Air Force officials: ‘Military value’ central to decision

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

“Military value” was at the center of the decision by the Department of Defense to place Cannon Air Force Base on the initial Base Realignment and Closure list, according to high-ranking Air Force officials.

Maj. Gen. Gary W. Heckman said in a teleconference Friday the decision to recommend Cannon as one of two Air Force bases for closure was difficult.

“It’s hard, because when we looked across the Air Force, we don’t have any bad bases,” Heckman said. “I don’t want anyone to think this is easy work.”

According to the Department of Defense, Cannon has a unique F-16 force structure mix, which worked against it as an air base. Cannon has three squadrons of three different types of F-16s — block 30s, 40s and 50s. The block 50s are the newest planes. DoD said all active-duty block 50 bases have higher military value than Cannon.

Military value includes current and future capabilities needed and the impact on operational readiness of a base, according to DoD.

Under the current recommendations, some Cannon jets will be transferred to Nellis Air Force Base and Hill Air Force Base, others to Air National Guard units, and some will serve as backup inventory, according to the DoD.

Cannon’s vulnerability stems from an outdated arsenal of 80 F-16s, which military strategists say will be replaced by more capable aircraft, Gov. Bill Richardson said.

Still, Richardson said Cannon’s positive values far outweigh the negatives.

“I am disappointed by this perplexing decision by the Bush Administration because we worked tirelessly for nearly three years to make a strong case for the military value of all of our bases, including Cannon Air Force Base,” Richardson said in a press release. “We will work immediately to convince BRAC commissioners that the Pentagon overlooked the obvious strengths of Cannon, including its value to the nation’s military mission and the fact that there is no encroachment upon the base in Clovis.”

The Committee of Fifty, made up of area leaders who support Cannon, have stressed the base’s advantages, including its year-round flying weather and its location within miles of a vast training range that doesn’t face encroachment.

They also pointed out the Air Force failed to mention the proposed expansion of supersonic airspace around Cannon since that proposal is not yet final.

Col. Jeff Harrell, vice commander at Cannon Air Force Base, said during a press conference Friday that the area is a great location for the F-16 fighter-pilot training operations that the base provides. The eastern New Mexico location offers “great air space capabilities,” a “great” bombing range, a receptive civilian community, and little encroachment of military operations on the community or the community on the military, he said.

However, Harrell stopped short of taking any personal or official stance on the issue, saying that his responsibility, and the responsibility of all military personnel, is to obey the decisions of the president, Congress and DoD.

“(Opinion) is well outside of our realm,” Harrell said. “We’ll salute smartly and follow orders.”

Another factor that may have played into the decision was the age of certain facilities at Cannon.

“We have some structures on this base that are very old,” Harrell said. Ironically, he said some of the infrastructure is new — such as the fire station — but some of the buildings are more than 40 years old.

There are more than 4,000 active-duty members and civilian employees at the base, including 270 officers and 3,201 enlisted airmen, according to Cannon officials.

The cost to implement the proposed closure is $90.1 million, according to the Department of Defense. However, savings to the Department during the implementation period is $815.6 million, and annual recurring savings after implementation would be just over $200 million, DoD officials said.