By Greg O'Brien
IN THE AFTERMATH of 9/11, Americans have been led to believe that homeland security in the Northeast has improved, that our ability to intercept threatening airplanes and protect against hostile threats at sea is getting better. But if you look closely at what the Bush administration has been trying to do to the Massachusetts Military Reservation and Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, there is cause for great alarm.
Concerns were raised locally in May 2005, when the Bush administration tried to close Otis, relocate its acclaimed 102nd Fighter Wing, and put in limbo the Coast Guard's Air Station Cape Cod, with responsibility from New Jersey to the Canadian border for critical search-and-rescue missions, port security, marine safety and enforcing new stricter regulations designed to preserve the depleted New England fishery.
The Otis Air National Guard is the front line of America's homeland security; its fleet of 18 F-15 fighter jets is charged with intercepting hostile aircraft penetrating U.S. airspace. On Sept. 11, 2001, two F-15s from Otis came within minutes of cutting off the two planes that were flown into the World Trade Centers.
While Bay State officials won the fight to keep the Otis open, the government's Base Realignment Commission (BRAC) voted to relocate the first-alert, border patrol fighter wing jets 100 miles inland to a small, municipal airport in Westfield, Mass., and much of the funding that goes with it. Got ya covered, right? It makes about as much sense as moving the key U.S.-Mexico checkpoint in Nogales, Ariz., two hours north to Tucson.
The BRAC no doubt tossed a weighty monkey wrench into Otis, and never resolved who would pay to continue operating the base or how Air Station Cape Cod would survive. The National Guard over the years has footed the $17 million annual freight of operating the base for all the military tenants - providing a necessary lifeline to an anemic Coast Guard budget swamped with other costs.
Regrettably, five years after the World Trade Center attacks and now in the wake of stepped up homeland-defense duties for the Coast Guard, many officials in Washington still don't get it: Otis Air National Guard Base and Air Station Cape Cod, one of the largest Coast Guard contingents in the country with its seven commands, are fundamental to the nation's safety and security.
"Its location here is vital," Sen. Edward Kennedy has said, noting the BRAC analysis "did not take into consideration the relocation's impact on Coast Guard operations, especially the 300 search-and-rescue missions they fly every year."
"To ignore this fact is to ignore reality," added U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D.-Mass., of the 10th Congressional District, representing the Cape. "In the aftermath of 9/11, it made absolutely no sense to put this base at risk."
And for what? Relocating the jets of the 102nd Fighter Wing next year will deplete vital Otis operations dollars, while forcing taxpayers to ante up $40 million to $50 million in added costs for buildings and facilities to support new missions at Westfield's Barnes Municipal Airport and replacement missions for Guard units at Otis.
"The BRAC process is supposed to save money, but the exact opposite has happened: Our Coast Guard, National Guard and the State of Massachusetts were all stuck with a huge bill," Delahunt noted.
Christmas, or the promise of it, came early this year to Air Station Cape Cod, with Delahunt and Kennedy brokering a behind-the-scenes financial agreement that will at least guarantee the Coast Guard's continued presence on the base, with its fleet of Falcon jets and Jayhawk rescue helicopters.
Announced Dec. 22, an agreement among the Coast Guard, National Guard and the State of Massachusetts creates the Massachusetts Military Reservation Installation Partnership and calls for the Coast Guard to assume control of the aviation facilities from the Air Force. Under the terms of the agreement, the Coast Guard will now take responsibility for operating the runways and taxiways, the Air National Guard will manage the electricity, water, sewerage and other utilities, and the state will fund the emergency services and fire protection.
"While the agreement is an important milestone, the base is still on life support," cautions Delahunt chief aide Mark Forest, who has worked in the 10th District as a friend to the Coast Guard since signing on in 1984 with the late Congressman Gerry Studds.
The Coast Guard's added operational expense is anticipated to exceed $6 million annually, an expenditure that must be funded by a Congress weighed down today with a budget deficit bleeding the nation and unpopular war in Iraq that is costing $2 billion a week.
Delahunt, however, is hopeful that a Democrat-controlled Congress, generally more supportive of Coast Guard initiatives, will approve the required funds for operating Air Station Cape Cod, established in 1970 and credited with some of the most dramatic air and sea rescues in this country's history.
Indeed, the future of Air Station Cape Cod and Otis Air National Guard Base (also an alternate landing site for NASA space shuttle missions) is as promising as it is tenuous. "While we have a financial agreement in place, much more work needs to be done to guarantee the future of this vital center for homeland security in the Northeast," said Delahunt.
"Who would have thought that after 9/11, after Katrina, and given all that the Coast Guard and people at Otis have done, that we'd have to deal with such a battle. We are determined to win this fight. Too much is at stake. The future of New England's premier homeland defense installation is still at risk."