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The News Journal May 08, 2005

Castle: 'Dover is probably as safe as any base'

Others, reading into the military's long-range plans, are more pessimistic

By James Merriweather and Patrick Jackson

Brett Reynolds is a rarity in Delaware: He's pessimistic about Dover Air Force Base's prospects.

On the eve of a Pentagon announcement of which bases it plans to close, Reynolds thinks a clue lies in the distribution of the C-17 Globemaster III, a smaller, more maneuverable air cargo plane that Dover will begin to get in 2007 to replace some of its huge but aging C-5 Galaxy jets.

Two other bases with military airlift missions on the East Coast already have C-17s -- Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina and McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

"With McGuire up there and Charleston down there, if I'm deciding which base to close, why do I need C-17s in Dover?" says Reynolds, who speaks for 1,000 civilian workers at the base as president of Local 1709 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Such pessimism angers Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del.

"Any attempt to make people think Dover Air Force Base is in trouble is fear-mongering," Castle bristles. "There are no guarantees, of course. But Dover is probably as safe as any base."

The Pentagon list will be reviewed -- and possibly amended -- by a nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission, and then by President Bush and Congress in November. In the past, 85 percent of the bases on the Pentagon list ended up being closed.

Dover escaped previous base-closing rounds in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 as 97 bases were shuttered and major realignments were ordered for 55 others. Those closures saved about $29 billion through 2003, according to the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress.

Delaware is one of 22 states that have not lost a facility in the previous four rounds.

This round may end up being the biggest, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld initially saying 20 percent to 25 percent of bases may need to be closed, then lowering that estimate by half. The process also covers National Guard and Reserve outposts, such as the Air National Guard facility at the New Castle County Airport.

"Bases are going to close -- in places where there are not a lot of other options," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank. "This is going to be a huge emotional trauma for these people."

A growth industry

Dover scores well on most of the eight criteria to be used to decide what to mothball. The field is the "national jewel" of the Air Mobility Command, according to retired Col. Felix M. Grieder, a former Dover base commander.

Its airspace is uncluttered, the community is very supportive and airmen, reserves and retirees sing its praises.

The base is viewed as a critical part of the Air Force's Air Mobility Command -- a collection of a dozen bases across the country that use cargo planes and air tankers to move armies, supplies and material to foreign bases and war zones. The Dover base moved about a third of the cargo sent to South Asia prior to the Iraq invasion.

It also is the home of the Pentagon's only full-scale mortuary in the United States, handling the return of military personnel and civilians killed overseas. The Air Force just spent $30 million to expand and modernize the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs.

But Dover does have its drawbacks -- the most serious being "encroachment" by development in the rapidly growing Dover area.

It also is a one-service outpost. That is, only the Air Force operates there in an era when Rumsfeld is stressing joint operations by the military branches, with bases fit for shared operations possibly having an advantage.

"If 'jointness' is weighted heavily, it is a negative for Dover," says retired Brig. Gen. Richard B. Bundy, a former commander of the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover who also served as deputy director of plans and programs at Air Force headquarters.

Dover's supporters scoff at the notion that the Pentagon would close a base that has been a focus of airlift operations since long before the Vietnam War and is the military's busiest cargo-handling operation.

"Most of the material heading to the Middle East from the East Coast is going out of there or Charleston," said Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, Delaware's adjutant general.

And one thing Rumsfeld has made clear is that airlift will be critical for the rapid deployment forces he says the nation needs to respond to flashpoints anywhere in the world. The Pentagon also plans to bring 70,000 troops and equipment back to the United States from overseas bases. That will increase the potential workload for bases like Dover when those units must be moved back when trouble breaks out.

Bundy, who is helping Delaware with the base-closing process, said the military is plagued by a shortage of airlift capacity.

"The bottom line is there's not enough strategic airlift," Bundy said. "Eliminating any of those assets will only make that problem worse."

Some have said a "cluster" of airlift bases on the East Coast creates redundancy, making one or more ripe for consolidation. Of the 12, six are located between McGuire in New Jersey and MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

Others say that all of that capacity -- and more -- is needed.

"It's not as though they can just deactivate the C-5s and turn out the lights," said John Pike, founder and director of globalsecurity.org. "You could move them to another base, but then the question becomes: 'What does that solve?' "

Rumsfeld's vision calls for a brigade equipped with medium-armored vehicles that could be deployed anywhere in the world in four days. A 2003 study by the Government Accountability Office said it could take a third of the Air Force's C-17s and C-5s to meet that goal.

"Airlift is a growth industry," says retired Brig. Gen. Tom Mikolajcik, a former Air Force transportation chief who once flew C-141s out of Dover. He also is the military adviser to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Recent investments

Dover's trump card, Bundy and others say, is its relatively uncluttered air space.

Cargo planes departing from Dover can head directly into the trans-Atlantic air lanes without dodging the heavy commercial air traffic at McGuire, which shares flight paths with the New York City, Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia airports, and five regional airports. Charleston's base shares two runways with Charleston International Airport.

"You can't imagine the amount of equipment they're able to move through that base because of that," says state Sen. John C. Still III, R-Dover North, who headed a task force last year exploring how to protect the base.

Castle and others also point to the investment made in Dover since 1995 as evidence that the Pentagon has no intention of closing the 3,900-acre facility.

Base officials list 51 construction and repair projects valued at $243.5 million that have been undertaken or approved since 1995. That includes $30 million for the mortuary and $57.5 million for construction of a new aerial port, the huge warehouse and aircraft loading facility that is at the core of the base's operations.

That investment was speeded up by the Presidents Day storm of 2003, when heavy snow caused the roof to partially collapse. About a quarter of the base's routine tasks were handed off to Charleston, where the base's one cargo bay was quickly overwhelmed.

Castle and Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Tom Carper, D-Del., were able to get money to replace the aerial port included in a 2003 emergency spending bill for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ground was broken for the facility last December.

Maj. Cheryl Law, chief spokeswoman for the Dover base, said some permits still are pending and more construction has begun. Demolition is scheduled to begin by the end of May -- up to two weeks after the closure list comes out.

The lag in that work worries people like Reynolds, as do the Air Force's plans for basing aircraft at Dover.

The base is to get 13 C-17s to replace 18 of its 36 C-5s. The C-5s are moving out gradually, with the first leaving in the summer of 2003. The first C-17 is not scheduled to arrive until 2007.

Charleston, a base with more land area located near a large naval port, got the first C-17 back in 1993 and now has 54. McGuire, located adjacent to a large Army base and a Naval installation, has received nine C-17s since last September. McGuire was chosen over Dover in a 2001 competition for a squadron of 13 C-17s.

"What gives me more pause [than Charleston] is that McGuire -- just three hours up the road, flying time is 15 minutes -- is getting its first C-17s," Reynolds said.

Gary Lesser, a spokesman for Boeing Co., manufacturer of the C-17, said Dover is set to get the last 13 of 180 C-17s now on order for the Air Force.

"There are several of us who have been concerned that they're drawing down the C-5 first," Bundy said. "But we've been told that our fears are not well-founded and not to worry about it. Everybody we've talked to thinks Dover is in a good position to weather the storm."

Dover's main drawback remains "encroachment," but exactly what that means is not clear.

The Pentagon says priority will be given to bases that offer the best "availability and condition of land, facilities and associated airspace" but provides no elaboration.

"It used to be building up to the fence. If they're building right next to the fence, that's encroachment," said Defense Department spokesman Glenn Flood. "Now, it's all kinds of things."

Now, he said, encroachment could mean anything from civilian construction and development to too much night light from nearby neon signs and street lights -- or too much electronic interference from the community's radios, cell phones and satellite dishes.

At some bases, Flood said, garage doors were going haywire for miles around the base because a certain piece of military equipment was operating on the same frequency as the garage door openers.

Still's task force struggled with that, then said the state's top priority was relocating Eastern Shore Environmental's garbage transfer station. Located just east of the base, the facility was opposed by Air Force officials as a bird hazard.

An alternate site near Farmington in Kent County has been approved and Congress authorized $740,000 to buy the operation's 26-acre site.

Otherwise, housing developments press against the west and northwest edges of the base, buffering it from commercial uses that include the Blue Hen Corporate Center further to the northwest. The northeast, eastern and southern borders are mostly farmland and open space, including marshes and the Little Creek Wildlife Area.

That adds some protection from development, but also could hinder expanding the base if the Pentagon wanted it to absorb work and units from bases to be closed.

Kent County's land-use plan generally bars new development east of Del. 1, and maintains an Air Installation Compatibility Use Zone to keep development out of areas deemed as likely to be affected by plane crashes and aircraft noise pollution.

Del. 1/U.S. 113 bisects the base, separating its operations from base housing. But Still said he is not concerned about any possible security risk.

"The roads were designed with the base in mind," he said. "If you look at what's happened after 9/11, they've limited access from the road and have done a lot to improve security."

The state has been working to help safeguard the base's jet fuel supply, and a southern entrance on Del. 9 is being improved to serve as a secure truck entrance. The jet fuel arrives by barge at Port Mahon on the Delaware Bay and is piped to holding tanks north of the base.

A welcome home

The base also benefits from a strong reputation in the Air Force. Over the years, base commanders have raved about the community support.

The Abilene, Texas, Chamber of Commerce named Dover the 2000 winner of the Abilene Trophy, given annually to the community deemed to offer the best support for any of the 12 bases in the Air Mobility Command.

"We know how important the base is, and we want to make sure the relations between downtown Dover and the base stay strong," says Scott Kidner, a Dover legislative lobbyist and a member of the local USO board.

"They seem to be happy, but I think they appreciate the fact the community is interested, doesn't take the relationship for granted and wants to keep it strong," he said.

Col. John I. Pray, whose stint as 436th Airlift Wing commander ended Friday, said he was overwhelmed by local support for the base.

"When I came here, I knew of Dover's reputation, but nothing can really prepare you for it," he said. "It's outstanding. The level of respect and support you get from this community is unusual anywhere in the Air Force."

Kenneth Robertson, a retired Air Force officer and a native of northeastern Pennsylvania, says that figured in his decision to retire to Dover 14 years ago -- even though he never was stationed here.

"I have every confidence that the Department of Defense is going to want to keep Dover Air Force Base," said Robertson, who joined what turned out to be a successful effort to save Minott Air Force Base in North Dakota from closure in 1988. "It's what might happen when this whole thing gets to the commission. It's something we can't take for granted."


Copyright 2005, The News Journal