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119th faces a fight: Fargo, state preparing case to keep Hooligans

Normally, the Happy Hooligans put the sights of their F-16 fighter jets on targets for training. Through 2005, the 119th Fighter Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard could find itself in the crosshairs of change -- to be disbanded or moved...

Normally, the Happy Hooligans put the sights of their F-16 fighter jets on targets for training.

Through 2005, the 119th Fighter Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard could find itself in the crosshairs of change -- to be disbanded or moved -- as the Air Force cuts fighter wings and the nation readies for a massive round of military base closings.

The 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process could shut down 100 of the nation's 425 major military bases. Senior North Dakota National Guard officials say that will probably include 25 Guard bases.

For the first time, Fargo and state Guard officials are gearing up to prove that the 119th and its base are among the best bets for providing the nation's defense.

For Norman Nyland of Sabin, Minn., the answer is easy: Don't mess with a good thing.

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"We've got a great culture out here that can't easily be replaced," the Hooligans master sergeant and parts fabricator said.

The 46-year-old -- who has served as mayor of Sabin, Minn., and is now a volunteer firefighter -- cites deep ties to the community, the Hooligan's safety record, high performance standards and repeatedly winning the Air Force's William Tell fighter competition.

"You're getting your best bang for the buck in this unit right here," Nyland said.

BRAC represents a different kind of combat for the cities involved. Minot and Grand Forks went through four BRAC rounds from 1988 to 1995. They learned through hard experience the cost of lobbying to keep their bases open.

Last week, Fargo requested bids from consultants to help steer a metro area base retention group through the same process. That's expected to cost $100,000 to $200,000. The proposals are due Monday.

The base group is also negotiating to conduct an economic impact study.

Formula for success

BRAC is about saving money while closing bases.

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At the same time, it balances the military value of bases against the impact that shutting them down will have on surrounding towns.

Room to grow and train, the ability to host more than one military branch, and the environmental regulations each base must deal with, are also important.

The choices will affect how the military is prepared to meet its missions over the next 20 years.

The four previous BRAC rounds closed 97 major bases.

Early bets are the Minot and Grand Forks bases are fairly secure this time around.

Minot is one of just two B-52 bases and one of three bases with Minuteman nuclear missiles, said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Grand Forks is one of three Air Force "core tanker bases," Conrad said.

The Fargo base wasn't on the radar screen for earlier BRAC commissions because it was too small, said Maj. Gen. Mike Haugen, commander of the state's Guard.

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This time it's under the microscope.

Many factors seem to favor North Dakota's bases in the formula for success.

They have room to grow without worries about too many homes or businesses nearby. The cities welcome the military and environmental rules are easy to comply with, Haugen said.

The bases also have good infrastructure, including many new houses and aircraft facilities, Conrad said.

Plus, the state is working on an airspace initiative which would give the military large air corridors for training flights, Haugen said.

The state is determined to keep all three of its bases open and add units if possible, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven said.

"We're looking at the BRAC process to strengthen and augment our missions," he said.

Transformation time

The buzzword for the nation's armed forces is transformation.

Not only are the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines modernizing equipment, they're changing training, tactics and strategies.

The military is undergoing a major change from a Cold War mindset of preparing for large-scale wars in Europe or on the Korean peninsula, to fighting smaller conflicts.

Economics play a role, too.

Weapons systems, such as the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter or B-2 bombers, are enormously expensive.

The economy is also tight and taxpayers want to see some post-Cold War savings.

At the same time, modern weapons systems are much more effective and efficient than in the past, Haugen said.

In World War II, for example, 1,000 B-17 bombers with their 10-man crews would drop 10 bombs apiece to destroy one target.

Now, a B-2 with a two-man crew can destroy dozens of targets, Haugen said.

Also, sophisticated, unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Global Hawk and Predator provide surveillance and attack capabilities without putting pilots at risk.

Those factors have the Air Force planning a cutback from 2,585 tactical aircraft to about 2,000, said Jamie Morin, a military affairs expert with Conrad's office.

Aging aircraft

The Hooligans' first mission was as "northern watch" during the Cold War; to intercept Russian long-range bombers, if a full-blown conflict occurred.

For a time, they also took part in drug interdiction flights. Several years ago, the 119th started to train for ground attack missions.

After the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Hooligans returned to their former role as protectors, flying combat air patrols over Washington and other cities.

The unit has proven itself good at its job.

"We're the best fighter unit on planet Earth," says Staff Sgt. Conrad Kangas, one of the 119th's maintenance technicians.

But, it may be vulnerable because it flies the oldest F16s in the Air Force.

The F-16A, in terms of electronics, engines -- even landing gear -- is several generations behind F-16s operated by other Guard units or America's allies.

"That is a worry, quite frankly," Haugen said. "That's still a problem we have to get fixed."

Even if it wasn't a BRAC concern, Haugen said more advanced fighters like the F-15 Eagle or F15E Strike Eagle would give the Hooligans the backup of having two engines.

If the single engine in an F-16 goes out, a crash is likely, he said.

Rumors flying

Already, the rumor mill about what could happen to the Happy Hooligans or the Minot or Grand Forks air bases is rapidly spinning.

False base closing lists are circulating on the Internet.

Other rumors are born out of "What if?" scenarios hatched by military planners.

One recent rumor Guard officials have dealt with is the possibility of moving the 119th to Grand Forks.

"You really didn't think this thing through," Haugen told Pentagon planners, saying Grand Forks couldn't support recruiting for its Army Guard air defense battalion and the 119th.

Wing commander Col. Rick Utecht held a meeting Wednesday with members of the 119th to talk about BRAC scuttlebut.

A move is "not on our planning horizon and I dread the idea that some of our troops are thinking that's on our planning horizon," he said. "I want to stay focused on flying safely here."

BRAC puts Utecht in an unusual situation. As the man who must certify all data requested by the Department of Defense for the process, he can't be seen as trying to skew it.

Still, he's proud of his unit.

"The real strength of the Hooligans -- our secret weapon -- is our people," he said.

Despite regular deployments to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Utecht said recruiting is good. He's also cheered by the support he's seen from Fargo-Moorhead leaders and the rest of the community.

"Ultimately, in the review process, I think we'll get a good shake," he said. "We've always done a great job in doing what the Air Force has wanted us to do."

Others in the 119th are also heartened by the support from the community.

Michelle Reitan, 36, a master sergeant in charge of chemical warfare training and disaster preparedness, served 98 days in Oman last year. Her husband is also in the Air Guard.

West Fargo teachers "were outstanding" in helping her and her children, she said.

"My oldest son's teacher had him put together notes for every day I was gone and had him put them in a gift basket (to send in the mail). It's the little things that matter. It's something I'll never forget," Reitan said.

Master Sgt. Robert Schultz, 42, of Fargo, said the unit has fostered patriotism in the area, especially with his son's junior high school buddies.

"I wouldn't be surprised if I could get 10 or 12 recruits out of his class alone," Schultz said. "You'd like to believe they believe in mom, dad and apple pie. I think this unit does a real good job of fostering that."

Disbanding or moving the Hooligans would hurt the U.S. military and homeland defense, Reitan added.

"I think it would be a mistake in this day and age," she said. "I think we're well worth the money to keep us alive."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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