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Grand Forks Herald May 8, 2005

Can GF keep base?

Defense analysts weigh in on pros and cons for Grand Forks Air Force Base as BRAC deadline nears

By Stephen J. Lee

Grand Forks Air Force Base was built at the height of the Cold War, located next to the northern border to be ready if nuclear-bomb-carrying missiles or bombers came over the top of the world from America's nemesis at the time, the Soviet Union.

And securely tucked into the middle of the continent, as far away as possible from enemy submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles from the Atlantic or Pacific.

It made sense then, defense-wise.

But now, years after the Soviet's evil empire crumbled and only days before the Pentagon releases its latest list of what military bases will be closed in the continuing adjustment to the post-Cold War world, is Grand Forks still a logical place?

Well, kinda, sorta, maybe, say some defense experts.

"The reason the bases were put in the nation's interior during the Cold War was to protect them from a surprise attack originating over the poles or off the nation's coastlines," said Loren Thompson, CEO of the Lexington Institute in Washington, where he focuses on defense and national security public policy. "There's still some validity to having bombers and intercontinental (ballistic) missiles stationed there because it's still true that you would be more warning before they were hit by hostile missiles. Being able to survive a surprise attack and be able to retaliate is central to nuclear deterrence."

"On the other hand, the nation is now more preoccupied with terrorism and insurgencies overseas and there are drawbacks to being located so far from the coasts because it's hard to deploy overseas in an emergency quickly."

Tanker mission

The Grand Forks base, for a decade, has been empty of bombers or missiles, filled rather with about 50 KC-135 air-refueling tankers, moves coming out of previous BRAC rounds.

It wasn't until 1991, as the post-Cold War downsizing of the military began, that the Grand Forks business community organized a Council on Military Relations to formally work at keeping the base open.

In 1990, Col. Larry Lomax was the commander of the 319 Bombardment Wing at the base, in charge of 17 B-1B bombers and 20 tankers. The Soviet Union was disintegrating, America was taking a new role as the world's lone superpower.

Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait, and the U.S. had recently overthrown Panama's dictator. Grand Forks Air Force Base aircraft responded to both threats.

But Lomax, while seeing a new world of warfare, still saw the base's prime mission as facing down the Russkies across the icy top of the world.

"I can't imagine shutting down Grand Forks," Lomax told the Herald in 1990. "We're ideally located strategically in the sense we're a long way from the ocean and we're close to the northern border. For a strategic base, that's an advantage. If you look at the flight time to the Soviet Union, either for missiles or aircraft, we're as close as we can get up here in the north."

Now there's not much fear of a long-range nuclear strike from any U.S. enemies. In the war against Iraq, America's enemy didn't even put an aircraft in the skies.

"Especially with tankers, there's not the same focus on the Cold War strategic nuclear mission, including the ability to survive and retaliate," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in U.S. defense strategy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "So the Northern Border locations don't make as much sense as they did in the 1950s."

Overhaul needed

In a new book, "The Military We Need: The Defense Requirements of the Bush Doctrine," author Tom Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, argues that the U.S. military has not responded smartly to the changes demanded by Sept. 11.

In fact, when it comes to the Air Force, a revolution is needed, Donnelly says in the book, due to be released this month.

Conflicts likely to spring up anywhere, and the advent of higher precision weaponry and new ways of controlling the skies in battle make support aircraft, including air refueling tankers "key to far-flung operations," Donnelly writes, because "they put the global in U.S. airpower."

"Tanker aircraft have become increasingly essential to U.S. military operations; in Operation Iraqi Freedom, tanker aircraft flew more than 6,000 sorties. With future operational requirements driven by the need for greater range, the need for tankers is equally important, doubling or tripling the combat range of both tactical aircraft and long-range bombers as well as the range of cargo aircraft."

But the current rank of KC135 tankers averages 44 years of age, Donnelly says, and is "reaching obsolescence and plagued by low readiness rates." New tankers need to be bought as quickly as possible, he said.

Geography shift

But even if air refueling tankers play a bigger role in the nation's defense, that doesn't mean they have to be located at the Grand Forks base.

"There has been a general drift of the United States military to the southwest, and the weather has had a lot to do with that," said John Pike, founder and director of GlobalSecurity.org and noted Washington defense analyst, last week. "Some of it is politics, but I wouldn't discount the weather."

However, he added that the wide open spaces in North Dakota, while cold and windswept often, can be an asset, too.

For example, at two of the nation's main naval bases, in Norfolk, Va., and San Diego, population growth has hemmed in the bases. "You have the town right across the street from the front gate," Pike said.

O'Hanlon agrees. "You have the advantage of having a lot of open spaces, as opposed to the larger metro areas. In Arizona and other places in the Southwest, you have a lot of air bases getting encroached upon by urban sprawl."

Part of the military's decision-making is about how to get the biggest bangs for their bucks, Pike said.

So the millions being spent now on new housing and a new runway at the Grand Forks base are not irrelevant to the BRAC decision-making, Pike said.

"It definitely does make a difference, if for no other reason that they are going to be looking at, 'What is the total capital value of the facility?' That's why they are always trying to spend more money on the facilities because they are less likely to be closed than a facility that has got a lot of stuff that's gotta be replaced anyway."

North Dakota's frigid winters and the extreme temperature changes from summer to winter, aren't the ideal for maintaining aircraft or runways, O'Hanlon said. But it's obviously worked OK for half a century, too, he noted. "Maybe they find out it doesn't cost much to have snowplows parked out on the runways."

The theory behind closing bases is that it will free up money to be spent on upping troop strength and buying new equipment, O'Hanlon said.

Northern assests

But the Grand Forks base's remoteness might also mean it has a couple of things going for it with those "wearing green eyeshades" in the Pentagon, O'Hanlon said. "Labor costs and real estate are cheaper there than in many other parts of the nation. That does help you at the margins."

It also helps if the base has been kept up well and would not require lots of added investment just to continue in use, O'Hanlon said.

The Grand Forks base, of course, is in the midst of a runway renovation that required the tankers to move to other bases for most of this year. And millions of dollars in new housing have been put in recently.

Why now?

All in all, however, even some experts can't figure out why now with BRAC.

"I must confess to you, that I'm bewildered by this BRAC round, in the sense that the previous BRAC rounds featured force structure reductions and we don't have force structure reductions this time," Pike said Wednesday. "The Army has a force structure increase, and then you have all this stuff coming back from Europe. In the previous rounds, you could understand, if the Army is going from 18 divisions to 10 divisions, we are going to have to close some bases. Or if the Navy was getting smaller, you don't need as many bases. It was easy to understand. But we don't have force structure increases going on now."

Of course, he was speaking a day before Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that the BRAC goal will actually need to cut far less than he earlier estimated. Rumsfeld said that instead of 20 to 25 percent of the infrastructure, only half or less that amount would need to be cut.

That could be good news for the Grand Forks base when the BRAC list comes out this week. Loren Thompson said the rumble in Washington is that it will be released Tuesday, earlier than announced last week.


Copyright 2005, Grand Forks Herald