FRESNO, Calif. — California's Air National Guard pilots stand on high alert 24-7, ready to launch their fighters against a cruise missile attack or hijacked airliner. These days, they are also launching a public-relations offensive to save their base.
It's a strange new skirmish in what should be the truce following last year's base-closure fights. The stakes are huge, Air Guard officers here say, because their mission could be outsourced to faraway states as their aging aircraft grow obsolete. California's defense against terrorists might rely on Air Guard fighters based in other states, though possibly deployed within California.
"Our pitch is that, hey, as our airplanes age out, is California going to be best served in the air-defense picture, or is California being left to hang out to dry?" said Lt. Col. Clay Garrison, weapons officer and chief flight instructor for the Fresno-based 144th Fighter Wing.
The officers' concerns rest on what-ifs and inferences gleaned a world away from the military planners who will actually determine the base's future. By sounding alarms now, the Fresno officers are bucking the military's culture of tightly managed public relations.
But their message is beginning to trouble California politicians, who are pressing the Pentagon for answers about what happens to the Southwest's air defenses when the California Air Guard's fleet of F-16 Falcon jets is mothballed.
"What's disturbing is, there is no plan yet," said Lt. Col. John Crocker, director of air operations for the California Air Guard, who has pressed both the National Guard Bureau and the Air Force for guidance, without success.
The Pentagon declined to comment on the future of the Air National Guard base in Fresno, citing national security concerns and unresolved planning debates.
"I think it's too early to make any kind of speculation as to the outcome of any of this," said Sgt. Patrick Murphy, a spokesman for the Air Combat Command, which is responsible for Air Force warplanes. He confirmed that some older model F-16s could be phased out by 2012, but said the timeframe for retiring the entire fleet is undetermined.
What is clear is that one of the nation's best homeland-defense fighter fleets will soon reside in the wide-open spaces of Montana, population 936,000.
The Pentagon recommended a year ago that the Montana Air National Guard's air-defense wing be dismantled, its fighters shipped to other bases or retired.
But the independent Base Closure and Realignment Commission overruled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recommendation. Instead, the commission gave Montana 15 F-15 Eagles, part of a larger effort to redistribute aircraft around the country and thus, it said, better ensure homeland security. President Bush and Congress signed off, and Montana Air Guard officials expect the new jets to arrive by the fall of 2008.
Montana's empty skies give it a vast training range, with little risk of injury or damage in an accident, said Capt. Jeff Pepke, executive staff officer for the Montana Air National Guard's 120th Fighter Wing.
But Pepke said he did not know why the base commission decided to send the new F-15s to Montana. "Good question," he said.
There was a whiff of politics about the decision. Jobs were at stake, and Montana Sens. Conrad Burns, a Republican, and Max Baucus, a Democrat, took credit for lobbying the base-closure commission to get the F-15s. Burns faces a tough re-election fight this year, and the F-15s gave him a prize to trumpet to Montana voters.
California will benefit from Montana's superior planes, Pepke said. Under an arrangement established by the Pentagon, the Montana Air National Guard already operates a satellite base of up to four jets at March Air Reserve Base, east of Los Angeles.
To officials of the California Guard, watching Montana get the F-15s and knowing Montana already is flying missions from California runways feels a little like reading their own obituary.
The F-15 is a more powerful fighter with better radar — and it has a brighter future than the F-16. The Pentagon has no plan to retire the F-15 in the near future, said Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a spokesman at National Guard headquarters near Washington.
Fresno base officers are convinced they're getting soon-to-be-mothballed F-16s because the 144th's future is dim. They fear the state Guard unit will lose its status as a homeland security "main operating base," a prestigious distinction it has held since 1953.
At main operating bases, aircraft, weapons, maintenance, intelligence and other support functions are clustered for the explicit purpose of homeland security. These bases communicate directly with the Northern Command, created after the Sept. 11 attacks to ensure that the military is prepared for security threats inside U.S. borders.
If the Fresno Air National Guard base loses its main operating base status, the Southwest would be the only corner of the country without one, Garrison said.
"This is completely asinine," said Garrison, who earned the nickname "Slam" for his signature style landing fighters and is applying the same unsubtle approach in making his case for the base. Garrison and other top officers here say they are trying to get out in front of a wider fight that is sure to break out wherever bases have aging F-16s, and politicians eager to preserve jobs.
More than a dozen Air Guard bases will receive F-16s with limited lifespans as part of the base-closure commission's re-allocation of jets, and the military has not provided a picture of what happens after those jets are retired.
"This is just the opening salvo," Garrison said.
"Everyone in the Guard who flies (these F-16s) is going to come to the realization sooner or later their airplanes are going to age out before there is a replacement for them," he said. "And everybody is going to have to make a decision on how we're going to defend this country. We see it's going to happen in the Southwest sooner than it's going to happen elsewhere."