WASHINGTON - State and congressional leaders are bracing for a battle over a Pentagon plan to strip aircraft from one Air Force base in Western Massachusetts and possibly cut personnel at another.
Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, the largest Air Force Reserve base in the country, is set to lose half the C-5 Galaxy planes assigned to the 439th Airlift Wing, according to an Air Force proposal made public last week. The nearby Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield is expecting details as early as this week about personnel cuts at Air National Guard bases nationwide.
Bay State officeholders are scrambling to determine the potential economic impact. Massachusetts officials say the bases are an important source of jobs in the western part of the state. Together they accounted for nearly 5,000 Air Force-related jobs in 2011, according to statistics compiled by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division.
“The economic impact is huge,’’ Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, who toured the Barnes base earlier this month, said in an interview. “Barnes and Westover are also incredibly important from a strategic national defense perspective.’’
Personnel cuts at Barnes, if they materialize, would be part of nationwide program to retire old equipment, reduce the size of the Air National Guard, and trim excess overhead costs. The program will be part of the president’s budget unveiled today.
The bases ‘also have a commercial impact.’Rep. Richard Neal Springfield Democrat
The Massachusetts congressional delegation is trying to convince Air Force leaders that substantially reducing the role of military aviation in Western Massachusetts, which dates to the early part of the 20th century, would be a mistake.
They Massachusetts members of Congress also worry that the Air Force cuts could be a harbinger of bigger reductions in the state’s half-dozen military facilities. The Pentagon recently announced it is seeking a new round of base closures, which will trigger a review of all military facilities across the country to determine which ones should be shuttered or restructured.
Westover is part of the Air Force Reserve, the 50,000-strong force under the control of the regular Air Force. The base was established in 1940 and is located on 2,500 acres within the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.
Barnes, located at the Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport, is part of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, which is under the control of the governor unless called to active duty by the president. It has been used as a military training area since 1905 and received its first Air National Guard planes in 1946.
Westover is home to 16 C-5 Galaxy cargo planes and last year employed 3,807 people, according to the state’s figures. The payroll for the Air Force personnel amounted to approximately $160 million, while operating expenditures were an additional $71.5 million. Another 1,000 personnel from other branches of the military also work at the base.
Last week, the Air Force announced that half the planes would be transferred to Texas by 2016.
“Going from 16 to eight planes means less of a mission,’’ said Lieutenant Colonel James Bishop, spokesman for the 439th Wing in Westover.
The transfer is part of a broader plan to retire 227 aircraft in 33 states beginning in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, as well as 59 more over the next five years.
Bishop pointed out that the remaining eight planes at Westover are set to receive upgrades, which he said would somewhat soften the blow.
Still, Massachusetts officials are seeking more details from the Air Force on how the Westover proposal was reached and whether the service considered how the move might diminish the wing’s ability to operate effectively.
“Since the Berlin Airlift in the 1940s, Westover Air Reserve Base has been a valuable strategic defense asset and has played an important role in the Massachusetts economy,’’ Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, wrote in a letter Friday to Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley asking for more information. In recent military operations, he wrote, “Westover was an essential part of the air bridge between the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.’’
The letter, which was also signed by Democratic Senator John F. Kerry and Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat whose district includes the base, also stressed Westover’s more local mission.
“It is also a key staging location for emergency management teams who deal with the consequences of natural disasters that strike New England,’’ the lawmakers told Donley.
Neal said in an interview that he is confident there is enough time to convince the Air Force to reverse course on the aircraft reduction at Westover.
At Barnes, home to the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, more downsizing may be in the offing in the form of personnel cuts, officials fear.
“I am concerned about it but not yet worried,’’ said Neal, whose district will include both facilities next year under congressional redistricting plans.
While the details of which bases will be affected are still to be announced, Air Force officials have said they want to trim the Air National Guard by 5,000 beginning next year and the Air Force Reserve by up to 1,000.
“Part two will be the personnel piece,’’ said Bishop.
Barnes, which operates F-15 jets, employed an estimated 951 people last year, according to state statistics, with a payroll totaling more than $22.5 million. Operating expenses were estimated to be an additional $48 million. The base also has a contingent of Army helicopters.
Speaking about Westover and Barnes, Neal said their true economic impact is larger than official figures indicate, bringing business to local hotels, restaurants, and other merchants, as well as the real estate market.
“Because they have been successful at military operations,’’ he said, “they also have a commercial impact. There is great commerce that goes on around there.’’
But Bay State officials say their case is far more than just about saving jobs in Western Massachusetts.
Murray said the F-15 jets assigned there “are the first responders’’ to be scrambled for any potential air threats in the Northeast corner of the country, “all the way down to New York.’’
“That is,’’ he said, “something we think holds weight.’’