Where BRAC Came Out

Dec. 1, 2005

Brooks City-Base, Tex. … Onizuka AFS, Calif. … Kulis ANGB, Alaska. … Each of these well-known USAF locations is now marked for extinction.

Cannon AFB, N.M., hasn’t exactly been ordered closed, but it has lost its mission. Cannon has until late 2009 to find a new one. If it doesn’t, then Cannon, too, will vanish.

Pope AFB, N.C., is a special case. It will survive. No longer, however, will it be called Pope Air Force Base and no longer will it belong to the Air Force. It is to be absorbed by adjacent Ft. Bragg, an Army base in North Carolina, to create a joint super-base under Army administration.

If all goes as planned, these and other Air Force installations will soon join the ranks of such late, great bases as Loring in Maine, McClellan in California, and Wurtsmith in Michigan. Each in its turn was either shut down or drastically realigned in a DOD base closure round.

As the Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s, the Pentagon began consolidating its expansive basing structure around the United States. DOD in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995 staged rounds of base realignment and closure—BRAC, in defense parlance. They produced a major contraction and helped the armed forces avoid billions in infrastructure costs.

Even so, the US military still had significant excess capacity. The military itself shrank by about 40 percent, but the US basing system declined in size by only 21 percent.

Congress is loath to approve base closures, so, when lawmakers agreed to authorize one in 2005, the Pentagon resolved to make the most of its opportunity. Gen. John P. Jumper, then Air Force Chief of Staff, said, “This round of closures and realignment represents the last opportunity we will have, for a generation, to reset our forces.”

During late 2004 and early 2005, the Air Force prepared a list of proposed actions that were then coordinated and modified by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

This list of Pentagon recommendations was forwarded to a specially impaneled BRAC commission, led by former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi. All members were former high-ranking military officers or federal officials.

The commission held hearings and, in August, voted its own BRAC recommendations. The commission’s list was sent to President Bush, who approved it Sept. 15 and forwarded it to Congress. By law, Congress could only accept or reject the entire list but not tinker with it. When Congress declined to reject the list by mid-November, the recommendations became law.

Two USAF Goals

The Air Force—and DOD as a whole—sought to do two things with its proposed list of basing changes.

The first goal, as always, was to save money. Excess infrastructure is inefficient. Shuttering parts of a system built for a much larger Cold War force would free up funds the Pentagon desperately wants for modernization, quality of life programs, and readiness improvements.

This BRAC round will be “a success for the Air Force,” Lt. Gen. Stephen G. Wood, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told Air Force Magazine.

However, he said, the financial impact will be “significantly different” from what was expected. The original DOD proposal was expected to save the Air Force $14.5 billion over 20 years. The Air Force now estimates it will save $7 billion over 20 years, said Wood.

The panel estimated that the approved plan, overall, will generate DOD-wide savings of $35.6 billion over 20 years, including personnel savings. If the personnel element is factored out—as some say it should be—the amount is $15 billion over 20 years.

The commission approved, without change, 119 of DOD’s 190 recommendations. Thirteen proposed changes were rejected in their entirety. The remaining 58 were modified in some way, large or small.

Saving money wasn’t the only goal. This BRAC round was unique in that it was used to speed up military transformation. “The department must be allowed to reconfigure its infrastructure to best support the transformation of our warfighting capability,” DOD officials maintained.

In a major BRAC thrust, the Air Force attempted to reorganize and redeploy its active duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve components under its “Future Total Force” banner. The consolidation was to be felt by all of the services, however.

The BRAC commission concurred with the need for transformation. “The armed forces and the Department of Defense are the stewards of installations ranging from some built originally to defend our harbors during the age of sail to others defending against intercontinental ballistic missiles,” the commission wrote in its final report, released on Sept. 8.

Earlier this year, press reports indicated the Pentagon might want to close up to 25 percent of its basing capacity, but the department’s recommendations this spring turned out to be much less dramatic. Cannon and Ellsworth AFB, S.D., were the only full-scale major Air Force bases marked for closure under the Pentagon plan. (Pope doesn’t count as a base closure.) (See box: “A Tangled Web.” )

The Big 33

DOD had proposed 33 “major” closure recommendations affecting all four services. A major closure is defined as any action shutting down a base whose replacement value exceeds $100 million. Of the 33, the panel approved 21, rejected five, and altered seven.

Of the 33 targeted facilities, the Air Force owned nine (not counting Pope). Only three were closed outright. They were:

  • General Mitchell Arpt./ARS, Wis.
  • Kulis ANGB, Alaska
  • Onizuka AFS, Calif.

Three of the nine were kept open. They were:

  • Ellsworth AFB, S.D.
  • Niagara Falls Arpt./ARS, N.Y.
  • Pittsburgh Arpt./ARS, Pa.

The other three targeted facilities had ambiguous outcomes and were kept on life support. They were:

  • Cannon AFB, N.M., which will close in 2009 unless the Air Force assigns it a new mission.
  • Otis ANGB, Mass., which will lose its fighter aircraft but be kept open and manned as an “enclave”—facilities with no aircraft.
  • W.K. Kellogg Arpt., Mich., also kept open as an enclave.

Additionally, Brooks City-Base, Tex., while no longer a USAF-owned facility, is slated to lose the USAF medical research and development units that leased space at Brooks after it was signed over to San Antonio. These and other military agencies will move to military bases in Maryland, Ohio, and Texas.

The BRAC commission approved 86 percent of DOD’s suggestions, but spared many of the highest profile facilities on DOD’s hit list.

For its part, the Air Force will be able to carry out much of the force rebalancing that it sought, but the BRAC commission nixed several large cost-cutting plans. This was acceptable to Air Force officials, who said preparing for the future—not savings—was USAF’s top BRAC priority. The changes free up excess infrastructure and allow the Air Force to move assets into more efficient units, which Air Force leaders argue will increase Total Force combat power.

To facilitate these changes, the Air Force proposed that 10 locations undergo major realignments, defined as a net loss of more than 400 people. They were: Eielson and Elmendorf AFBs, Alaska; Maxwell AFB, Ala.; Mountain Home AFB, Idaho; Pope; Grand Forks AFB, N.D.; Portland Arpt., Ore.; Lackland and Sheppard AFBs, Tex.; and McChord AFB, Wash.

The Air Guard Issue

Among the military services, the Air Force had the most ambitious—and controversial—transformation plan. Central to it was an extensive makeover of Air National Guard units.

Over the past 20 years, Guard bases had been left almost untouched. Of 22 major Air Force closures in previous rounds, only five have affected Guard bases and Reserve bases. This was soon to become a major problem, said USAF officials. ANG’s old fighters would begin to age out of the fleet, leaving fewer and fewer aircraft dispersed across an unchanging number of bases. This would create major inefficiencies that would only get worse in years ahead.

Correcting this situation was USAF’s critical need, said Air Force officials. Maj. Gen. Gary W. Heckman, who led the Air Force’s BRAC planning effort until he retired this fall, noted that the active duty force had cut squadrons to keep the remaining units at an efficient level of 24 aircraft per squadron. This, Heckman noted, was not done in the Guard, which has been operating smaller and smaller squadrons.

According to Air Force data, none of the nine ANG and AFRC A-10 squadrons is optimally sized, and only two of 33 F-16 squadrons are optimally sized, with squadrons of at least 18 fighters.

The current average unit size is 15 aircraft per squadron, and Heckman said that aircraft-per-squadron would fall to 12 by 2011. Without the BRAC plan, the average Air National Guard squadron in 2017 would have had just six or seven fighters.

Under the approved BRAC plan, Air Force officials report the 42 existing Guard and Reserve A-10 and F-16 squadrons will be cut to 27. More importantly, 26 of the 27 will be optimally sized.

“If we save nothing,” Heckman emphasized, this BRAC round will still be worthwhile simply for the “combat force enhancements” it enables.

The BRAC commission did not look as favorably on the Air Force’s suggestions for realigning Guard mobility aircraft. Changing C-130 squadrons from eight aircraft to 12 would increase their operational availability by 15 percent, Heckman noted.

The Defense Department proposed placing 12 or more C-130s at nine Air National Guard bases. The BRAC commission chose to spread the force around and left no ANG base with that many C-130s.

This was a success for the adjutants general, who fiercely argued that removing flying missions and closing ANG bases could destroy the character and effectiveness of the Air Guard. Guard personnel do not pack up and go to the next location to simply serve in the National Guard, said Maj. Gen. Roger P. Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States. Closings also could leave vast sections of the United States without key homeland and air defense capabilities, critics argued. Lempke called for a test program before charging down a path that could irreparably harm the Air National Guard’s ability to meet its state mission.

The commission expressed concern about the fact that 37 of 42 Air Force proposals involved the Air National Guard. “As proposed by DOD, 23 Air National Guard units would have lost all their currently assigned aircraft,” and five states would have been left with no flying mission at all, the panel noted. Some members felt that this would damage recruiting and retention in the Guard.

Heckman responded that the Air Force could not afford to “spread out the force to an inefficient size just to have catchment areas.”

Others blasted plans to turn some bases into enclaves.

The Air Force’s original thought was to close those bases altogether, Heckman said, but USAF concluded that flying is not the only important mission performed at some locations. So-called expeditionary combat support units have repeatedly deployed in the war on terror to open, improve, and sustain bases overseas. ECS airmen, including construction, engineers, security forces, and firefighters, are frequently the sort of personnel needed for homeland defense and disaster response missions.

Eight lawsuits were filed against the Secretary of Defense in last-ditch attempts to stop the BRAC process. None of the lawsuits name USAF or its officials as defendants, but seven of the lawsuits are challenging ANG recommendations. Officials note that as a practical matter the Air Force could be affected by any of the lawsuits that challenge recommendations affecting the Air National Guard. By late October, these legal challenges were unresolved, but, if successful, they could prevent certain BRAC actions from taking place.

Wood said that, if the Air Force does not effectively recapitalize its fleets, USAF in the future again will be saddled with inefficient squadrons. That is the reason new aircraft such as the F/A-22, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and C-130J are needed in “good numbers,” he said.

Community Pain

All closings are painful for the local communities, so military value was supposed to be the top priority in deciding what to close and what to keep open. While many of the proposed changes were resisted by the affected communities, some bases, such as Grand Forks AFB, N.D., welcomed the opportunity to move into emerging mission areas.

The Air Force originally recommended that Grand Forks be closed, Heckman told Air Force Magazine, but consultations with OSD highlighted the “unintended consequences” of that idea.

When combined with the other services’ actions, Air Force abandonment of Grand Forks would have left little “strategic presence” in the north-central United States. This is an issue that would come up again in deliberations with the BRAC commission.

Instead, the Air Force decided to push Grand Forks into an emerging mission area—unmanned aerial systems operations. The base is an ideal location for a cold-weather UAS center, explained Wood. The Air Force’s “strategic vision for Grand Forks is to become a home to a family of [UASes],” he said.

Strategic presence was also important to the BRAC commission, which decided to save several bases in the Northeast United States—notably the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine and Submarine Base New London, Conn.

DOD had proposed closing Ellsworth AFB, S.D., and shifting its B-1B force to Dyess AFB, Tex., the only other B-1B base. Military officials explained to the BRAC commission that this move would save nearly $1.9 billion over 20 years, “which represents 12.7 percent of the savings” among all Air Force recommendations.

Principi disagreed, claiming that the savings was “illusionary,” stemming from military personnel shifts. If one factored out those savings, Principi wrote in USA Today, the preservation of Ellsworth would actually save money while giving the Air Force more flexibility.

Ellsworth is “an outstanding installation,” said the commissioners. The area has “vast unencroached airspace, is sparsely populated, and has diverse terrain.” Ellsworth is also the second largest employer in the state of South Dakota. The commission decided to keep it open.

Saving Jobs

Jobs and economics were frequently cited by advocates for local bases. For example, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, vigorously argued the case for Cannon as a valuable engine of economic growth in his state. If the Air Force’s BRAC recommendations were adopted, Richardson said, “New Mexico will face thousands of lost jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic activity.” Cannon is now in limbo as it seeks a new mission.

The BRAC panel was receptive to the economic argument—but only up to a point. Commissioner Harold W. Gehman Jr., a retired US Navy admiral, said the goal was to allow the Air Force to form larger squadrons for efficiency while also dispersing forces across a wide geographic area.

The Cannon question was so difficult that the commission essentially gave DOD four more years to decide. Commissioners said there is “merit” in disbanding the 27th Fighter Wing at Cannon and distributing its aircraft to create efficiencies at other bases, but the impact had to be considered. The area around Clovis (population 33,000) could lose 29 percent of its jobs if Cannon closes, and that fact inspired the commission to give the base one last chance for a new mission.

The panel’s final determination was that, absent assignment of a new mission, Cannon would close after Dec. 31, 2009.

Wood said the Air Force will give a “serious look” at Cannon in an attempt to identify a new mission that makes sense for the base. Evaluations such as this are difficult, he said, because deciding what to keep open is not a matter of pitting bad units against good units.

The Total Force is kept at a high state of effectiveness, and Guard and Reserve units are in some ways “better” than their active duty counterparts.

Some are equipped with technology that active duty units lack, and Wood observed that the Air Force is trying to make greater use of the experience that resides in the Reserve Component, through increased use of associate units. “Don’t let anyone tell you that experience doesn’t count,” he said.

A Tangled Web

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission called the Pentagon’s list of recommended actions for 2005 extraordinarily difficult to evaluate. The commissioners wrote that they “struggled to fully understand the net impact on bases that were both gaining and losing missions at the same time, and they knew that rejecting one element of a recommendation could potentially set off a cascade” of effects at other installations.

Compounding the difficulty “was the decision by DOD to routinely mingle unrelated proposals under the title of a single ‘recommendation.’?”

The Air Force’s desire to improve joint A-10/Army training illustrates the ripple effect of these interconnected changes.

Pope AFB, N.C., will become an Army airfield under the control of adjacent Ft. Bragg. Pope’s A-10s, belonging to the 23rd Fighter Group, will move to Moody AFB, Ga., where they will benefit from “operational and training synergies” with nearby Army ground and Special Forces units.

Moody is near Ft. Benning, Ga., where the Army plans to combine its infantry and armor schools into a new Maneuver Training Center. “Locating Air Force A-10s near this consolidated Army training will lead to new opportunities [for] realistic close air support training,” DOD officials informed the BRAC commission.

The Air Force needs Moody to be an A-10 base that can provide these CAS training opportunities, said Maj. Gen. Gary W. Heckman, who was the Air Force’s chief BRAC planner until his recent retirement. In all, 48 Warthogs will be arriving at the Georgia base. Moody will also gain most of the 354th Fighter Wing’s A-10s from Eielson AFB, Alaska.

Eielson is losing its tank-killing Warthogs but keeping its F-16s. DOD had proposed removing all of Eielson’s aircraft and keeping it as an enclave, to host large training exercises such as Cope Thunder, but the BRAC commission decided this would not make full use of the base.

The BRAC commission also considered relocating the Navy’s presence at NAS Oceana, Va., to Moody, because of the urban encroachment at the Virginia Beach air station. The Air Force would have to “empty out” its presence if the Navy’s East Coast master jet base, with 244 aircraft, moved to Moody, Heckman said.

With Moody therefore unavailable, the BRAC commission looked elsewhere, and the Navy’s East Coast jet base may wind up at Cecil Field in Florida—which was closed in a previous BRAC round.

Birth of a Mega-Base?

Creating efficiency through consolidation is not just an issue for the Air Force and Air National Guard. In the Washington, D.C., area, 23,000 defense workers in commercial office complexes scattered throughout Northern Virginia are being relocated. Most of them will move to Ft. Belvoir, Va., which is adding nearly 12,000 workers, or Ft. Meade, Md., which is picking up more than 5,000 defense employees.

Even more unusual will be the merger of contiguous Army, Navy, and Air Force installations in New Jersey into a single mega-base.

McGuire Air Force Base, Ft. Dix, and Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst will be combined into a single DOD facility of more than 60 square miles. The Air Force will provide facilities management and the installation commander.

The inelegantly named Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst currently employs approximately 18,000 military, DOD civilians, and contractors.

McGuire is already home to more than 60 aircraft, including C-17s and KC-10s, and the joint base will bring in additional Navy and Marine Corps aircraft from to-be-shuttered NAS JRB Willow Grove, Pa.

Dix is home to extensive artillery, small-arms, and tank ranges.

Lakehurst “develops, builds, and repairs the nation’s aircraft carrier fleet’s catapult and recovery systems,” noted US Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) in a news release. Lakehurst was also the site of the infamous 1937 Hindenburg airship disaster.

The facilities have a history of cooperation. Air Mobility Command’s Air Mobility Warfare Center is already located on Ft. Dix property.