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Hill wing survives for now, but future's still up in air

The Clinton administration surrendered Monday - at least for now - in yet another fight that threatened the survival of Hill Air Force Base, Utah's single largest employer.

Clinton's new budget canceled for now proposals to eliminate one of the Air Force's 13 fighter wings - and Hill's 388th wing of F-16s was the one that had been on the chopping block.That good news for Hill was tempered, however, by long-range budget goals to still cut a wing sometime in the future - and by calls for two more base closure rounds that could again threaten Hill, which struggled for survival in the last two rounds.

The fight to save the 388th began last summer when Air Combat Command officials advised Utah's members of Congress that the Pentagon had ordered them to choose a wing to eliminate to save money, and they were proposing the 388th.

A main reason was that the Air Combat Command itself operates the bases that house the 12 other wings. But the 388th is a tenant at Hill, which is owned instead by Air Force Materiel Command - which runs repair-and-maintenance depot operations there.

Losing the 388th would not only eliminate hundreds of Utah jobs, but it would increase overhead costs at Hill and thus make the base and its thousands of other jobs more vulnerable in future base-closure fights.

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, and others in the Utah delegation threatened that if the 388th (and the companion 419th reserve wing) were removed, they would also push for closure of the Air Force's large Utah Test and Training Range in the West Desert.

Hansen even drafted - but did not introduce - such legislation and sent copies to the Air Force.

That huge range is one of the few left in the continental states where the Air Force may train and practice with weapons over vast areas while posing little risk to others.

Hansen, a senior member of the House National Security Committee, has said he was confident the Air Force would rather keep the 388th at Hill than even risk losing the Utah test range.

As he hoped, when Clinton's budget was released, instead of it calling for an immediate reduction from 13 to 12 combat wings, it called for a reduction from 13 to 12.6.

A senior Air Force official confirmed to the Deseret News that meant that all 13 combat wings would continue - but at reduced strength to save some money. Bill Johnson, legislative director for Hansen, said his office had received the same confirmation.

While that avoids immediate loss of the wing at Hill, the Clinton budget still says its long-term goal is to convert from having 13 active wings and seven reserve wings to having 12 active and eight reserve.

Johnson, with Hansen's office, said, however, the budget still means "the 388th and 419th are both staying in Utah at least through 1999."

He added that backing away from plans to cut the 388th because it could also bring loss of the test range now mean that the "388th is no more or less in danger than any of the other fighter wings."

But a senior Pentagon official talking to reporters at a background briefing said that if Congress does not allow the military to conduct more base closure rounds to save money, the Air Force would be forced to reduce its number of fighter wings.

Johnson said Hansen feels that is a hollow threat, and that most Republicans feel Clinton is cutting defense too deeply - so Republicans are willing to force funding at higher levels.

About proposals for more base closure rounds in 2001 and 2003, Johnson said, "It just will not happen. Congress will not approve another base closure round as long as Clinton is president."

Clinton created controversy during the 1996 campaign by refusing to close as ordered two huge Air Force depot bases in vote-rich California and Texas.

Congress finally forced true closure of the bases through legislation last year. But the Clinton administration is keeping the bases open as long as possible under law instead of closing them immediately, which Johnson said government studies say cost $498 million to $695 million a year.