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Too many bases: The plan to sidestep Congress' opposition to closures

Apr. 14, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
F-22 endures 3-week, cold-weather test at Eielson
Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, would have lost most of its equipment and aircraft under the 2005 BRAC proposal. The proposal was rejected, and since then the Alaska congressional delegation has been sensitive to any movement on the base. (Kevin Robertson/Air Force)
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The Air Force is digging deep to achieve extensive budget cuts — cutting people, eliminating entire aircraft fleets and begging Congress for another round of base closures.

The Air Force is digging deep to achieve extensive budget cuts — cutting people, eliminating entire aircraft fleets and begging Congress for another round of base closures.

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The Air Force is digging deep to achieve extensive budget cuts — cutting people, eliminating entire aircraft fleets and begging Congress for another round of base closures.

Getting lawmakers to approve base closures in their districts is never easy, so the service is studying how far it can go in eliminating people and planes at some bases without prompting opposition on Capitol Hill.

The concept of “warm basing” — keeping a base open in a limited, less costly way while avoiding opposition to base realignment and closure actions — is one option being explored by Air Force leaders. That strategy is also recommended by a congressionally mandated report on Air Force force structure.

“Congressional defense committees and the Air Force should consider, and the Congress should allow, the closing or ‘warm basing’ of some installations,” the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force recommended in its February report to Congress and President Obama. “Attempting to operate all current bases at the same level of effort will require the Air Force to reallocate present and future funding and reduce some of the benefits that would otherwise be gained [by other cuts].”

What the Defense Department and Air Force really want is “cold basing,” or full closure triggered by a BRAC round, to shut down a base and “padlock the gate” to achieve the most savings.

“The department is facing a serious problem created by the tension of declining budgets, reductions in force structure, and limited flexibility to adapt our infrastructure accordingly,” John Conger, the acting deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, said in April 2 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We need to find a way to strike the right balance, so infrastructure does not drain resources from the war fighter. Our goal is therefore a BRAC focused on efficiency and savings, and it is a goal we believe is eminently achievable.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh made similar arguments at a March 14 House Armed Services Committee hearing: “In the next five years, we will cut 500 airplanes from our Air Force,” he told lawmakers. “We will cut around 20,000 people from our Air Force. That is a huge impact on who we are as an institution. It will create more facilities that are not fully manned or installations that are not fully utilized, which will create more of a discussion about BRAC and the future. It’s going to have an impact.”

The Defense Department, in its fiscal 2015 budget request, is calling on Congress to allow base closures, with the process beginning in 2017.

But should Congress balk at full closure, which would render an installation useless and mean the loss of jobs in a congressional district, the Air Force is looking at ways to lessen the cost of a facility by taking away some people and planes, while still maintaining the base at some level.

Most at risk of being reduced to warm status might be bases unsuccessfully proposed for limited or full closure in earlier BRAC rounds: Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska; Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.; Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.; and Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve bases such as Otis Air National Guard Base, Mass.; W.K. Kellogg Air Guard Station, Mich.; Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, N.Y.; Mansfield Lahm Air Guard Station, Ohio; Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station, Pa.; and Gen. Mitchell Air Reserve Station, Wis.

“We are really trying to read into the law to see what our authorities are,” Undersecretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning said in November, when he was serving as acting secretary and first raised the option of warm basing. “But they’re very limited without a BRAC, and it doesn’t take much to trigger something that’s considered a BRAC move.”

But the idea of warm basing has been tried and struck down before — and already is meeting opposition again.

Why a 'stealth BRAC'

The Defense Department can do almost nothing official regarding base infrastructure without triggering what would be perceived as a BRAC action. Even looking at reviewing basing prompts prohibitive political attention, Defense Department spokesman Mark Wright said in an e-mail. The most the department publicly can do is point to the past, the 2004 official BRAC study, and say that the military is smaller and has more excess infrastructure now.

In 2005, at the time of the last BRAC round, the Air Force estimated that it had 24 percent excess base capacity, and since then has cut about 500 aircraft, according to Kathleen Ferguson, the acting undersecretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and logistics. It also has closed two small bases: Kulis Air Guard Station, Alaska, in 2011, and Onizuka Air Force Station, Calif., in 2010.

Now, the Air Force is facing large-scale cuts under sequestration — part of the $450 billion the Defense Department must cut over the next nine years. Top officials say up to 550 aircraft and 25,000 airmen would be cut if sequestration is enforced.

“Even though we’ve not done an updated capacity analysis, we intuitively know we have excess infrastructure capacity and continue to spend dollars maintaining that that could be put toward readiness and modernization,” Ferguson said at the April 2 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Without full BRAC authority, Air Force leaders are floating warm basing as a way to make cuts where the service has excess: infrastructure.

Why not a 'stealth BRAC'

But a “stealth BRAC” also has opponents.

Under the 2005 BRAC, the Air Force proposed limiting operations at Cannon and Eielson. The BRAC Commission opposed those moves because in the long run it would be more harmful to the Air Force and the local community, said Philip Coyle, a member of the 2005 commission and now a fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The “warm basing” concept would still mean that the Air Force needs to spend money on basic upkeep of the base, while not allowing the local community to use the facilities, Coyle said.

“At least with outright closure, a community can invest to repurpose a base for other uses such as commercial development,” he said. “Under warm basing, the military facilities would be in limbo, not fully operational but not closed either.”

And if a base is placed in this position for the long term, it would effectively end up closed anyway, he said.

“This leads to a ‘stealth BRAC’ where various facilities are all but shut down in practice, but without an effective mechanism to consider the overall significance or impact to America’s national security and to affected communities,” Coyle said. “Then people might wake up one day and find that for all practical purposes, a facility has been shut down for months or years, but nobody has ‘turned off the lights.’ ’’

Defense spokesman Wright agreed that warm, as opposed to cold, basing “limits the potential savings.”

“It is still required that the department maintain the facility and provide physical security for its assets,” he said. “This requires personnel and maintenance funds, both of which are the largest sources of savings.”

Still, “eliminating the main mission of a base under warm basing will produce savings which can be substantial,” he said.

The Air Force in 2005 estimated that the one-time cost of downsizing Eielson would be $32.9 million, with an annual savings of about $12.1 million and $126.9 million over 20 years. Eielson was a target because it is expensive to maintain and improve because of its remote, cold location. The Air Force at the time wanted to remove active-duty aircraft, but keep the Air National Guard KC-135 unit and the facilities in a “warm status” for exercises, such as Red Flag-Alaska.

To downsize Cannon, the service would see a one-time cost of $108.2 million, with an annual savings of $206.5 million and 20-year savings of almost $2.65 billion. At the time, Cannon was flying Block 50 F-16s but had the least military value, such as infrastructure and convenience for training, among bases with those jets. The plan was to transfer the F-16s to other bases such as Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and the service would find a new mission for the base. Instead, the base still lost its F-16s but in 2006 transferred to Air Force Special Operations Command and new aircraft, such as the CV-22 Osprey and AC-130 Spectre, were assigned.

Warm silos

The Air Force is not just looking at using the warm basing idea with whole installations. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Congress on March 14 that the service is considering moving silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles into warm status, removing the personnel and the warhead but keeping the silo ready in a way that it could rapidly be put into use. This would help the service comply with the New START treaty requiring the U.S. to reduce its nuclear stockpile.

“If we remove missiles, we need to keep the silos in a warm status so we maintain a continuity between them and the communication aspect that was built for many, many, many good reasons back in the ’60s,” said Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, the assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. “So, it’s much easier, it’s much less expensive for us to remove a missile and then keep this communication system and the actual tactical unit ... together.”

The Defense Department on April 8 announced plans to cut its ICBM fleet by 50 to comply with requirements under the New START treaty. Under these plans, the Air Force would place the ICBMs in a non-deployed status by removing the missile from the silos, but the silos would remain operational. Keeping the silos running in a “warm status” allows the Air Force to both maintain its current communications and electronic systems, along with being able to pick a “worse performing” silo to be taken off active service, Harencak told lawmakers March 5.

The announcement of the planned reduction comes three weeks after the Pentagon was forced to stop a study on the environmental impact of reducing ICBMs and closing silos, due to a provision in the 2014 omnibus spending bill preventing the Defense Department from using any money to conduct the study. The Congressional ICBM Caucus in February sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel saying the department was “circumventing existing law” to continue the study, which the department said is required to comply with the treaty.

Opposition continues

Under the Air Force’s 2005 BRAC proposal, Eielson would have lost most of its equipment and aircraft, but would have been kept open for Air National Guard units and temporary training. The proposal was rejected, and since then the Alaska congressional delegation has been sensitive to any movement on the base.

Last year, the Air Force proposed moving the 18th Aggressor Squadron from Eielson to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, a move that was blocked in Congress, and lawmakers said it was the beginning of a stealth BRAC.

Members of Congress threw their weight behind their opposition: Democratic Sen. Mark Begich placed a hold on the nomination of Gen. Hawk Carlisle to be commander of Pacific Air Forces in April 2012, and removed the hold only after the Air Force said it would study the effects of the transfer. Months later, Begich also threatened to hold up Welsh’s confirmation as chief of staff before the Air Force agreed to the study.

After Fanning’s Nov. 18 comments about warm basing, Begich said he understands the Air Force needs to save money, but remains opposed to minimizing base operations.

“Eielson’s future is secure following such an attempt, but that doesn’t mean we should sanction any such attempts at other bases,” Begich said in a statement to Air Force Times. “My longstanding position is any mission loss at a base or transfer from a base that basically closes it requires explicit approval from Congress.”

Like Eielson, all the other bases spared from BRAC have maintained their Air Force presence, with some like Cannon undergoing mission changes. Ellsworth has maintained its presence as just one of two B-1B Lancer bases. Eielson looks to be secure in the long term with the potential basing of F-35s. Smaller Guard and Reserve bases, such as Selfridge and Pittsburgh, have faced the threat of closure in recent budget battles, but their congressional representatives have kept them flying, for now.

DoD and the services can also make force structure changes to cut overhead at installations. This was successful for the department in 2011 when it was able to cut U.S. Joint Forces Command at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. About 3,000 personnel slots were shed, but the base is so large that the action met little local and congressional opposition.

But proposals at smaller bases often meet immediate political opposition. A request to remove the 911th Airlift Wing at Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, for example, prompted immediate, strong opposition in Congress that killed the proposal in the fiscal 2013 defense bill.

Congress has repeatedly called on the Pentagon to stop any base closures or downsizing, usually before any moves are even announced. In the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing April 2, defense and Air Force officials outlined the need to cut back on infrastructure, but said they have limited authority to even begin studying possible cutbacks.

However, Conger said the Defense Department has an estimate of the costs of BRAC in the department’s future years defense plan. If implemented in 2017, base closures would cost about $6 billion to implement and cost an additional $2 billion in the initial years. By the third year, savings would outweigh costs and, by the end of six years, the cumulative savings would be “a wash.”

Ferguson told the lawmakers that the Air Force is continuing to spend money maintaining excess infrastructure that could be better spent recapitalizing and sustaining weapons systems such as its legacy aircraft. But Congress was not convinced.

The fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act calls on the Pentagon to complete a review of bases overseas before considering closing bases on U.S. soil. The White House in a statement said the Defense Department is already looking at overseas infrastructure, and that this provision inhibits the department’s ability to conduct needed reviews of military infrastructure.

“The administration urges Congress to provide the BRAC authorization as requested, which would allow DOD to right size its infrastructure, while providing important assistance to affected communities,” the White House said in a Nov. 19 statement, as the administration prepared its fiscal 2015 budget plan. “Without authorization for a new round of BRAC, DoD may not properly align the military’s infrastructure with the needs of evolving force structure.”

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