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Delegation urges fighter unit for Homestead AFB

Sen. Connie Mack and South Florida's congressional delegation on Monday urged an independent base-closure commission to return a unit of F-16 jets from Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base to hurricane-flattened Homestead Air Force Base.

The lawmakers said sending the 482nd Air Force Reserve Fighter Wing back to the South Florida base is vital for Homestead's economy and for protection from a potential attack from Cuba.

"The Cuban air force has the capability to strike deep into the state of Florida," said U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami. "It appears the Department of Defense has opted to leave us undefended."

The reserve unit has been stationed at MacDill since Hurricane Andrew ravaged Homestead and its air force base in August. Other Air Force units have been transferred elsewhere. Work crews have been cleaning the badly damaged base as the community searches for tenants to keep the air strip running.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin recommended in April that Homestead Air Force Base be closed rather than rebuilt at a cost of more than $500-million. He also said the 482nd reserve unit should remain at MacDill and ultimately be reconstituted into a unit of tanker planes.

Altogether, Aspin called for the closure of 31 major bases, including four Florida facilities.

The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission has been considering Aspin's recommendations since March and is due to make its final report to President Clinton on July 1. On Monday, Florida's lawmakers and delegations from dozens of states had one last chance to make their case to keep their bases open.

South Florida's lawmakers concede that the 31st Fighter Wing that once was stationed at Homestead should be deactivated.

But they asked the commission to bring the 482nd and two other detachments back to Homestead as part of a plan to create a civil airport run by Dade County government. The U.S. Customs service already is making plans to return to the base, but the lawmakers say they need an "anchor tenant" to make the airport financially feasible.

The South Floridians were backed by Florida's two statewide elected officials in the Senate: Mack and Bob Graham, D-Fla. Two of Tampa Bay's congressmen, Reps. Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa, and C. W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, asked the commission to stick with the Pentagon recommendations.