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Officials still leery of Air Force plans for Eglin

By TOM MCLAUGHLIN | Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach | Published: June 17, 2012

Unless something changes soon, on July 18 the Air Armament Center at Eglin Air Force Base will cease to exist.

That’s the day presently designated for the “stand down.”

And if the Air Force continues to move forward with consolidation plans announced last year, the 96th Test Wingwhich incorporates the 46th Test Wing and 96th Air Base Wingwill be activated in its place.

Brig. Gen. David A. Harris, now the vice commander of the Air Armament Center, is to head the 96th Test Wing, according to Eglin spokesman Andy Bourland.

Harris will report to a two-star general headquartered at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Eglin’s own Maj. Gen. Kenneth Merchant “will be responsible to the soon to be stood up organization, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center” at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, according to Bourland.

As the base’s program executive officer for weapons, Merchant will report to the Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition in Washington, D.C., and have no influence in decisions regarding the 96th Test Wing.

“Gen. Merchant told me two months ago ‘I’ll be a tenant on the base,’ ” said Rocky Tasse, who represents the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1942 at Eglin.

Although the Air Force’s recently announced decision to leave Merchant at Eglin was applauded, nearly every other aspect of the consolidation effort is being rigorously opposed by local officials and Florida’s state and federal lawmakers.

“My suspicion is that the Air Force is up to no good,” said state Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville.

Like many people, Gaetz believes the Air Force brass is scheming to move Eglin’s valuable research, development, testing and evaluation mission to California.

They think having the 96th Test Wing commander report to a two-star general at Edwards is the first step.

“I believe there are forces within the Air Force who have long waited to diminish missions and drain the importance of our base,” Gaetz said. “I think those forces are still alive and well, and we need to sleep with one eye open.”

David Goetsch, the president of Okaloosa County’s Economic Development Council and head of a state task force set up to protect Florida’s military installations, said it’s not just Air Force generals trying to wrest away Eglin’s missions.

The RDTandE mission is an economic driver that lures well-educated workers to high paying jobs. The aerospace industry has brought billions of dollars to Northwest Florida economies.

“The Southern California delegation in Congress has been after our assets for their economic development for years,” Goetsch said.

That’s why the battle for the RDTandE component has continued despite 112 different studies that have shown Eglin to be the best suited for weapons and armament testing, Goetsch said.

Even when the Air Force announced that Merchant would stay at Eglin, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller and Okaloosa County’s own Defense Support Initiative group noted that it also was stripping him of his leadership over the Air Armament Center.

“It is important to note that Gen. Merchant’s newly announced title consists of only half of his current title,” Miller said in a re-cent guest column in the Daily News.

Miller has introduced language in the 2013 Defense Authorization Act which, he said in the column, “will explicitly require the Air Force to keep the Air Armament Center at Eglin.”

The language passed the House, but the bill continues to languish in the Senate.

At the time the Air Force announced Merchant’s change in responsibilities, Miller called for it to slow down its moves toward consolidationwhich have actually been pushed forward to July from the originally scheduled October.

“I believe it is reckless for Air Force officials to continue dismantling the Air Armament Center while facing down the possibility that my legislative language will become law,” he said in his guest column.

“Reversing their actions will cost far more than simply halting them in place and committing to compliance with existing law,” Miller said.

Okaloosa’s Defense Support Initiative argues with Miller that in 2005, BRAC designated Eglin as the Air Force’s research, development acquisition, testing and evaluation center.

The Defense Support Initiative said in a statement of its own that it “maintains a strong interest in, and continues to await, a business case analysis of the efficiencies expected by the reorganization proposals” from the Air Force.

Goetsch said the political push from Northwest Florida to keep the Air Armament Center has not gone unnoticed in Washington, D.C.

Dates for stand downs at the Air Armament Center and other Air Force centers, originally pushed up from October to May, have been moved back to July.

There are some indications the dates could be pushed back again.

“This delay does show working the public side of this is having an effect,” Goetsch said.

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