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Congress gives reprieve to Mass. military bases

WASHINGTON — Two major Massachusetts military installations that had been threatened with closure or cutbacks have been spared as part of legislation hailed by Bay State leaders as a victory in their struggle to retain defense-related jobs.

But the Pentagon, which proposed changes last year for transportation and intelligence units in Chicopee and on Cape Cod, has expressed frustration with Congress’s insistence on blocking some of its plans to reduce what it considers wasteful or unnecessary force structure across the country.

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The annual legislation to authorize military spending, signed by President Obama on Wednesday, includes in its $633.8 billion package several provisions championed in recent months by a coalition of Massachusetts officials and industry groups. It requires the Air National Guard to maintain an intelligence unit on Cape Cod that was set to be closed. And the Air Force Reserve will have to restudy its needs for transport aircraft before cutting in half the fleet of 16 cargo jets at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.

Other provisions designated some $30 million for improvements to other Bay State military facilities at Fort
Devens in Middlesex and Worcester counties and the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod.

The legislation “marks a major milestone in our efforts to support infrastructure needs, protect critical jobs and valuable assets, and promote significant new investments for Massachusetts military bases,” Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, who chairs the Massachusetts Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force, told the Globe.

Over the past two decades, Massachusetts and other New England states have lost a number of major military facilities in downsizings. In Massachusetts, half a dozen relatively small ones remain, only two of which are active-duty. They are zealously protected by local officials and members of Congress.

The bill preserves the 102d Intelligence Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base, a 24-hour data center that supports troops overseas with “real-time” intelligence from satellites and remotely piloted aircraft. The Air Force had proposed doing away with the unit, along with its 141 personnel, contending the mission could be accomplished by units outside of Massachusetts.

‘We are very happy and feel very fortunate of the support we have had.’

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But the law now requires the Pentagon to maintain at least 105,700 personnel in the Air National Guard, in effect locking in the current force structure. Supporting documents compiled by the Air Force note that the figure includes keeping the 141 positions at the 102d, along with 10 personnel at Barnes Air National Guard Base, home of the 104th Fighter Wing, which were also slated to be cut.

“We’ve been working on this all year,” said US Representative William Keating, a Quincy Democrat who represents Otis Air National Guard Base and personally intervened with the Air Force chief of staff, General Mark A. Welsh. “It is a front-line operation in terms of its mission. They are doing it cost-effectively. [The Air Force] did not have an adequate replacement to do that right away.”

Colonel Patrick Cobb, commander of the 102d, also welcomed the news.

“We are very happy and feel very fortunate of the support we have had from our elected leaders in keeping our 141 jobs out here at Otis,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Western Massachusetts, officials at Westover Air Reserve Base have been bracing to lose half of their 16 C-5 Galaxy transport planes by October 2015. The Air Force has proposed to relocate the aircraft, operated by the 439th Airlift Wing, to a base in Texas.

“The eight C-5s are still schedule to transfer,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said Friday, but he noted that the new legislation requires the Air Force to conduct a so-called “mobility requirements study” before making associated changes in force structure.

Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bishop, a spokesman for the 439th, said officials are waiting to see how the Air Force will ultimately decide to allocate the planes.

Across the nation, governors and community leaders have pushed back against the Air Force’s plans to streamline both the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. A variety of similar proposals in other states were similarly overturned by Congress.

While the efforts to safeguard the Bay State facilities may be good local politics, they have created tension in Washington at a time of growing deficits.

The Obama administration has complained that parochial interests are trumping what military leaders see as the need to make better use of taxpayer dollars.

In signing the bill on Wednesday, Obama wrote that the “restrictions on the Defense Department’s ability to retire unneeded ships and aircraft will divert scarce resources.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month similarly decried what many see as meddling. “There is pressure on the department to retain excess force structure and infrastructure instead of investing in the training and equipment that makes our force agile and flexible and ready,” Panetta told the National Press Club.

Massachusetts officials did not get everything they wanted. For example, the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford will now be folded under another command in Ohio and in the process be commanded by a two-star general instead of a three-star officer.

Local officials have expressed concern that less seniority will make the facility vulnerable to future cuts. The base accounts for thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in annual revenue.

But base officials on Friday maintained that the changes are only cosmetic.

“All of the major functions and missions at Hanscom remain; personnel simply report to the new center commander, who while stationed primarily in Ohio, maintains office space at other key locations including Hanscom,” said Chuck Paone, a spokesman for the weapon research and development center.

Other provisions in the bill will benefit Massachusetts, including $22 million for new training and maintenance facilities at Camp Edwards, located on the Massachusetts Military Reservation. Another $8.5 million was allocated for new barracks, classrooms, and a mini-market at Fort Devens.

Other funding is likely to benefit local contractors, including a major increase in military research for body armor, from $5.7 million last year to $26.9 million.

“For the first time it requires the military to develop body armor specifically designed for females,” said US Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, who played a key role in advancing the state’s concerns. She said the Natick Soldier Systems Center, which develops military food, clothing, and shelters, is likely to see some of that funding.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at GlobeBender
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