Inside the Capitol

Thursday, September 29, 2005

10-3 Is Keeping Cannon a Mission Impossible?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Is keeping Cannon Air Force Base a Mission Impossible? The Clovis community, our congressional delegation and the governor are all putting on a happy face, but it will be a tough, uphill climb.
The Pentagon recommended Cannon be closed. The Base Realignment and Closing Commission amended that recommendation, downgrading Cannon to an "enclave" for the next four years, while requiring the secretary of Defense to seek other missions from all military services.
BRAC came close to keeping Cannon open, on a 4-3 vote. But five votes were required for a clear victory. Cannon supporters thought they had six votes, but late in the game a question of conflict was raised concerning two of Cannon's likely supporters on the commission, forcing them to recuse themselves.
Thus Cannon became the only air base in the nation to lose its planes and mission.
Our two U.S. senators quickly moved to amend the defense appropriations bill to require the Pentagon to carry out BRAC's recommendation. That amendment has now reached the floor of the Senate.
The remainder of the congressional delegation, Gov. Bill Richardson and the Clovis area also are aggressively seeking the new missions that will keep Cannon open.
There seems little doubt that the Pentagon will want to keep Cannon's air space, because of its size and great flying weather. That may help in the long run, but the ranchers who have to put up with the jet noise, may not be so anxious to endure it without a base.
Many analysts don't see much hope for Cannon to remain open. Since the Defense Department recommended closure, it won't be interested in looking for new missions. As soon as the planes are moved to other bases, which could be as much as a year, all but a small maintenance and guard staff will be moved out.
The Air Force will not spend a dime on maintenance projects since it already decided to close the base. Cannon will slowly deteriorate and that will be used for justification to close it on Dec. 31, 2009, say the pessimists.
If that view turns out to be correct, the effect will be worse than closing it outright, because it extends the uncertainty. And the deterioration of the base will reduce chances of finding private sector uses for the structures.
The president now has approved the BRAC recommendations and passed them on to Congress. A few see a hopeful sign that Congress may decide to junk the entire package. Many states are unhappy but Congress can't amend the BRAC recommendations. It is an up-or-down vote.
Some see hints in Congress that President Bush's proposal to put the Pentagon in charge of disasters may give Congress another excuse to kill the closure recommendations. The line between the Department of Homeland Security and the military is very fuzzy and the Pentagon's recommendations appear to further confuse the situation.
An argument can be made that this confusion should be resolved before closing and realigning bases. Others argue for waiting until the Iraq situation is resolved so we will know better what our foreign requirements will be.
Congress has 45 days to act on the BRAC recommendations after it received them from the president. That gives another month or so for a decision.
One other helpful factor may be disillusionment with previous rounds of base closings. The projected savings from those closings never materialized. In fact, the last three rounds have resulted in more expenses, rather than savings. Personnel usually weren't decreased, just moved. And those moves resulted in unbudgeted expenses.
In addition, environmental cleanup of closed bases has been much more expensive than anticipated. The Pentagon is notorious for ignoring environmental safety restrictions. Some bases are so contaminated, they will never be closed.
Ironically, Area 51, part of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, is the biggest nightmare, despite the fact that it doesn't even officially exist.
MON, 10-03-05

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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