SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said she enthusiastically supports Scott Air Force Base's future, according to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who led James on a tour of the base Tuesday.
Durbin, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and other elected officials accompanied James for a visit to base's Air Operations Center and the 126th Illinois National Guard Air Refueling Wing, which oversees nine KC-135 air tankers.
James' visit stems from a multi-year effort by metro-east leaders and federal lawmakers to showcase to top Pentagon officials the base's importance and to persuade them to protect Scott from further budget cuts.
"I don't think we could have asked for a better response from her today," Durbin said in a news conference after the tour.
James did not attend the news conference, which was held at the Heritage Park static plane display outside the base's Shiloh gate, and the tour was closed to the public.
Durbin, the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairman, noted that during a visit to the operations center, James saw Scott personnel handle 500 military flights around the world.
"That happens every day, 24/7, 365 days a year," Durbin said. "And it all starts and ends with Scott Air Force Base."
Joining Durbin and Kirk for James' visit were Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who oversees a state task forced focused on protecting the state's major military bases; Mark Kern, the St. Clair County board chairman; and Alan Dunstan, the Madison County Board Chairman.
Congress, with a mission to cut unneeded military spending, won't take up the thorny issue of which domestic military bases to close until 2016.
Kirk underscored the importance of moving aggressively to protect Scott, which has a $3 billion annual economic impact and employs about 13,000.
"The way to win the battle for this base is to win it early," he said
James is the second top-ranking Air Force official to tour Scott in Durbin's company in three weeks.
Kirk noted that Scott is the "nerve center" for the Defense Department's logistics operations, and that 618th Tanker Airlift Control Center and the 126th Illinois National Guard Air Refueling Wing are key parts of this capability.
"Whenever there is a crisis in the world, the service members at Scott enable our nation's ability to respond," he said.
On March 21, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, traveled to Scott at the suggestion of Durbin. Welsh met with the base's top officers and community leaders during that meeting.
Pentagon budget-cutting is already affecting life at Scott.
Almost two weeks ago, the Air Force Network Integration Center, based at Scott, announced the elimination of 99 military and civilian positions because of shrinking Air Force budgets.
Fiscal constraints also have led the Air Mobility Command, which oversees Scott, to tighten the criteria for its bases to host air shows. As a result, the era of regularly scheduled air shows as ended for Scott, where the last air show occurred in 2012.
It won't be at least until 2017, when Scott celebrates its 100th anniversary, that the base will find out whether it's been approved for its next air show.