More than $500 million in facility upgrades planned for Cannon

U.S. Air Force photo: Airman 1st Class Evelyn Chavez A CV-22 Osprey takes off from Cannon Air Force Base in September. The 20th Special Operations Squadron, which will handle the CV-22 Osprey, is one of five squadrons expected to arrive at Cannon this year.

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

There’s little difference between the big, empty fields at Cannon Air Force Base and big, empty fields you’d see at random places across eastern New Mexico.

But that’s all about to change in a big way.

For Cannon Air Force Base to survive and thrive in its new mission for Air Force Special Operations Command, those empty fields must be renovated to handle gunships much larger than the fighter jets that preceded them at Cannon and Melrose Air Force Range.

At least two new dormitories, 422 housing units and four aircraft hangars are expected to be built over the next five years. Gerald O’Brien, chief of engineering flight for the 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron, said quantities can change at any time, depending on Congressional funding. But right now spending is estimated to reach $536 million by 2015 for mission support and quality-of-life projects.

That’s not only a boost for homeland security. It’s also pumping millions into the local economy

O’Brien said in the past two years, 80 percent of $100 million in projects at Cannon has been paid to local work crews.

At least three squadrons are to arrive at Cannon this year:

• The 16th Special Operations Squadron will handle the AC-130H. Mark Durham, deputy director for AFSOC public affairs at Hurlburt Field in Florida, said the squadron will bring in about 180 personnel, not including maintenance.

• The 33rd Special Operations Squadron will handle the MQ-9 Reaper.

• The 20th Special Operations Squadron will handle the CV-22 Osprey.

Durham said the numbers for the 33rd and 20th squadrons have not been finalized, and plans are in the works for two more still-unnamed squadrons to be added in August and December.

O’Brien said eight hangars have been approved for construction, and another three to five are expected to be approved by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

In many cases, existing buildings will be remodeled. For example, O’Brien said, Hangar 109 will receive a metal extension of approximately 30 feet — known on the base as a “clamshell extension” — that will allow an aircraft the size of an AC-130 to fit in the hangar.

Col. Steve Hoarn, Air Force Special Operation Command’s director of Installations and Mission Support, said 27th Special Operations Commander Col. Tim Leahy has been actively looking at how buildings can be re-used, because “we’re taxpayers too, and we can’t do everything we want.”

So the intent, Hoarn said, is to make inexpensive modifications to what Cannon does have.

“We’ve done a lot to try to make our existing facilities work. We are fiscally constrained a little bit,” said Col. Mark Fluker, deputy group commander for 27th Special Operations Maintenance Group.

“You don’t see very functionally unique facilities,” Hoarn said. “They all look pretty similar. There is some wiggle room, but we have to comply with (Office of the Secretary of Defense) standards and guidelines.”

The projects are determined through what Hoarn calls a capability-based analysis. A programming effort turns that analysis into a series of proposals. The military reviews those proposals, before approving what eventually makes its way to the halls of Congress for funding.

“It’s quite a vetting process,” Hoarn said. “We have to have our act together. Our military and civilian leadership are very watchful.”

Fluker said between the maintenance group and the supply squadron, about 70 buildings are committed to mission support. As far as maintenance personnel, Fluker said “we currently have approximately 410 folks assigned to the maintenance group. If you count the guys in the supply squadron, that’s another 325 folks.

“By the end of ’09, we think we’ll be around 680 folks in the maintenance group. Supply won’t change much. Beyond (2009), the people come when the airplanes come. It’s literally tied to that.”

If maintenance has everything it needs, Fluker said, it can extend a plane’s life forever.

“Theoretically, look at the B-52,” Fluker said. “We’ve been flying that thing for 50 years now.

“The thing is, how much do you want to pay? At some point, it’s cheaper to buy new airframes and technology than replace the old ones. That’s not a decision we make.”

Renovations include:

• Modifications to Hangar 209, where CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor hovercraft maintenance will be done.

• A consolidated communications center, combining a pair of buildings where staff is outgrowing existing space.

• A new refueling center on the north end of the base off the main entry gate. The $12.3 million project is set for completion in August.

• An MC-130 flight simulator building. The $8 million project will provide classrooms with two simulators to train a five-man crew (pilot, co-pilot, engineer and two navigators) with one simulator operator. The aim is to build an adjacent CV-22 simulator facility.

• An MC-130 wash rack.

• New squadron centers for unmanned aerial vehicles and the MC-130 squadrons.

• A fuel corrosion control/fuel cell hangar.

“The short answer,” Fluker said, “is there’s going to be a lot of construction.”