Removal of fighter jets to begin next week

Rhys Saunders

The Defense Department plans to begin removing the 183rd Fighter Wing’s planes from its base at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport on Tuesday, with a complete realignment expected by Sept. 30, according to legal documents filed Wednesday by the governor’s office.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has been fighting the move since it was announced nearly three years ago, is seeking a temporary restraining order in federal court that would stop the aircraft from being moved until there is a formal hearing. The governor argues that he must sign off on any reassignment of Illinois’ National Guard units and equipment.

Because departure of the aircraft is imminent, Blagojevich’s office filed for an injunction Wednesday, which is a last-ditch effort to stop the move before all legal matters are reviewed.

“We feel the petition to move planes out of Springfield was the wrong decision,” said  Brian Williamsen, a spokesman for the governor.

According to documentation submitted by the governor’s office, at least one of the 183rd Fight Wing’s 17 F-16 fighter jets will relocated to an unknown location on Tuesday, with half the aircraft moved by the end of the month. The rest of the planes would be relocated by Sept. 30.

The base itself is not being moved, only the aircraft. But if no other flying mission replaces the aircraft — something Springfield’s Congressional representatives have been lobbying for — 163 full-time personnel would leave the base under the base-realignment plans approved in 2005 by the Pentagon and President Bush.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has asked the Senate Armed Services Committee to authorize $12 million for the transfer of four C-21 aircraft as a bridge mission to the 183rd no later than Oct. 1, 2009. He wants the Air Force to develop a plan for a suitable flying mission no later than Oct. 1, 2010.

The latest petition by the governor’s office comes in the wake of several failed court attempts by Blagojevich to keep the fighter wing in Springfield. In July 2007, U.S. District Judge Jeanne Scott allowed a motion by the Defense Department to dismiss the governor’s previous suit on the grounds that Blagojevich’s action is barred by the sovereign immunity of the United States, and that the federal court lacks jurisdiction.

This time around, the governor again argues that he, as Illinois’ top military official, has not consented to the planned realignment, and his motion contends that federal law requires his approval before such a decision can be made.

The Pentagon has always maintained it followed federal law in the base realignment and closure process and that a 1990 law regarding BRAC modified governors’ authority in such matters.

However, the governor argues that when the state’s militia is not in active federal service, he serves as the commander in chief because of the unit’s dual mission.

“The National Guard of a state serves a dual state/federal mission,” the governor’s motion states. “Congress has recognized the dual nature of the state guard by enacting two separate statutes which prohibit realignment of state guard units without the consent of the governor.”

The Defense Department’s intended move would detrimentally impact Illinois, the governor argues, because it would create a loss of jobs and a threat to state security.

“In the interest of homeland security and other interests, having these aircrafts in Springfield is the right idea,” Williamsen said. “We look forward to our day in court and believe the law is on our side.”

Lt. Stacy Rieger, spokeswoman for the Illinois National Guard, said her office received no information about the governor’s latest court filing during working hours Wednesday.

Rhys Saunders can be reached at (217) 788-1521.