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The Daily Nonpareil July 18, 2017

Campaign stresses Offutt’s importance, while congressman says installation is safe from next round of base closures

By Scott Stewart, Eugene Curtin & Joseph Morton

Officials with a vested interest in the longterm viability of Offutt Air Force Base — a major engine of the local economy — aren’t taking anything for granted.

Although Congress rejected a round of military base closures that President Donald Trump proposed in his budget in May, and although a Nebraska representative has said the base is safe, the officials want to make sure everyone knows how important the Bellevue, Nebraska, base is to the Council Bluffs-Omaha meotrpolitan area.

John Hansen, a member of the Bellevue City Council, warned of a future round of base closings in a written memo to his fellow council members on June 26.

“We need to protect and retain Offutt Air Force Base and educate the general public with facts and knowledge,” Hansen said.

Gathering community support must be done in advance of any future action by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which selects military installations to recommend for closure to the president and Congress.

Toward that end, Hansen announced the creation of a Military Awareness Campaign through the Great Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s Prospect Omaha initiative.

The effort will be led by Tim Burke, president of the Omaha Public Power District. The City of Bellevue will give $10,000 over two years to support the awareness efforts.

“We’re just trying to prepare for the BRAC, trying to get all of our ducks in a row,” said Hansen, who has served on the Offutt Advisory Council and other military groups for decades.

Offutt’s future has become a political issue in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, where freshman Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican, hopes to retain his seat. Bacon represents most of the Omaha area, except for a portion of Bellevue that includes Offutt, which following redistricting in 2011 is part of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s territory.

Bacon, a former commander of Offutt’s 55th Wing, was the subject of online advertising last month stressing his fight to “keep Offutt Air Force Base open.” The ads were produced by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC devoted to electing Republican candidates.

The group’s spokeswoman, Courtney Alexander, said the ad highlights Bacon’s commitment to protect Offutt, the jobs the base creates and a strong national defense. The group didn’t identify a specific proposal to shutter Offutt.

In an interview, Bacon stressed that he had nothing to do with the Offutt-related ad campaign. But he also defended talk of his fight to keep Offutt “open” as truthful. He suggested no other elected official is as familiar with the base, given that he served there multiple times.

When he took over in 2011, he said, he reviewed a report on proposed base closings that had been compiled a couple years earlier. Offutt had avoided being proposed for elimination — but just barely. It was at the top of the list to be cut if the military decided to go deeper, he said.

Offutt’s biggest weakness, he said, is that it has a single runway, which means it’s impossible to conduct serious work on the runway and still have flying operations. That’s why the Air Force favors bases with dual runways, he said.

Bacon conceded that Offutt’s future prospects have since been bolstered by the new U.S. Strategic Command headquarters — which represents a $1.2 billion investment. It’s unlikely such an facility would be mothballed soon.

StratCom doesn’t mean the entire base is safe. Bacon said it’s possible that the military could shut down most other operations at Offutt, including moving the 55th Wing.

Hansen said the loss of the wing would represent 7,000 of the base’s 10,000 employees.

John Pike, a military analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org, he said it’s hard to see how Offutt would end up on the chopping block now.

“No one is entirely safe when the legislature is in session,” Pike said, “but many other places would have more to worry about than Offutt.”

— The BH News Service’s Curtin reported from Bellevue, Nebraska and Morton reported from Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2017, The Daily Nonpareil