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Grand Forks Herald May 17, 2005

Surging to GFAFB

Pentagon brass explain why base should be so severely downsized but not closed

By Stephen J. Lee

The plight of Grand Forks Air Force Base was brought up Monday in Washington by the head of the federal Base Realignment and Closure panel in its first meeting since getting the Pentagon's dreaded closure list Friday.

"We were all surprised to have that come right away," said John Marshall, the Grand Forks attorney and businessman heading the community's base retention committee after arriving in Washington late Monday. He's not sure what to make of it yet, Marshall said. But it gives more of a sense of what the Pentagon might have in mind for the Grand Forks base.

The BRAC panel took three hours of testimony Monday from the Pentagon's top brass, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; Michael Wynne, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics; and Phil Grone, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment.

On Friday, Rumsfeld gave the panel the list calling for closing 33 major stateside bases and cutting down 29 more - including Grand Forks - to save $49 billion over 20 years.

The plan is to transfer out the base's 50 KC-135 tankers and 2,200 military personnel - 80 percent of the current total - in the next few years. About 355 civilian jobs on the base also would be cut, with a net loss of nearly 2,700 direct jobs, and an added loss of about 2,300 jobs indirectly linked to the base, the Pentagon estimates.

Meanwhile, a new, smaller mission will be assigned to the Grand Forks base; details aren't clear yet, but it apparently involves UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, and a few hundred military personnel.

Planning to use only a small part of the base has many wondering.

John Pike, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org in Washington, said he couldn't figure out what the BRAC list was looking to do in Grand Forks.

"You go into BRAC with the theory that it's to reduce excess capacity at bases and, in fact, what they have done in Grand Forks is create excess capacity," Pike told the Herald. "They have a fully equipped air base that has everything except airplanes."

Good question

Anthony Principi, head of the BRAC panel, asked the Pentagon brass that very question Monday, according to a memo from George Schlossberg, the consultant hired by the Grand Forks base retention committee.

Undersecretary Wynne answered him.

"Principi asked why some recommendations were termed realignments," reads the memo, which was faxed Monday to Mayor Mike Brown, who provided the Herald with a copy. "For example, he said, the realignment recommendation for Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota would remove most of the personnel and all of the aircraft from the installation. Principi wanted to know why DoD did not simply recommend the closure of Grand Forks."

Undersecretary Wynne provided some idea of what the Pentagon has in mind for Grand Forks.

According to Schlossberg, "Wynne said the BRAC recommendations left the nation 'light' on its northern border. He suggested that Grand Forks AFB could become a facility where capacity could surge to help defend the border. Wynne said forces could be rotated through Grand Forks to maintain a presence there."

Marshall said it's still unclear exactly what the Pentagon has in mind.

"Surge capacity" is a concept Rumsfeld has been touting that would give the military more flexibility in staging and basing operations - get in, get out, nobody gets hurt - to respond quickly to the multiplying threats around the world.

It might mean keeping bases open for temporary duties.

Defense analysts say that land and property at a half-century-old base such as Grand Forks is relatively cheap by Pentagon standards, so keeping it on inventory for yet-to-be-specified missions might make better economic sense than closing it completely.

Rumsfeld told the panel, according to Schlossberg's memo, that "the BRAC recommendations provide ample room within the overall defense infrastructure to accommodate future surge needs and possibly even bring more troops home."

About 70,000 soldiers are slated to return from overseas with a few years; meanwhile, the Pentagon plans to increase the total force by 30,000 troops or more.

The BRAC list also realigns many Guard and Reserve units, joining them with active duty facilities. Wynne told the panel that the Pentagon was "well within the law," in unilaterally closing and moving National Guard facilities without the approval of state governors, an issue raised by Gov. John Hoeven among others. Rumsfeld also said that if world conditions dictate, another BRAC round might be needed in five or 10 years, according to Schlossberg.

This morning, the Air Force's top guns will appear before the BRAC commission. Meanwhile, Marshall, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., and others will be seeking more details.

Marshall said he will meet today with Gen. Ron Fogleman, former Air Force chief of staff, a paid consultant to the Grand Forks base retention effort.

Pomeroy said he's confident a case can be made to keep the Grand Forks base's tankers. It doesn't seem right that the base was rated low in military value for tankers, when it's considered such a winner by Air Force leaders, he said, especially after the $300 million spent recently in new housing, and a $28 million runway project under way.

The job now is to find out what data the Pentagon used and hold it up for scrutiny, Pomeroy said. For the next four months, the BRAC panel will hold hearings and visit bases that are closing, and perhaps some realigned ones, Marshall said. And maybe listen to critics of the list.

Rumsfeld, however, urged the panel Monday not to make any changes to the list. It goes to the president Sept. 8, then Congress for final approval. It will take five votes to remove a base from the closure list; seven of the panel's nine votes are needed to add a base to the list. Not being on the closed list gives them leverage to argue against being downsized, Pomeroy said.

"This is the start of the second half, and they got it half right."

 


Copyright 2005, Grand Forks Herald