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Local Guard unit saving taxpayers big

A massive new command and control facility for the nation’s nuclear weapons will likely be made operational in 2016 by the work of a Springfield Air National Guard communications unit that could save U.S. taxpayers $35 million in the process.

U.S. Strategic Command in May approached the Springfield-based 251st Cyber Engineering Installation Group about wiring the information technology infrastructure of its new headquarters under construction at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., said Col. Wade Rupper, acting commander of the local unit.

With a price tag of $524.4 million, the 915,876-square-foot building is the Defense Department’s second-largest construction project behind the Pentagon, Rupper said.

Despite nonstop deployments to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf since 2001 by the 251st and the units under it, Rupper was happy to hear from Strategic Command.

“We’re stressing our capability set pretty good,” Rupper said Friday from his office at the Springfield Air National Guard Base. “But, we’re such a savings to the taxpayer, it’s the right thing to do.”

Strategic Command, which is still currently housed in the Cold War-era digs of the legendary Strategic Air Command, reached out to the 251st — and to the Air National Guard as a whole — because of the potential savings. Rupper said private bids for the wiring were $35 million more than what the Guard quoted.

“If I can save the government money, I’m all for that,” Rupper said. “Taxpayers not only want it, they expect it.”

The Air National Guard provides 95 percent of engineering installation, or EI, work across the U.S. Department of Defense, Rupper said. Those Guard EI units erect antenna towers and run fiber-optic cables, among other jobs, and boast that a world-class IT network can be established anywhere on Earth.

The 251st, which commands about 900 personnel in six states, recently had a hand in saving taxpayers more than $24 million by dismantling and relocating four radars used by the Air Force Research Laboratory from Upstate New York to the Miami Valley.

One of those radars was installed in 2011 at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport atop a 100-foot tower.

Private bids had put the cost of that project at $25 million to $35 million. Uniformed technicians with the Air National Guard did the job for less than $4 million.

“I don’t answer to shareholders,” Rupper said.

The EI work done by the Air Guard has “received a lot more emphasis because there’s a lot less money,” said Michael Welsh, cyber liaison for the Air National Guard at Air Force Space Command in Colorado.

Before the economic crunch, Welsh said there used to be a culture within the military of automatically relying on private contractors because it was easier.

“The active-duty folks have learned we have this tremendous capability out there,” said Welsh, a Dayton-area native who, coincidentally, served as vice commander of the local 251st for 25 years.

All 15 of the Air National Guard’s EI squadrons, in addition to the Air Force’s lone active-duty EI unit, would be called on to help establish the Strategic Command’s new IT infrastructure, Rupper said. He foresees Springfield’s 269th Combat Communications Squadron getting in on the work as well.

“I need the manpower,” Rupper said.

The Ohio Air National Guard’s 220th Engineering Installation Squadron in Zanesville, which belongs to the 251st, would take the lead role on the project, Rupper said.

“You feel like you’re a part of Air Force history when you’re working on something like this,” he said.

Beginning in January 2016, the EI units will likely be in charge of running fiber-optic cable throughout the entire building for Strategic Command’s seven different voice/data networks, which range from nonsecure to the highest of secure, Rupper said. They’ll set up those networks as well.

Known until 1992 as the Strategic Air Command, the command played a famous role in the Cold War with its fleet of jet bombers, secret spy planes and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The restructured Strategic Command now also has space, cyberspace and missile defense duties.

The new building is expected to be fully operational in 2018.

It all adds up to another chapter in the rich history of the 251st, which was established in Springfield in 1952.

Named the top nonflying unit in the entire Air National Guard last year by the National Guard Association of the United States, Rupper recently found out the 251st has won the Mission Support Trophy for a second straight year. It will be awarded in September.

“It’s a culture,” Rupper said. “We’ve always actively sought out opportunities to contribute.”

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