Superior officials join fight to save 148th Fighter Wing, jobs

Uncertainty about the future of the 148th Fighter Wing lingers after base officials learned the unit's aging F-16s wouldn't be replaced with slightly newer models.

Uncertainty about the future of the 148th Fighter Wing lingers after base officials learned the unit's aging F-16s wouldn't be replaced with slightly newer models.

Officials from Duluth and Superior are heading to Washington D.C. today in an effort to find out what it means for the Minnesota Air National Guard unit's 1,000 members and 600 full-time employees from around the Northland.

"They're OK in the short haul," said Andy Peterson of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, who is organizing the three-day fact-finding and lobbying effort on Capital Hill. "What's happened is they requested newer equipment and ... that request was denied, which means when the next budgetary cycle comes up -- I believe in 2012 -- they won't have anything to do. So that's why it's important that we get them in line for newer equipment so they continue to have a mission."

Last month, as the 148th's F-16s were returning from a successful mission in Iraq, the U.S. Air Force made a decision that puts the unit's future in jeopardy.

With a series of base cuts made through the Base Realignment and Closure process, the 148th is the only Air National Guard unit that flies the 1983-era F-16, said Lt. Col. Mark Vavra. He said that makes the unit unable to pair up with other Air National Guard units for combat missions.


"We strive continually to gain better equipment to have the best capabilities to accomplish the mission," Vavra said. The Air National Guard in Duluth serves as a part of the nation's combat forces and maintains air sovereignty in the region, Vavra said.

While the risk to the unit isn't immediate because the 148th recently completed its 120 days of service for the combat mission, the longer the fighter wing lingers without updated equipment or a new mission, the higher the chance the viability of the air guard unit in Duluth will be called into question, Vavra said.

"I really don't know exactly what's going on with that right now," said Chris Orman, a Superior firefighter and 10-year member of the 148th Fighter Wing who hales from Cloquet.

"It's very up in the air," said Kevin Norbie, a firefighter at the air base who serves as council vice president in Superior and is joining the effort to lobby on behalf of the base. "They just put millions of dollars into the base, and it's hard to believe with our track record of outstanding service and the condition the base is in that they would just simply close it ... obviously we want to maintain our fighter alert because this unit has displayed on multiple occasions a proficiency in that through federal inspections."

Norbie said recent changes at the air base would offer some flexibility in the unit's ability to change its mission. However, the unit's future remains uncertain, he said.

The 15-member delegation includes elected officials, business leaders and the chambers of commerce of both Twin Ports cities working together to preserve the base and a mission that will make it viable well into the future.

"I think it's crucial," said Dave Minor, president of the Superior-Douglas County Chamber of Commerce. "We have a lot of residents in Superior and Douglas County that work over there or are affected by that base. This is one of those issues that we have to take a look at and say this is a very large regional issue and we all need to participate and go there to make sure they understand it's not just the city of Duluth; it's not just the 148th fighting for its life. They need to understand that this has a very large impact on Northwest Wisconsin and Northeast Minnesota."

The jobs the 148th provides are not just run-of-the-mill, part-time jobs -- they are highly trained and well-paid jobs that provide a retirement benefit, Peterson said.


"It's hard to give up those retirements that I've halfway earned already," Orman said. However, with a family to consider and his job with the Superior Fire Department, Orman said he would have to reconsider his service with the Minnesota Air National Guard if the Duluth base were to close in the future. "I would have to do what's best for my family," he said.

Right now, Vavra said, the 148th is about four years from being cycled in for additional combat missions, which gives the base a little time.

"We're deserving of newer equipment and we want to support our Commander in Chief," Vavra said.

"We want to show the congressional delegation there is a solid foundation of community support for the 148th," Peterson said. "We want to also convey to the congressional delegation and Department of Defense that the 148th will continue to be long-term viable and essential ... we want to solidify a road map for the future."

The air base is a huge part of the Duluth-Superior economy, and employs a number of Superior residents, said Mayor Dave Ross.

"Superior should step up to the plate and do its best effort along with our partners in Duluth ... to join with them and convey the message of the impact this will have on our entire region," Ross said. "It's our hope to have meetings with the Wisconsin representatives, so we can also convey how important it is to us."

The goal of the trip is to put a face on the local economy and the impact decisions made in Washington D.C. could have on residents living throughout the Twin Ports region, Ross said.

"I have found these kinds of efforts -- and I've been on a number of them -- to be really quite effective," Ross said. "Life just goes on unless you show up and say specifically how this is going to affect the local economy or the local community or the city. That actually has an affect on ultimately what happens. I've become a big believer in these efforts where we target specific issues and go after them in a well-organized manner."


Shelley Nelson can be reached at (715) 395-5022 or .

What To Read Next
Get Local