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Argus Leader June 19, 2005

Military's new mission works against S.D.

By John Yaukey

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon's decision to recommend closing Ellsworth Air Force Base was strategic and pragmatic.

With the Cold War over, the military's thinking goes, there's no need for this insular northern bomber base capable of quickly launching doomsday squadrons at the former Soviet Union. So the Pentagon is proposing relocating Ellsworth's B-1 bombers to Texas, where more than half the planes are now and B-1 crews already are being trained.

Advocates looking to keep Ellsworth open will have to turn that thinking around and show that the base not only has military value but that closing it would be a strategic misstep.

That's precisely what the Ellsworth Task Force and other advocates for the base will try to do starting with a public hearing Tuesday in Rapid City before the independent Base Realignment and Closure commission.

The BRAC commission has the authority to change the Pentagon's recommendations if it thinks a significant error has been made.

"If you're going to win in this environment, you're going to have to win on your military value argument," said Stephen Moffitt, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant helping to build the case for saving Ellsworth.

Ellsworth is among the 33 major bases Pentagon officials want to close as part of the fifth round of base closures since the process began in 1988. Final recommendations go to President Bush by Sept. 8.

Past base closures were driven largely by the goal of saving money. But this round - the first since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - is focused primarily on transforming the military into a lighter, faster force. As a result, military value has taken on premium importance when considering which bases to close or restructure.

The Pentagon wants to consolidate its inventory of 65 B-1 bombers at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas by moving two dozen of the sleek jets south from Ellsworth.

Moffitt argues, among other points, that it's foolish to put all the nation's B-1s in one place.

What's more, he contends, Ellsworth's northern location is still strategically valuable for rapid air access to Europe and beyond, even though the Cold War ended 15 years ago.

Moffitt and the Ellsworth task force are chewing through the reams of data used to determine which bases should be closed looking for flaws that might warrant reconsideration.

Some of those data rate Ellsworth superior to Dyess in categories such as infrastructure and cost of operation. But according to the Pentagon's final analysis, "Ellsworth ranked lower in military value for the bomber mission than Dyess."

Some military experts acknowledge that the points Moffitt raises are valid, but they also note that the Pentagon's reasons for closing Ellsworth make sense.

"The rational is straightforward. It doesn't leave you scratching your head," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a security information Web site. The Ellsworth task force members "are going to have a real hard time getting Ellsworth overturned," he said.

Changing times

Forty years ago, the U.S. military thought it needed to be able to get all of its strategic bombers aloft within 15 minutes or risk being hit on the ground by incoming Soviet warheads.

In that environment, it made sense to spread the nation's bombers out so they were more difficult to destroy and so there were no long lines for takeoff.

But those days are gone and with them the need for many of the air bases the Pentagon built as the Cold War escalated.

Originally, the nation's fleet of roughly 100 B-1s was spread over a half-dozen bases. But after the bomber lost its nuclear mission and became a conventional bomber, the Air Force decided to start consolidating the fleet, and in 2001 opted to retire 33 planes.

Much of the B-1 training is done at Dyess, where the first B-1 rolled into service in 1985. So the Pentagon's justification to move Ellsworth's bombers to Texas "to achieve operational efficiencies" makes sense, say some military analysts.

"We no longer face the kind of threat where you need to keep these planes separated," said Chris Hellman, a base closure analyst with the Center for Defense Information. "The only people with the capability of reaching those planes in Texas are the Russians, and they're out of the long-range bombing business. There's simply no danger in consolidating the B-1s."

Twisters, terrorists

But what about the damage a powerful Texas twister, or a terrorist, could do to a row of parked bombers, Ellsworth advocates ask.

"Haven't we learned anything from Pearl Harbor?" Moffitt said. "When you put valuable assets in one place, the way we did at Pearl, you risk losing them."

Hellman acknowledged, "The acts-of-God argument has slightly more traction than the Russians are coming." But he noted that the Pentagon has already calculated that into its decision.

A terrorist attack against the consolidated bomber fleet at Dyess is a possibility, but Hellman said it would require almost unimaginable capability.

Perhaps Ellsworth's best hope is in the rating system the Pentagon used to make its closure recommendations. If Moffitt and the task force can show the BRAC commission that the rating system was badly flawed, perhaps they can prompt a reconsideration of Ellsworth's fate.

The Pentagon has been slow to declassify much of the information that explains how the base rating system works, which Moffitt said has put him and the task force at a disadvantage. But in the data released so far, there are some numbers that might bolster Ellsworth's case.

In a 432-page report detailing some of how the Air Force reached its decisions, Dyess outscored Ellsworth on the overall bomber mission, 56.70 to 50.81, but Ellsworth topped Dyess in several other categories, including its potential for developing military missions in space.

"With Ellsworth, you get great flexibility into the foreseeable future," Moffitt said. "Why would you want to close it?"

 


Copyright 2005, Argus Leader