Congress isn’t expected to begin the process for consolidating and closing surplus military bases for another couple of years, but St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern already is preparing a strategy for protecting Scott Air Force Base — Southern Illinois’ biggest employer and an economic engine that injects $3 billion yearly into the regional economy.
“We always need to be vigilant in making sure that we protect Scott Air Force Base as best we can,” Kern said.
Kern’s vigilance is understandable. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission — the system the Pentagon and Congress use to determine which military installations to close, expand or leave alone —is complex, time-consuming, expensive and subject to political influence.
A recent Department of Defense analysis showed that about one-third of U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force bases will not be needed by 2019.
Kern and other political and community leaders learned a lesson in vigilance in late March, when the chief of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency unexpectedly chose a site in North St. Louis for its $1.75 billion western headquarters instead of a competing site in St. Clair County adjacent to Scott.
Although the county site was superior in terms of NGA’s needs, many experts agreed, the North St. Louis site was ultimately chosen because federal officials had determined NGA West and its 3,100 employees had the most potential to rejuvenate the surrounding blighted neighborhood — once the site of the defunct Pruitt-Igoe housing project in the 1960s.
Although BRAC could represent a threat to Scott, it could also present major opportunities to grow the base, as has been the case in past BRACs, through consolidation of other installations.
We always need to be vigilant in making sure that we protect Scott Air Force Base as best we can.
St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern
“We also have to view BRAC as a way to grow the base, and so the process is really multiple prongs and must be ready for when it comes,” said Kern, who noted the county will work closely with Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois to develop a strategy to protect Scott from closures while promoting efforts to grow the sprawling installation that next year will celebrate its 100th anniversary.
Constrained by tightening budgets and the need to develop costly new weapons system, Pentagon leaders issued the analysis as a way to jump-start the BRAC process and free up money needed for a wide range of expenditures. Overall, the Defense Department found it had excess infrastructure of 22 percent. The Army had 32 percent excess capacity, while the Air Force had 33 percent, according to the report.
If experience is any guide, then the amount of time between the next BRAC is launched and when its final decision is made could take about three years. So if the Senate approves BRAC in 2018, then 2021 is the earliest that the first closures and consolidations could take place.
Problem is, Congress is extremely reluctant to launch BRAC — a highly contentious and unpopular process that is costly to implement and results in deeply negative economic consequences for the communities surrounding the shuttered installations.
There are many reasons for this reluctance: The lukewarm appeal that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have to the military, uncertainty about the makeup of Congress after upcoming elections, and a general uneasiness among some members of Congress to make defense cuts at all, those who follow the process closely say.
After the pullout of the vast majority of combat troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is looking to roll back its budgets significantly.
For instance, the Army reached a peak of about 570,000 in 2010 and could go as low as 420,000 by 2017 if deep budget cuts mandated by the U.S. Budget Control Act of 2011 — called sequester — are not changed by Congress.
Both the Army and the Air Force have called for a new round of BRAC, shifting the responsibility of possible base closures — and the accompanying political heat — to Congress. The Navy and Marines want no BRAC at all, according to the report.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, issued a statement that epitomized the concerns that members of Congress share over the launch of the next BRAC.
“Lawmakers are concerned because the last BRAC round in 2005 was mishandled, costing more to implement than expected,” Kirk said. “The last BRAC cost the DOD $35 billion to implement and won’t provide savings until 2018. According to (the Government Accountability Office), BRAC cost 67 percent more than DoD’s original estimates.”
Kirk expressed confidence in Scott’s future because he “believes building Scott and investing in the people there is the best way to maintain its position of importance.”
In a meeting last month with Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, the senator and general agreed Scott Air Force Base is a “national treasure,” Kirk said.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the state’s senior senator, shared Kirk’s concerns about BRAC.
“I remain deeply skeptical about the fairness of the BRAC process,” Durbin said. “The last round of base closures was woefully mismanaged, closure proposals were based on faulty data, and it failed to live up to the Department of Defense’s promise of cost savings. The mistakes made in 2005 damaged Congress’ confidence in the BRAC process.”
I remain deeply skeptical about the fairness of the BRAC process. The last round of base closures was woefully mismanaged, closure proposals were based on faulty data, and it failed to live up to the Department of Defense’s promise of cost savings.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois
U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, whose district includes Scott, made it clear he opposes a new BRAC even getting started.
“I voted to prevent any new round of BRAC from moving forward; but it’s going to take continued vigilance to ensure Scott, its mission, and our military personnel are protected in the future,” Bost said in a statement.
Kern isn’t taking the future of Scott for granted. But he also expressed confidence that the next round of BRAC could result in big gains for Scott.
As an example, Kern pointed to last week’s ribbon-cutting for the $100 million headquarters for the Global Operations Command of the Defense Information Systems Agency, on outfit that forms the leading edge in America’s war against cyber attackers. Nearly 1,000 people will work in the 3,200 square-foot building, with more workers on the way.
“It’s a new building that’s already adding jobs beyond what was anticipated at the time the building was built,” Kern said. “It’s one of the examples that shows we are a successful place to relocate agencies like that.”
Get to know Scott Air Force Base
Scott will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2017.
On July 20, 1917, the sprawling Army training base 25 miles east of St. Louis was officially designated Scott Field.
Today, Scott is an economic dynamo for the St. Louis region. Located near Mascoutah, in the eastern part of St. Clair County, Scott is home to about 13,000 workers, including some 4,500 civilian employees.
The base supports an estimated 50,000 jobs in the region and generates more than $3 billion in annual economic activity.
Scott Air Force Base hosts six military headquarters:
- U.S. Transportation Command
- Air Force Air Mobility Command
- The 18th Air Force.
- The 375th Air Mobility Wing, which oversees and operates the air base, essentially serving as base landlord.
- The 932nd Airlift Wing, an Air Force reserve unit that specializes in aero-medical evacuations and operates four C-40C aircraft, which are modified Boeing 737 aircraft. The wing also flies special air missions to ferry members of the president's cabinet, Congress and other VIPs.
- The 126th Air National Guard Air Refueling Wing, which operates eight KC-135 Stratotanker air tankers, which provide air refueling to U.S. and allied aircraft around the globe.
Scott Air Force Base is named for Army Cpl. Frank S. Scott, an aircraft mechanic who was the first enlisted member of the U.S. military to die in an aircraft accident on Sept. 27, 1912.
— Mike Fitzgerald