Under the Rubble

Nov. 1, 2002

As operations unfolded in Afghanistan, the Air Force was forced to shut down one of the main runways at Pope AFB, N.C., for 30 days. Years of underfunding and putting off maintenance work had left the runway cracking and crumbling to rubble in some areas where airplanes touched down.

The Air Force performed a logistical ballet to ensure that closing down the strip did not directly affect the ongoing war on terrorism.

The service moved Pope’s 32C-130 aircraft, along with the 500 personnel who fly, maintain, and support them, from North Carolina to an Air National Guard base in Gulfport, Miss. The base’s 48 A-10 attack aircraft were flown to Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., and Nellis AFB, Nev.

Air Force officials say they did not calculate the cost of the runway shutdown, but undoubtedly the closing put an additional strain on airmen and airplanes already stretched thin to support the war on terror.

“Shock Absorbers”

“Our infrastructure accounts have been shock absorbers for a lack of defense spending [over the past decade],” said Maj. Gen. Earnest O. Robbins II, USAF’s top civil engineer. “The Air Force knows it’s a problem, but it’s a matter of where you put scarce dollars.”

Indeed, years of putting off basic repairs, skimping on scheduled maintenance, and not building new infrastructure–so the service could pay for new weapons systems and flying hours–means maintenance bills are long past due. Air Mobility Command faces a $100 million backlog in airfield repair work at its bases. Air Combat Command buildings need $70 million in roof repairs. Air Force weapons storage facilities need more than $60 million in repairs and improvements. The average building on an Air Force base is 45 years old. All told, the service is about $18 billion behind in repair and renovation work on infrastructure across all bases.

The Air Force is not alone. The military services face a combined $60 billion backlog in maintenance work at military facilities. The work ranges from patching up leaking roofs and sewer lines to repaving roads and runways. Without an increase in current maintenance spending, it would take DOD 192 years to get its facilities up to a level that would satisfy current requirements.

A 2001 Pentagon report based on a survey of major military commands found that more than two-thirds were either listed as having serious deficiencies or as unable to meet warfighting demands. The number of substandard facilities grew by 10 percent in just one year. The report was among the first to link the military’s decision to spend money on new weapons systems, training, and operating costs–rather than on facilities and maintenance–to a decline in the military’s ability to mobilize for and fight wars.

Raymond F. Dubois Jr., deputy undersecretary of defense for installations, underscored the report’s findings and told the House appropriations military construction subcommittee in April that installations are an integral part of military readiness and key to executing the military’s diverse missions. Not only do those poor conditions affect readiness, but also they directly impact the services’ ability to attract and retain both military and civilian personnel, he said.

“Many surveys have shown that poor quality facilities are a major source of dissatisfaction for family members and service members alike,” said Dubois. “Our aging and deteriorating infrastructure has a direct impact on retention.”

Much Needed Boost

As a result, Dubois has proposed spending $5.6 billion on sustaining, restoring, modernizing, and demolishing buildings and other infrastructure on military bases in Fiscal 2003–a $579 million increase over such spending in Fiscal 2002. The increase will allow the military services to meet 93 percent of their maintenance requirements. In recent years, only about 75 percent of those repair needs were funded.

Those dollars cannot come soon enough for the services that are facing a myriad of maintenance problems, including:

  • Almost every day at Langley AFB, Va., airmen walk up and down the runways looking for and picking up loose pieces of concrete. Without extra money to repair runways, the walks are critical because if a piece of debris is on the runway, it can be sucked into an airplane engine and potentially cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. “That’s not the best and highest use of a mechanic,” concedes Robbins, adding that foreign object debris walks are the service’s cheapest maintenance option.
  • The Navy recently spent $3 million to repair the roof of an aging airplane hangar at NAS North Island, Calif. The repairs should have only cost a third of that, but the Navy delayed maintenance for years and did not start fixing the roof until large chunks of it began to fall on mechanics and aircraft inside the hangar.
  • Army reserve soldiers who wait at Ft. Bragg, N.C., before deploying to fight in the war on terror are staying in dilapidated wooden barracks built for temporary use in World War II. The Army has not been able to find the extra cash to replace the unair-conditioned quarters.
  • Marine and civilian personnel at Camp Pendleton, Calif., are using converted World War II Quonset huts for administrative offices. Summer temperatures can top 100 degrees. Other wooden buildings at the Marine Corps’ premier West Coast training facility are being eaten away by termites.

Readiness Suffers

Pope Air Force Base has become the Air Force’s poster child for what happens when maintenance and construction accounts are repeatedly shortchanged. The North Carolina base is rated among the lowest in the Pentagon’s recent review of facility readiness. DOD rated the base C-4, which means the facilities and infrastructure on the base are not adequate to support the Air Force during wartime.

Air Force officials say an additional $208.5 million would be necessary for the base to meet minimally acceptable go-to-war requirements.

“What you have here is a phenomenal Air Force doing the job with limited infrastructure,” said Col. Gerald J. Sawyer, commander of the 43rd Support Group at Pope and the person responsible for maintaining and improving base infrastructure. “We have not put anyone at risk, but people are constrained,” he said.

Fleming Hall, headquarters for the 43rd Support Group, was built in 1933 and appears every bit a building that has not had a major overhaul since Franklin D. Roosevelt was President. All of the building’s water fountains have been removed because rust from 50-year-old pipes contaminates the water. There are no elevators in the three-story building, a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The building also houses the base’s courtroom. There, space is so tight, defendants cannot even see those testifying against them.

Throughout Fleming Hall, nearly 20 layers of lead-based paint peel and flake from walls that are insulated with cancer-causing asbestos. Sawyer said the service cannot pinpoint the asbestos for removal because there are no architectural drawings of the building. Nor, he said, can the Air Force simply put a wrecking ball to Fleming Hall since it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Instead, the base is hoping the Air Force will pay for a nearly $5 million renovation.

“We’ve done a good job of putting lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig,” said Sawyer, pointing to curtains that office workers have made to cover exposed fiberglass in an office wall.

Pope has been waiting nearly a decade for military construction dollars to build a storage facility to house more than $60 million of classified countermeasures equipment used by A-10 aircraft. Currently, the equipment is stored in a tin shed that does not meet DOD security requirements. Because of limited shed space, some of the equipment must be stored outside. And there is no backup location in the event of a hurricane, which is not uncommon in that region. Base officials said they need $5.5 million to build a secure facility for the gear.

Aerospace Ground Equipment, such as generators and light carts used for repairing aircraft, is also regularly left exposed to the elements at Pope. Most of the equipment is designed to operate outdoors, but year-round exposure means more routine maintenance and shortens the equipment’s lifespan.

The base has about 15,000 square feet of warehouse space for storing and repairing AGE–about half of the 30,000 square feet required. Those warehouses and sheds were built in the 1950s and 1960s without air-conditioning. They do have plenty of duct tape and plastic tarps hanging from the roofs and windows to prevent the facility from flooding during a heavy rain. Consolidating the buildings into a single, 30,000-square-foot facility would cost $6.4 million.

The List Goes On

Pope Medical Clinic officials say the Air Force has already promised to construct a new, multimillion-dollar medical facility at the base in 2006. In the meantime, the base makes do with a series of 1970s modular buildings and attached trailers to care for patients who range from sick babies to pilots getting their eyes examined.

Upon walking in, patients elbow against 16,000 medical records for space in the waiting area. Patients needing an X-ray must squeeze sideways through two bookcases into a small X-ray room. If patients cannot walk to radiology, they are sent several miles away to the Army’s hospital at Ft. Bragg, which has more room to X-ray patients.

The clinic’s pharmacy is not much bigger than the X-ray room. Drugs and pharmaceutical supplies are stored on wheeled shelves to make room for the pharmacy’s workers, who spend the day saying, “Excuse me” to one another. “You should have seen what it was like when one of us was pregnant,” joked one of the pharmacy workers. Equipment is available to do anthrax tests at the base, but there’s no space at the medical clinic for storing it, so patients requiring those tests would have to go to Ft. Bragg, too.

Renee Otto, an environmental engineer at Pope, is not looking for a million-dollar fix for the base’s aging sewer system–just $140,000. Last spring, Pope’s sewer system failed and dumped more than 15,000 gallons of wastewater into surrounding rivers and streams, in violation of both federal and state environmental laws. “At any time, we could receive a violation and be fined,” said Otto.

Additionally, Pope lacks money to put alarms on the sewer system that would alert Air Force officials to leaks. Without alarms, leaks can go undetected for hours and even days.

Pope firefighters are quick to boast that they are among the busiest in Air Mobility Command, with nearly 2,000 annual calls, but they are not proud of their station which was built in the 1950s. It is about half the size of a standard service firehouse. Seven fire vehicles are regularly parked outside the station because there is no room to park them indoors. Meanwhile, poor ventilation inside causes diesel fumes to leak into the firefighters’ sleeping quarters. Renovating the fire station would be more expensive than spending about $10 million to build a new firehouse at Pope, fire officials said.

Pope Library Director Faye Couture would like to put more books on the shelves–including many of those that are recommended reading by the Air Force–but cannot because the base’s library is less than half the 12,000 square feet of space needed and authorized for Pope. Often, she said, new books only go on the shelves when damaged books get thrown out. Last year, Couture said, she had some openings because she tossed out about 100 reference books that were infested with mold because, like the fire station, the library has inadequate ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Pope officials are not only worried about the base’s infrastructure meeting current requirements but are increasingly concerned about whether it will be able to handle new demands.

Beginning in 2006, Pope is slated to serve as a beddown facility for the Air Force’s new C-130J-30 cargo aircraft. The new mission will require an additional flight simulator, more Aerospace Ground Equipment, new two-bay and one-bay aircraft hangars, technical and fuselage training facilities, and consolidated maintenance centers.

“Pope’s current infrastructure is not capable of meeting the demands of the new C-130J-30 beddown mission,” according to an Air Force information paper. “Upgrades to area infrastructure are necessary to ensure the C-130J-30 new mission is a success.”

Those upgrades will cost at least $16 million, including putting in more robust water and electrical distribution systems and expanding the capacity of the base’s sewer system, Pope officials said.

Relief in Sight

Robbins said increased defense spending in Fiscal 2003 will begin to cut the maintenance backlog and make long overdue facilities upgrades at bases like Pope. But, he said, the Air Force needs consistent long-term funding for those accounts.

By 2007, the Air Force and other services hope a steady funding stream will have cut from 192 to 67 years the time it takes to replace buildings. Philip W. Grone, Dubois’s top deputy and a former staff director of the House Armed Services Committee’s military installations and facilities subcommittee, said 67 years is still longer than the private sector, which upgrades buildings every 30 to 55 years. However, getting to 67 years, he said, would meet military readiness requirements.

The Defense Department also will spend substantial dollars tearing down buildings it no longer needs. Since 1998, the military services have demolished 62 million square feet of excess facilities at a cost of $900 million. They expect to recoup those costs–and more savings–through reduced maintenance bills.

The Air Force alone expects to eliminate another four million square feet of space over the next two years by either tearing down facilities or giving old buildings to local communities.

The Defense Department expects to free up money for maintaining and improving infrastructure by closing military bases. Pentagon officials have repeatedly said there is as much as 25 percent excess infrastructure at the military’s 398 bases. They maintain that shuttering those bases could free up as much as $3.9 billion annually.

Last year, Congress approved a new round of military base closures for 2005. The Pentagon had been pushing for 2003.

Meanwhile, the services are looking for other ways to lessen their infrastructure load. For instance, Robbins said Air Force base managers have been told that they should only hire contractors who have ideas and strategies that will keep down long-term maintenance costs to design, build, and refurbish facilities.

Additionally, he said Air Force bases are being encouraged to pursue creative partnerships with local communities, so bases can be upgraded without additional dollars.

Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio is the first to launch what the service terms a city-base approach to cut Air Force operating and maintenance costs. Brooks transferred its property to San Antonio, which will maintain and, in some cases, overhaul base facilities. San Antonio’s Brooks Development Authority will endeavor to make the base a technology and business center. The Air Force units at Brooks, including the service’s human systems research wing, are now tenants of the BDA.

Los Angeles Air Force Base, on the other hand, is pursuing a deal that would transfer underutilized land at the base to a commercial developer. In exchange, the developer would build the service a new 580,000-square-foot office building.

Ultimately, however, DOD’s ability to upgrade bases will rely mainly on Congress’ willingness to fund repair and maintenance accounts. Last summer, several lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee spent three days visiting more than 20 bases across the country and came away vowing to improve them. “What we have seen can only be described as outrageous,” said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who chairs the House Armed Services military readiness subcommittee.

Since then, lawmakers have proposed adding nearly half a billion to maintenance accounts–and have promised that’s only the beginning. George Cahlink is a military correspondent with Government Executive Magazine in Washington, D.C. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.