More base closings seen
October 31, 1999
By Rod Hafemeister
Belleville News-Democrat

Congress will almost certainly approve more rounds of base closings once Bill Clinton is out of office, again putting Scott Air Force Base at risk, says the man who headed the last base closing commission.

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon, who chaired the 1995 base closing commission, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see another round begin in 2001.

“I think they’re going to try,” said Dixon, of Belleville. “I go to Washington regularly and I’ve been discussing it with people on the Armed Services Committee.

“The plain fact is, there is still considerable excess capacity in our military.”

The Pentagon argues that closing unneeded bases would save money that could be shifted to personnel and equipment.

It estimates the four rounds of closings that ended in 1994 will have saved $25 billion by 2003, with annual savings of $5.6 billion after that.

The Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process was developed in the late 1980s as a way of getting politics out of base closings.

For years, politicians had thwarted attempts to cut their local bases by making deals with other legislators to back their pet projects in return for keeping the bases open.

Under BRAC, an independent commission evaluated the Pentagon’s closure recommendations then developed a final list of bases to be closed. Congress had to approve or reject the list as submitted, without changes.

The process avoided votes on individual bases, making back-room deals less effective.

Congress has repeatedly rejected administration requests for two more rounds of base closings and is unlikely to take up the issue next year, a presidential election year.

“I think they’re going to let the dust settle in the November election,” Dixon said. “But I do think that the Department of Defense is still going to try for a 2001 round.”

If authorizing legislation is passed early in the year, the closing list could be finalized before the end of 2001, he said.

Scott barely escaped the list in 1995, the first year it was eligible. Scott is home to the U.S. Transportation Command and its Air Force component, Air Mobility Command, and the three previous rounds had exempted bases with major headquarters.

But in 1995, Scott was lumped into the category that included bomber and heavy cargo plane bases. It ranked last.

An early Air Force list recommended closing Scott, but the base was removed before the final list was approved by then-Air Force chief of staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, who had just left the top job at Scott.

Part of Scott’s problem was an inadequate runway, too short and too weak to handle the largest aircraft on a daily basis.

That was fixed when the base reopened its longer, stronger runway Friday after an 18-month rebuilding job that cost $12.2 million. The project was included as part of the construction of MidAmerica Airport, the nearby civilian airport that shares a control tower and some services
with the base.

The recent arrival at Scott of the Illinois Air National Guard’s 126th Air Refueling Wing should almost double the number of flights that use the runway each day, but the Guard wing does little to improve Scott’s standing as an active duty base. Its tankers flew from the civilian O’Hare Airport in Chicago for 49 years and could remain as a tenant of MidAmerica if Scott closed.

So even with the improved runway, Scott is likely to rank low if it is lumped into the same category as last time, warned Jim Pennekamp, executive director of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, which is spearheading efforts to protect the base, which as the
metro-east’s biggest employer pumps more than $1 billion a year into the local economy.

“The issue at Scott really is our ability to influence the way Scott is looked at,” he said. “The U.S. Air Force, and I think all of the services, have an interest in maintaining the integrity of their
headquarters, which really are the brains of the operations.

“We’re hoping through our efforts that we can convince the Department of Defense to look at major command headquarters as major command headquarters, and as joint headquarters, such as Transportation Command, not as flying bases.”

Earlier this year, the state of Illinois committed $1.5 million to efforts to keep open military bases in the state.

And the Leadership Council has contracted with a consulting firm that includes Dixon, Fogleman and a former top executive with defense contractor Northrup Grumman.

“We are working very hard on new categories and new criteria that would help Scott Air Force Base,” Dixon said. “We’ve got to be serious about what we’re doing, but we are serious about what we’re doing.”

Pennekamp is cautiously optimistic that Scott can be protected, as long as local communities and local leaders stay committed.

But Scott may have to prove itself through several more rounds of base closings in the years to come, he said.

“Quite frankly, we don’t have a problem with that, as long as the process is just and fair,” he said.

Originally Published, October 31, 1999, Belleville News Democrat, Belleville, Illinois
(c) 1999, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill


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