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The Journal Gazette April 02, 2017

Battle brews over bases

Banks opposes closures; says military leaders talk of 'readiness crisis'

By Brian Francisco

Freshman Rep. Jim Banks is among members of Congress talking about prospects for closing U.S. military bases.

But Banks, whose northeast Indiana district includes the Air National Guard's 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne, is making the argument against another round of Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC.

"In this dangerous and tumultuous environment we're living in, we need a larger military," Banks, R-3rd, said last week in a telephone inter­view. "Closing bases in this environment could very much be premature and damaging to our efforts to address the national security threats that we face."

Banks is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He has had informal discussions about BRAC with other Republicans on the panel.

"There is not an appetite among the members of the majority (party) to head down that path," Banks said. "What we're focused on tackling right now is the rebuilding of the military. The BRAC conversation, while there is always going to be chatter about that, I don't view that as a serious conversation in this Congress at this point."

The top-ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, introduced legislation in late January that would establish an independent commission in 2019 to review and recommend possible consolidations, realignments and closures of military installations. The Defense Department would implement those recommendations unless Congress disapproved.

Smith's bill – called the Military Infrastructure Consolidation and Efficiency Act of 2017 – states that the Pentagon sought BRAC authorization for four straight years beginning with fiscal 2013.

Also in January, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said to the Military Times about BRAC, "We need to talk about it, I think it has to be considered as all things should be on the table."

Smith told the news organization McClatchy last month that McCain's support for considering BRAC "makes it more likely that a BRAC will happen, if not this year, then soon."

John Pike, a military analyst who runs the website GlobalSecurity.org, said in an email to The Journal Gazette that "another BRAC is probably in the cards" because "it has been more than a decade since the last BRAC, and that is a long time to go without a de-frag."

"De-frag" is shorthand for defragmentation – or reorganization, in this case. The Defense Department shut down hundreds of military installations during rounds of BRAC in 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005. The earlier rounds coincided with the end of the Cold War.

The Defense Department reported a year ago that it faces a 22 percent excess capacity rate and could save $2 billion a year through closing and consolidating bases.

Fort Wayne's 122nd Fighter Wing benefited from the 2005 BRAC, adding hundreds of employees and three fighter jets at the expense of bases in Terre Haute and Springfield, Illinois. That year's BRAC closed 22 major installations and realigned 33 others for a projected 20-year savings of nearly $36 billion.

A few years later, the Fort Wayne base switched from flying F-16 fighter jets to A-10 attack jets. Since then, Congress has resisted Pentagon attempts to retire its entire A-10 fleet. In the meantime, plans have called for the local base to fly F-16s again in coming years.

Eric Flores, vice president of the executive committee of the Northeast Indiana Base Community Council, a military support group, said he believes the 122nd Fighter Wing would survive another round of closings because of its "efficiency and historical success. … My opinion is it won't be subject to BRAC."

About 1,000 people are assigned to the 122nd Fighter Wing, including about 300 full-time airmen. The wing has been deployed frequently since 2001; it sent 300 airmen to the Middle East for half of 2015 and about the same number to the Middle East and Slovakia last summer.

Flores said that the fighter wing was among 18 Air National Guard bases considered last year for next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters "speaks highly of the facility." It was not among the five finalists chosen by the Air Force.

If BRAC gains steam in Congress, the Base Community Council will respond accordingly, Flores said. He said the group works with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, Greater Fort Wayne and city and county governments to promote the local air base and ensure that it remains a fighter wing.

"We do this 365 days a year – support and grow our presence in the region. If that threat looms, our activity will heighten to match," Flores, an Army veteran, said in a telephone interview.

Banks said that as the only Hoosier lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee, he will be "a proponent of the assets we have in Indiana." Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said much the same thing.

"Indiana is home to a number of critical defense assets," Donnelly said in an email, "and I will continue to advocate for Indiana's servicemembers, military families, and the many Hoosiers who work every day in support of our national defense."

About 13,500 people serve in the Indiana National Guard. Military installations in the Hoosier State include the Air National Guard's 181st Intelligence Wing in Terre Haute, the Grissom Air Reserve Base near Peru, the National Guard's Atterbury-Mascatatuck training centers near Edinburgh and the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division near Bloomington.

During a Feb. 16 hearing conducted by the House Armed Services Committee, Banks asked U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jerry Harris about the future of the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve.

"When you look at the performance, you can't tell the difference between an active, a Guard or Reserve (unit). It's all the same," said Harris, Air Force chief of staff for strategic plans, programs and requirements.

"I expect the Guard and the Reserve to continue to be equal partners of the active duty," he said.

President Donald Trump's proposed budget would increase defense spending in fiscal 2018 by $54 billion to $603 billion. In last week's interview, Banks said military leaders have testified in recent weeks about a "readiness crisis" that they blame on shortages of money, manpower and equipment.

"Maybe there will come a time when BRAC is a more reasonable proposition … but today I believe that it is awfully premature," Banks said.

He has voted already against BRAC. On March 8, the House voted 371-48 in favor of a $578 billion defense appropriations bill for fiscal 2017 that contains a provision forbidding any money be spent "to propose, plan for, or execute" another round of BRAC. Also supporting the legislation was Smith, the BRAC bill sponsor.

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