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Designation as active associate secures future of Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing

The U.S. Air Force on Friday announced that Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing will become one of only six active associate units in the country -- meaning active-duty personnel will train and work with guardsmen at the base.

Col. Frank Stokes
Col. Frank Stokes of the Minnesota Air National Guard 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth announces the unit has been designated an active associate -- meaning active-duty personnel will train and work with Guardsmen at the base. "This secures the future of the base," Stokes said at a news conference Friday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The U.S. Air Force on Friday announced that Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing will become one of only six active associate units in the country -- meaning active-duty personnel will train and work with guardsmen at the base.

The announcement all but erases concerns that the base will be targeted for cuts after the Defense Department said it will seek to trim total defense spending by $33 billion next year and $487 billion over 10 years.

"It makes it very clear the 148th is here to stay," Sen. Amy Klobuchar said.

The move will increase the 148th's ability to deploy and provide cost savings to the Air Force.

It also will mean a boost to the local economy, as active-duty airmen will live in Duluth. The base's current annual economic impact in the region is estimated at more than $89 million.

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Col. Frank Stokes, the commander of the 148th, said it's too early to say how many airmen that might mean, but he said based on other base estimates it could mean adding about 40 to 50 personnel to the 1,000 guardsmen already at the base.

The announcement comes seven years after the threat of closure loomed over the base, when a report recommended taking the planes from the base. Since then, the 148th has received state-of-the-art planes. Friday's announcement might put it in the running to receive even newer ones, Stokes said.

"This secures the future of the base," Stokes said. "We have a lot going for us."

Nationally, it was a bad day for the Air National Guard, as the plan announced by the Air Force targets the Guard for cuts, said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, which claims about 45,000 members.

"We will lose personnel and we will lose aircraft," he said.

But that won't happen in Duluth.

"Minnesota is one of the states benefiting from this process," Goheen said. "In other parts of the country, they got some bad news."

The 148th was one of four Guard bases across the country to be designated new active associations, which will begin in 2013 and see guardsmen at the bases train often less-experienced airmen, Stokes said.

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"We will be able to pass on our experience," said Major Audra Flanagan, a spokeswoman for the 148th.

Both Stokes and Flanagan said it's not likely that the move will require any funding or upgrades at the base.

"There's not a large need for any major modifications," Stokes said.

"We've done $92 million in construction in the last 10 years," Flanagan added.

The effort to turn the 148th into an active association has been ongoing since at least 2008. In 2010, Gen. Craig McKinnley, who was head of the Air National Guard and is now a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that he would seek to turn the 148th into an active association.

In June, a delegation from Duluth that included Mayor Don Ness, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, and Duluth Chamber of Commerce President David Ross went to Washington, D.C., to lobby the military for the change.

Ross said the community's support for the base helped in the effort.

"There are many communities that struggle mightily with their military presence; they contest it," he said. "I think our community's consistent and vocal support of the 148th is very much appreciated."

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Ness also credited the work of the base's members for Friday's announcement.

"The men and women of the 148th earned this new responsibility because of the unquestioned quality of their work," the mayor said. "The Air Force is demonstrating confidence in this unit and its leadership; doing so will provide greater long-term stability for the base and a significant boost to our local economy."

In arguing for a continued role for Duluth's base, supporters of the 148th pointed to the wing's record and accomplishments. The unit received the 2008 Raytheon Trophy, which is presented each year to a single fighter unit in the Air Force or Air National Guard based on mission performance, exercise participation, inspection results and accomplishments.

Other recent awards include Distinguished Flying Unit Awards in 2008 and 2009; Air Force Outstanding Unit Award in 2007, 2008 and 2009; Air Force Association Outstanding Air National Guard Flying Unit Award in 2006 and 2009.

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