint strike fighter, the F-35.

Officials expect they have a few years before the Air Force begins to move out of Cannon. But they also don’t want a gap in which Cannon is temporarily empty.

“In order to not hurt the community economically and have it be able to focus on its wider economic base, I think we need to move as quickly as possible,” Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said. “We’re going to be continuing to research this and have the delegation work together in a united way.”