Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — NIAGARA FALLS — Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta pledged his commitment to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station during a visit Thursday.
“I want you to know that I am committed to do everything I can to fight for your interests and I want you to join me in fighting for what’s right,” Panetta said to a crowd of about 250 air men and women and civilians who work at the base.
The Falls base was facing the threat of operations being scaled back earlier this year. Those cuts have been shelved through the year 2013, but the future of the base in 2014 and beyond remains uncertain.
The air base is home to the 107th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard and 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve. The base is one of the county’s largest employers, representing more than 3,000 full- and part-time employees with a total payroll of $88 million.
Panetta, who is the first secretary of defense to ever visit the airbase, assured those in the crowd that he would continue to consider new missions in order to retain jobs at the air station.
“As I discussed in a meeting I had before coming here, I also want to look to the future, look to some of the missions we are going to have for the future, whether it’s ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), whether it’s intelligence or whether it’s new technologies,” Panetta said. “And I’m committed to exploring those new missions for this base in the future.”
Panetta said that the military plans to make future major investments in the base, including the upgrades on eight of the C-130 aircrafts located in the Falls and the creation of a C-130 flight simulator at a cost of $6.1 million.
Panetta acknowledged that the $487 billion cut in defense spending in the next budget will force difficult decisions to be made. He also acknowledged that the looming sequestration cuts, known in political circles as “the fiscal cliff,” would add another $500 billion in cuts for the Department of Defense if Congress can’t come up with a solution.
The toughest task in the near future may be figuring out how to achieve the many goals of the military while implementing the budget cuts.
“Let me be frank with you,” Panetta said, “I can’t reduce the budget by $487 billion and not create some pain. It’s the nature of it.”
Panetta then told the crowd that he would do whatever he could to make sure that the Falls airbase would remain an important part of the military’s strategy.
“Let me be very clear,” he said. “The Department of Defense is committed to protecting New York’s Air National Guard. It’s the largest in the country and I think it’s one of the best.”