Ill. civic leaders tout Scott AFB during top Air Force general's visit

By MIKE FITZGERALD | Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat | Published: March 21, 2014

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — Eager to promote Scott Air Force Base, St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark will throw out the welcome mat for Gen. Mark A. Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, during a luncheon visit set for Friday afternoon.

Kern said he looks forward to speaking with Welsh about Scott's "readiness, capability and capacity" and "the important roles that Scott Air Force Base plays."

Welsh will be accompanied by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, an East St. Louis native and chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

"I'm anxious to hear his perspective," Durbin said of the four-star general.

Durbin recalled a recent conversation with Gen. Paul Selva, the current commander of the Air Mobility Command, and the nominee to take command of the U.S. Transportation Command, both of which are based at Scott.

With Selva, "We talked about looking out beyond the horizon of a year or two," Durbin said. "And I'd like to engage Gen. Welsh, if he could give us his thoughts, on the possibilities out there. We want to find out if they are realistic ... What we're looking for is to build on the current important missions at Scott for years to come."

Durbin noted that former Defense Secretary Bob Gates had praised the performance of the commands based at Scott.

"At one point he said it was one of the three most important bases in the country," Durbin said. "That's certainly good news for us. I'm anxious to get Gen. Welsh's impression."

Other political leaders scheduled to be on hand Friday include U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, as well U.S. Reps. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, as well as Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and Alan Dunstan, the Madison County Board chairman. U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, also has been invited to attend.

Also on hand will be Ellen Krohne, the executive director of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, which is spearheading an effort by metro-east towns and businesses to protect Scott -- whose annual economic impact on the St. Louis region exceeds $3.2 billion -- from future efforts to downsize or close the base because of Pentagon cost-cutting efforts.

The council is seeking to raise $3.2 million to fund lobbying and other efforts to keep Scott open, especially if Congress authorizes, as expected, another round of domestic military base closures. The last round of base closures occurred in 2005 and cost taxpayers $35 billion.

Another key topic will be Scott's suitability as a new home for the new KC-46A air tanker, the first squadrons of which will be rolled out to three air bases in the next couple of years to replace the half-century old KC-135 air tanker, nine of which are based at Scott with the 126th Illinois National Guard Air Refueling Wing.

Scott got left off initial list of 10 preferred and alternate air bases for the KC-46, but metro-east leaders hope to get Scott added to that list by the time the next round of bases for the new air tankers is announced in 2016.

"We'll have infrastructure needs that'll have to be addressed to be able to land those aircraft," said Kern, alluding to the base's lack of hangars large enough to accommodate the new air tankers.

"We still have another round or two on the KC46 competition and we want to talk about what we might do to be in a better spot in the future," Durbin said.

Welsh and Durbin will meet with local leaders at the base during a closed door meeting scheduled to take place between 1 and 2:45 p.m., according to Christina Angarola, a spokeswoman for Durbin, who set up Welsh's visit.

A schedule released by Durbin's office shows that three meetings have been set up for Welsh on Friday.

The first meeting is scheduled to be between Welsh and senators Durbin and Kirk to discuss defense appropriations.

The second meeting with Welsh will include Durbin, Kirk, Davis, Enyart, Simon, Kern and Dunstan.

The third meeting will include a variety of metro-east leaders, including the federal lawmakers, Kern and Dunstan and four local mayors, whose names have not yet been released.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh


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