USAF Announces New Strategy to Modernize Bases, Proposes 5 Percent Demolition

Contracted employees of the Environmental Restoration, LLC company deploy a spill containment boom around the Offutt AFB fuel storage area as a precautionary measure on March 18, 2019 following flooding of the southeast portion of the base. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford.

The Air Force is unveiling a new approach to how it will maintain and update its bases, requesting $2 billion in the fiscal 2020 budget to start keeping infrastructure safer for longer.

But urgent needs at Offutt AFB, Neb., and Tyndall AFB, Fla., could complicate that plan if the Air Force doesn’t get the supplemental funding it wants to restore the storm-wrecked bases.

The service’s new Infrastructure and Investment Strategy, announced Friday, builds on four years of work by the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center. AFIMSC surveyed all Air Force installations and wing master plans to determine the state of each building and other facilities, such as runways and fuel systems.

Officials found a maintenance backlog worth about $33 billion needed for all facilities to reach “green” working order, said John Henderson, the Air Force assistant secretary for installations, environment, and energy. The service measures a building’s fitness for use by coloring them green, yellow, or red.

This huge backlog requires a new approach, so with a $2 billion initial ask in 2020—spread across sustainment; military construction; recapitalization; and facilities, sustainment, restoration, and modernization funds—the Air Force wants big data to show the way forward.

Data analysis can point out how the service should stretch its investments to keep mission-essential buildings healthy, as well as how to efficiently update roofs, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems to stretch other buildings’ lifespans. The Air Force is working with IBM to use its Watson deep-learning software to predict maintenance needs, similar to the service’s initiatives that use similar technology to catch aircraft sustainment issues early and track maintenance trends.

The Air Force also wants to simply demolish the worst 5 percent of its non-mission-essential buildings to save money and avoid the upkeep. Deciding which buildings to tear down will be shaped by individual base plans and focus on structures that do not impact a base’s readiness—like recreation facilities instead of hangars or fuel systems.

“We will commit to a base level of funding and use data to inform decisions,” Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in a release. “Ultimately, this is about making targeted investments at the right time and in the right place. As an Air Force, we fight from our bases and must keep them ready to meet our national security challenges.”

This initial funding amounts to 2 percent of the replacement value of its buildings each year. It could come on top of traditional operations and maintenance funds the Air Force uses for basic upkeep.

Since Hurricane Michael hit Tyndall Air Force Base last October, and Offutt Air Force Base flooded this month, the Air Force has been forced to use money from 2019 to begin the recovery process.

“To fund those, to fund the recovery and response … we’re taking funds that were slated for these types of projects,” Henderson said, talking about planned upkeep for infrastructure. “And we’re diverting those funds to remediate mold and repair buildings.”

The Air Force is currently paying for recovery out of its operations and maintenance account “on the auspices that there will be reprogramming or supplemental funding to kind of help with that,” he said. The military has usually received supplemental funding if needed to help with natural disasters, and “we’re kind of counting on that.”

But if additional money doesn’t appear, the Air Force will be forced to ask for additional operations and maintenance funding and cut into planned spending on its new infrastructure plan.

Service Secretary Heather Wilson recently told reporters she believes the Air Force needs a nearly $1 billion infusion of 2019 funds for work in Florida. If that doesn’t show up by April, facilities modernization projects at other bases will be pushed off. Funds to help Offutt will also be added to the supplemental request.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson expects restoring Tyndall will cost $4.5 billion to $5 billion overall.

Next month, the Air Force will go through its midyear budget review, during which Henderson said the service will have to consider “unfavorable alternatives” in the absence of a supplemental.

The Air Force will now take its infrastructure plan to Capitol Hill, and Henderson expects lawmakers and staff will respond positively because they understand the importance of base health. In contrast with Base Realignment and Closure, the Air Force already has the authority to remove dilapidated and non-mission-essential facilities without affecting the base as a whole. If the funding is approved, Henderson said, bases will get healthier.