By: Lisa Baumann, Duluth News Tribune

In the works for three years, a plan to designate the Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing as an “active association” wing got a push from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar this week.

She paid a visit to the 148th on Friday, meeting with base leaders, Duluth Mayor Don Ness and members of the community on the Military Affairs Committee. She said the active-association designation would build on the 148th’s success last year in securing 18 new block 50 F-16s.

“We hit a major stride last year with the new F-16s,” she said. “Last year I said, ‘We start with those and move to F-35s and there’s no limit — the lunar module might be next.’ ”

This week, Klobuchar said she sent a letter to Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Michael B. Donley urging approval of the status, which would assign active-duty Air Force personnel to Duluth’s Air National Guard base.

The program would allow regular active-duty airmen to work side-by-side with National Guard airmen and learn from their experience and expertise. The 148th would retain primary responsibility for the updated F-16 jets but would share them with one or more active-duty units.

There are two active associate programs in the country, one in Vermont and the other in South Carolina, so there is precedence for it, said Col. Frank Stokes, the 148th’s commander.

“We’re modeling after the larger one in South Carolina,” he said.

If approved by the Pentagon, the move would be expected to keep the base active and open well into the future.

Benefits would include an influx of 60 active-duty Air Force personnel over time. With a proposed initial wave of 40 personnel would come a $4.7 million boost to the local economy, according to David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce.

The presence of the 148th accounts for more than $100 million in annual revenue in the Duluth area, Klobuchar said.

For the Air Force, it would save money, providing 35 percent of Air Force capabilities for 6 percent of the budget, according to the 148th. Allowing personnel to train at the wing’s state-of-the-art campus with reservists would improve mission readiness, Klobuchar said.

In June, local, state and federal officials met in Washington to discuss a plan and Klobuchar said she would work with members of the military to continue pushing for the designation.

“We hope to get a decision in the next year,” she said.

“We’re ready right now,” Stokes added.