Cannon’s future still up in the air

Marlena Hartz: Freedom Newspapers

Innovation may prove to be the key in the fight to save Cannon Air Force Base. It is a word, and a spirit, that New Mexico lawmakers, and some eastern New Mexico civilians, have kept in mind since Cannon was announced May 13 as one of 33 major bases slated for closure by the Department of Defense.

In the 14 weeks after the May announcement, legislators, along with the pro-Cannon group Committee of Fifty, law firms, and analysts, lobbied to save the base from shuttering.

Chris Goode is one of those lobbyist. Goode, as a senior advisor for the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying and marketing firm Hyjek and Fix, Inc., was hired to tell the story of Cannon to the BRAC Commission, he said. Goode himself was once a part of the BRAC staff. In 1995 he served as the director of BRAC administration. He called the save Cannon strategy proactive. It had to be, he said, in light of Air Force plans to shrink its F-16 bases — Cannon’s fleet is comprised of 60 of the jets, first introduced in the 70s.

“No one would discount that the F-16 Air Force structure will shrink,” Goode said. “But, there are new and growing missions that Cannon would be appropriate for, and that’s where you get into scenarios.”

The save-Cannon team presented a string of them, suggesting that Cannon absorb a fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, or become the home of a fledgling laser program, or receive A-10 planes from another base.

But one expert offers a word of caution: “No community should count on future programs actually coming to fruition.

We’ve seen multiple delays in the Airborne Laser program and F-35 program. Given that, plus the nature of future military threats and budget pressures, you can’t count on these programs coming through,” said Loren B. Thompson, the executive director of the Lexington Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank in Arlington, Va.

“What the Air Force is trying to do (in the BRAC 2005 round) is change the relationship between its reserve forces and its active duty forces, partly because the Air Force is shrinking,” Thompson said. “The notion that the F-16 is outdated, there is some truth to it. But according to deliberations in the Pentagon now, it (the jet) may be in use for the next 20 years. Right now, the Pentagon is not sure how many F-35s or F-22s it will buy. So any ideas about future missions for Cannon are pure speculation.”

At this time last year, Pentagon officials proposed cutting government purchase of F-35 aircraft by 600 planes, according to Thompson.

However, Sen. Pete Domenici, R.-N.M., said transforming Cannon into home of F-35s seemed appealing to the BRAC Commission. The senator, in conversations with a commissioner, learned that finding a place for Joint Strike Fighters is a top Air Force priority. Domenici said the F-35 scenario is the strongest of those presented by lawmakers to the BRAC Commission. Furthermore, he said, the scenarios lawmakers and the Cannon team proposed can only strengthen Cannon’s odds of escaping the chopping block.

“The law does not say that the commissioners have to find options or alternative uses (for bases on the list), but at the same time, they appear very interested in what the options are. In their minds, as they think this through, (a scenario) could push them our way,” Domenici said.

A closer look at scenarios presented by the Cannon team to the Pentagon and the BRAC Commission:

Say hello to the joint strike fighter
State legislators proposed Cannon be the bed for the Joint Strike Fighter. The fighter, known as the F-35, is still in the development stage, but is expected to replace many of the jets in use by the Air Force, Navy and Marines.
The grand F-35 mission is currently destined for Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, but New Mexico legislators are adamant Cannon would be a much cheaper alternative for the — and taxpayers.

The mission has been proposed at Eglin at a cost of $209 million. Jude McCartin, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said Cannon could absorb the same mission for “tens of millions” less than Eglin.

A bigger, better Cannon
Lack of encroachment has long been touted by New Mexico lawmakers as one of Cannon’s most valuable military assets. To emphasize that, property owners positioned near Cannon Air Force Base agreed to sell about 3,000 acres to enable the base to nearly double in size.

The proposed land acquisitions would allow the Air Force to expand Cannon without cost to itself, Gov. Bill Richardson and Clovis Mayor David Lansford wrote in a letter to the base-closing commission.

“This effort … follows the commitment we made during the BRAC hearing in Clovis, where we stated Cannon is not being threatened by encroachment,” the letter said. “In fact, Cannon is perfectly positioned for expansion — at no cost to the military. We are taking this bold action today to ensure that Cannon can be expanded. No other state has stepped forward with this kind of offer that benefits the military mission of the Air Force.”

During the regional hearing in Clovis on June 24, Cannon supporters claimed Cannon could double its land space for $5 million, pertinent to note, they said, because other bases are fighting major encroachment problems.

Laser power
The Defense Department’s fledgling Airborne Laser program needs a home, and lawmakers pushed for that home to be Cannon.

Domenici and Bingaman urged Donald Rumsfeld, via letter, to consider the option. As part of the senators’ plan, the laser program would include eight Boeing 747 aircraft and a chemical plant that requires a sparsely populated locale.

“A strategic asset like the Airborne Laser program is best suited in a rural area with plenty of airspace and sufficient infrastructure to support a significant amount of personnel and equipment,” Domenici said Thursday. “It appears to me that Cannon Air Force Base would be a perfect fit.”

Shaking up the chain
When the BRAC Commission added Oceana Naval Air Station, Va., to its own list of possible closures, the save-Cannon team praised the move.

In fact, Lydick said the Oceana scenario — which BRAC Chairman Anthony Principi said could end with a shipment of A-10 planes to Cannon — was the brain child of the local save-Cannon team. That group is comprised of New Mexico congressional delegates, retired military officials, civilians and several hired professionals. The team, he said, presented five alternative scenarios to Cannon closure to the BRAC Commission after the June 24 regional hearing held in Clovis.

Lydick said the team targeted Oceana because of its blaring contrasts to Cannon.

“Oceana is very highly encroached and the local community there had made it known to the commission before the (BRAC) list came out in May that they wanted the base closed due to noise complaints and a degree of activities there. We ran some cost figures on the (Oceana) scenario and gave them to the commission,” Lydick said.

Principi outlined the scenario in a letter posted on www.brac.gov. It asked if the — had considered relocating the Master Jet Base at the naval air station in Oceana to Moody Air Force Base, Ga., and moving planes assigned to Moody to Cannon.

“Of all the various scenarios, the Oceana scenario struck me as the one that might go somewhere. It’s plausible that Oceana might get closed because of the encroachment issue,” said John Pike, a leading world expert on defense, space, and intelligence policy and director of Global.Security.org. However, unlike many of New Mexico lawmakers, Pike said the odds that Cannon will be retained are not likely. “The Pentagon did a pretty good job making their recommendations,” he said. The scenarios the team presented, he said, are similar in nature. “No one scenario cried out to be done at Cannon as opposed to somewhere else.”

In a response letter to Principi, a Pentagon official wrote that his team had not considered the scenario, due to cost associations and the low ranking military value assigned to Cannon by the Air Force.

The Associated Press and Freedom Newspapers staff writer Kevin Wilson contributed to this report.