January 14, 2005 (by Lieven Dewitte) - NOT much has been made of it yet, but there's a threat looming on the horizon for the fighter pilots of the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing based at Toledo Express Airport.
It's not the war in Iraq, and it's not terrorism, though the 180th considers itself ready and able to deal with both. This threat is domestic, and it originates at the Pentagon.
Later this year a federal commission will present a list of military base closures to the Congress and President Bush, and local officials worry that the 180th could be on the hit list.
That's because unlike the first four rounds of base closures over the last several years, national guard and reserve installations will be examined for possible shutdown for the first time.
A coalition of local business and government leaders is mobilizing to rally on the 180th's behalf, and hometown boosterism aside, a strong argument can be made for keeping the unit right where it is.
Economic impact is always the first factor mentioned, and the base provided an estimated $71 million in direct and indirect economic support in fiscal 2003, including $37 million in payroll for some 1,200 military and civilian personnel.
But the base may be more important strategically than economically. In the national defense, as in real estate, three words are vital: location, location, location.
The 180th is truly part of the heartland of America. Its jets can scramble within minutes to protect a substantial percentage of middle America's population, and indeed, the 180th was the first air guard unit west of the Alleghenies in the air on 9/11.
The unit is based near the intersection of two of this country's busiest and most important interstate highways, I-75 and I 80-90. Within 50 miles, just minutes away from Toledo Express as the F16 flies, are not one but two nuclear power plants on the shores of Lake Erie. Both are conceivably vulnerable to terrorist attack from the water.
One caveat: another air guard unit is based not too far away at Selfridge Air National Guard Base north of Detroit. Two units may be viewed as one too many by a commission looking to reduce the number of military installations by 25 percent, especially since four previous rounds of reductions closed the obvious choices. Now the cuts become a little dicier.
Historically in this country, retaining a military base and the jobs and economic impact that go with it depended on congressional clout and political influence. If a base or post was in a district represented by somebody in a position to throw his or her weight around on Capitol Hill, its chances for survival were greatly enhanced.
Most of the politics has been removed from the process, however, and that is as it should be. Now an appointed commission weighs the strengths and weaknesses of the installations and then presents its closure list to the Congress, which ultimately passes it along to the President. Neither Congress nor President Bush can make additions or subtractions; they must accept or reject the entire list. The latter is unlikely.
That process should be completed some time next fall. If the final decision is truly free of political considerations and is based primarily on military value, the 180th should survive.
However, there are no guarantees. In the meantime, the area should ponder the possibility that those reassuring vapor trails overhead are not necessarily a given any more.