The Air Force's top civilian official spent Tuesday morning at Scott Air Force Base with Illinois' political leaders.
U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk were among the officials who showed Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James around the Metro East military installation. It was the first time James visited the base since being confirmed by the U.S. Senate late last year. Illinois Lt. Gov. Shelia Simon, St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern and Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan were also on hand for James' visit.
James’ visit to comes a few weeks after Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh met with Illinois’ political and business leaders. It’s part of an aggressive effort to showcase the base to some of the military’s top leaders.
“The future is uncertain. We are cutting back in federal spending. Cutting back on defense spending,” Durbin said. “And we want to make certain that Scott survives as a high priority.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has proposed deep cuts to military spending. Those types of reductions could lead to layoffs at Scott Air Force Base. Hagel has also thrown his support behind a base closing commission, although whether that gets congressional approval is murky.
In any case, Kirk says political leaders need to be vigilant in showing military officials why installations like Scott Air Force Base are indispensable. The senators say the base plays a critical role in monitoring military missions and training soldiers.
“There are going to be fewer airplanes in the Air Force under future budgets. That always should trigger concern,” Kirk said. “In my experience, the only way to win these battles is in inside the Pentagon. You make sure and offer the Pentagon what they can’t get anywhere else. We can do that.”
Durbin said military officials showed Secretary James how the base monitors hundreds of military flights every day. When asked at a luncheon about the base’s future, Durbin said James provided a positive prognosis.
“She couldn’t have had a stronger statement. She said if she were a betting woman, she would double down on the future of Scott Air Force Base. And that’s the way we feel too,” Durbin said. “We want her to know the community supports it, all of us in public life support it and we want to make sure Scott Air Force Base is here for generations to come.”