By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer
Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, local supporters of Cannon Air Force Base and even some independent analysts agree Cannon has strong military value and should survive this year’s Base Realignment and Closure process.
But the looming questions are whether BRAC commissioners will focus on military value — and what is military value — or if politics might ultimately play a role in the final decisions.
Many states have hired lobbyists to keep their bases off the BRAC list, and lawmakers are expected to use all of their political clout to protect bases in their states. The economic impact on a community that loses a military base could be devastating; the Clovis-Portales area, for example, would lose at least 7,000 people — including military personnel and their families — and millions of dollars annually if Cannon were to close.
“It’s a perfect example of good policy and good politics not fitting in the same room together,” said Christopher Hellman, an analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington.
By May, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will submit a list of bases recommended for closure or realignment to the BRAC Commission, which will evaluate and eventually recommend to the president bases for closure.
There are laws in place guiding the Commission’s decisions, officials said. But no congressional representative wants to see a hometown base disappear, so politics may well play a big part in the BRAC process.
“In that entire process, if there are mistaken conclusions, incorrect facts that have been put forward, misrepresentations made about Cannon, I will do everything I can, working with the other members of the (New Mexico) delegation, to correct those,” said Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Evaluation mistakes are possible, Udall said, like when Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque was put on the list in the 1995 round and removed late in the process. He said it took a lot of re-education of BRAC commissioners to get Kirtland off the list before the cycle closed.
Compounding the difficulty, some military analysts aren’t even sure what the criteria for evaluating air bases will be.
“We haven’t been able to figure out what rationale they will be using to do any of the closures,” said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va.-based military and security think tank.
But he said it would take a significant change to the way the Air Force organizes its planes and people to allow a large cut in the number of air bases.
“If they were to close Cannon, they would have to take the 27th fighter wing and move it somewhere else,” he said. “Unless (Rumsfeld) has some secret plan to reconfigure the Air Force so that every wing has four squadrons, rather than the normal three, I don’t know where he is going to get Air Force bases to close.”
Udall agreed that Cannon supporters should have little to worry about.
“Cannon I think is in a position to be able to take in additional missions,” Udall said, “because it’s such a good training area with (good) air space.”
Pike said he hasn’t heard anything that would indicate Rumsfeld has a major force restructuring in the works.
Rumsfeld has estimated that extra base capacity is at nearly 25 percent. But Republican lawmakers said the secretary recently told them the cuts will not be as deep, in part because the military needs a home for 70,000 troops returning from Europe.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said BRAC commissioners can only remove an installation from the original list if it is proved the secretary of defense deviated substantially from the pre-determined force-structure plan in making his recommendations.
But Udall said even if Cannon is on the initial list, there is a good chance it could be removed by the end of the process.
Randy Harris, a member of the Committee of Fifty, which lobbies on Cannon’s behalf, said Pike’s assessment of the current state of the Air Force seems reasonable.
Harris said the fact that Cannon has no encroachment and has a supersonic training space just minutes from its runway means it has a strong military value.
“(Cannon) will do very, very well if the decision makers are making the decisions based on what is good for the future,” Harris said.
“If the decision is made for immediate cutback reasons, or political reasons, then we will have to address that if we happen to be on the list.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The established BRAC criteria for evaluating military bases:
• The current and future mission capabilities and the impact on operational readiness of the total force of the Department of Defense, including the impact on joint warfighting, training and readiness.
• The availability and condition of land, facilities and associated airspace at both existing and potential receiving locations.
• The ability to accommodate contingency, mobilization, surge and future total force requirements at both existing and potential receiving locations to support operations and training.
• The cost of operations and the manpower implications.
• The extent and timing of potential costs and savings, including the number of years beginning with the date of completion of the closure or realignment, for the savings to exceed the costs.
• The economic impact on existing communities in the vicinity of military installations.
• The ability of the infrastructure of both the existing and potential receiving communities to support forces, missions and personnel.
• The environmental impact, including the impact of costs related to potential environmental restoration, waste management and environmental compliance activities.
Source: Department of Defense
How Cannon stacks up to the criteria:
• Cannon Air Force Base has large airspace and bombing ranges close to base, and the potential for supersonic training just minutes from base.
• There are no encroachment issues, such as those that plague bases in the northeast and other F-16 bases, such as Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix.
• Clovis is in strong support of keeping Cannon Air Force Base from closing. The economic impact of Cannon closing down would be tremendous to Clovis.
• Base upgrades and funds recently secured include: $9.5 million for a new Airmen’s Center, $13.2 million to replace a fuel storage and loading facility, $7.8 million for a new aerospace Ground Equipment Complex, $9.4 million for a new fire rescue station, $4.7 million for a Security Forces Operations Facility, $1 million for approach lights on runway 13 and improvements made to runway quality.
The potential drawbacks:
• Cannon is about an average-sized air base, which might be seen as a detractor to its ability to accommodate contingency, mobilization and surge.
• Complaints from ranchers about sonic booms could play a small role, according to military analyst John Pike.
• Cannon currently has no joint warfighting and training between the military branches on base, which is the first criterion of military value listed by the Department of Defense.
Sources: DoD Web site, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Committee of Fifty member Randy Harris and military analyst John Pike.