Saturday, August 27, 2005

BRAC Commission

After much hand-wringing and deliberation, the BRAC Commission has voted, and the loser is the United States Air Force. The Commission shot down much of the Pentagon's proposal in relation to the Air Force. Ellsworth AFB remains open, Cannon AFB remains open even though the Commission agreed to remove its F-16 FW, and the Pentagon's ANG plan was all but shot down in flames. Let's examine each of these in depth, and possibly begin to understand why this is so bad for the Air Force.

First, Ellsworth. Currently, the USAF's fleet of B-1 bombers ("Bones"'s a corruption of the designation B-One) are based at both Ellsworth AFB in Rapid City, S.D., and Dyess AFB in Abilene, Texas. This is a carry-over from the Cold War when the military distributed its forces to limit the possibility of a catastrophic loss in a nuclear attack. In the current climate, this simply isn't a legitimate threat anymore. After all, the B-2 force is based entirely at Whiteman AFB in Missouri, so the argument that basing all the Bones at one AFB is a national security risk simply isn't true. The next argument is that closing Ellsworth would not save any money over a 20 year period. Yes, that's right. According to the BRAC Commission, closing an AFB would not save money over the long run. While I'm not privy to their formulas, that sure sounds like the definition of fuzzy math to me. The final argument is that relocating to Dyess would hurt force readiness, because while the Bones can train down to 300 feet at Ellsworth, they are restricted to a hard deck of 500 feet around Dyess. While this is somewhat more valid of an argument, to the best of my knowledge, there isn't that much of a difference between 500 and 300 feet. Both are considered low-level. Regardless, this does not seem like a good enough argument to be the sole reason Ellsworth was kept open. No, it would appear that as usual, politians have interfered with the BRAC process and were able to lobby to keep their bases open, thereby costing the taxpayers of our country money.

Then there is Cannon AFB. Cannon AFB is based in the tiny community of Clovis, N.M. The Air Force wanted to close Cannon because it is home to a hodge-podge of Block 30, 40, and 50 F-16s. Block is a designation used to distinguish between the different production "batches" of fighters; the differences between blocks are often quite large, especially in the avionics department. Having different Blocks in the same Wing complicates maintenance. Clovis did not want Cannon to close because closing the base would devastate the local economy. The Commission, after much struggle and agony, came up with a half-assed solution that reveals the true nature of the whole chirade of the BRAC process. While the F-16s will be reassigned, resolving the standardization problem, Cannon AFB will REMAIN OPEN. This AFB now has no mission, as the only major one listed on its website is that it is the homebase of the 27th FW, which would cease to exist after its F-16s leave. Cannon AFBs only purpose is to act as a subsidy for the economy of Clovis, N.M.

I must be confused, I was under the impression that the purpose of the United States Armed Forces was to defend this country, not to sustain the economy of tiny towns in the middle of the desert. Apparently, the BRAC Commissioners felt otherwise:

"The vote was a compromise among commissioners who struggled to balance national security interests with fear that closing the base entirely would devastate the economy around tiny Clovis, N.M. Some commissioners said the fate of Cannon was the most difficult decision to make so far."

And therein lies the problem. By creating the BRAC Commission, we introduced politics into the issue, even though the BRAC Commission was supposed to do away with politics by preventing the Pentagon from playing hardball with Congressmen who wouldn't support the Pentagon's budget or agenda. Now we have swung so far back the other way that an AFB is being kept open, wasting everyone's money simply because the Commissioners couldn't bring themselves to make a "tough" decision and take 20% of a community's economy away.

Finally, we reach the ultimate in power politics in the BRAC process: the USAF versus the state Governors. First, let's look at some background. The ANG is a can of worms, because the state governors share control over the force with the President. The President, through the DoD, can call up ("federalize") ANG units and deploy them. The governor can also call out ANG units and deploy them for various purposes, usually for some type of disaster relief. The contention comes in two areas: first, whether the DoD has the authority to "take away" airplanes from the governors and secondly, whether the DoD has the authority to shut down ANG bases. The first should be obvious, as most state governments would not have the ability to maintain state of the art military aircraft without some assistance from the federal government. As such, the federal government should be able to dole those aircraft out as it sees fit. The second issue is more contentious, but really isn't even that big of an issue, because there are only a few ANG bases the Pentagon wants to outright close. Most bases are simply going to be realigned; their aircraft will be taken away, while their personnel will be given a new mission, such as expeditionary support or control of UAVs.

So, now that we understand the background, let's look at the arguments made by the states in favor of keeping their bases. First, we have the homeland security card, played especially well by politicians from the Northwest in relation to the closing of an F-15 ANG base near Portland. According to the politians, "Moving the jets to another part of the country would leave the Pacific Northwest vulnerable to a terrorist attack." Left unsaid is the fact that a det. of two fighters will permanently be on alert status in Portland. This is the same amount of jets that were on alert status before the move. So, in reality, with the Pentagon's plan, nothing would have changed except the fact that we would save money by consolidating the Eagle force while maintaining the same Homeland Security commitments prior to the realignment. The BRAC Commission bought the homeland security B.S. and agreed to let the ANG base remain open.

The next argument is that removing the aircraft will undermind the ability of the ANG to support their state government. Simple question: when was the last time you heard a state governor use F-15s or F-16s to deal with hurricane damage? When was the last time, outside of firefighting, that you heard a state governor use a C-130 to do anything?

The dirty little secret of the ANG is that during the Cold War, Congressmen would use the ANG as a method of distributing pork to their constituents. It was a simple matter to get a small squadron of F-16s or C-130s based at your local municipal airport. This brought money in to the community, and the Pentagon went along with it because it helped with dispersion.

Now, the Pentagon is trying to correct this costly mistake by consolidating the ANG into larger bases, which will obviously save money. Local politians are fighting to prevent the cash cows from going away, cloaking their fight in the rhetoric of "homeland security" and "local disaster relief." Don't be fooled. Both arguments are canards meant to prevent the truth from coming out, and unfortunately, it looks like the BRAC Commission bought the lies.

"Commissioners long have voiced concerns about the homeland security impact of the Pentagon's proposal. Weeks ago, the panel asked that an alternative plan be crafted jointly by the Air Force, the National Guard and state adjutants general who oversee Air Guard units on behalf of state governors.

When that effort failed, commissioners said they had no choice but to come up with their own plan, which they said distributes aircraft around the country more evenly to ensure homeland security is not hampered.

"We have established more flying units then the secretary recommended but we still could not get a flying unit in every state," Commissioner Harold Gehman said."

So, bottom line? The fact that the BRAC Commission exists guaranteed that politics would become a part of the equation. Whenever politics gets involved, money concerns get involved. And whenever politicians get involved with money, the taxpayer loses.

Just remember this the next time the Military is looking for money: According to Airman Magazine's 2005 copy of "The Book," the FY-'05 USAF budget had 34.9% of its budget, the largest piece of the pie, go to Operations & Maintenance. That's $34,329,000,000. And thanks to the BRAC Commission, the USAF was unable to bring that amount down and distribute it more efficiently. And yet, you just know, deep down, that it will be the sole fault of the USAF the next time the service goes through a budget crunch. It will have nothing to do with the fact that an AFB is being kept open another 5 years without any sort of mission. Nothing to do with the fact that forces can't be consolidated. Nothing to do with the fact that the DoD has to partially maintain countless tiny ANG bases around the country.

And certainly nothing to do with the parochialism of local politicians, who will be the same politicians ripping into the Air Force for its future budget woes.

Here are some links I used in researching this story: AP News story,, the USAF's BRAC report, DoD's BRAC homepage, the BRAC Commission's homepage, and some MSN articles (1, 2, and 3). Also, Perry of Eidelblog has a good post up on the subject.