Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

TOP STORY: Mega Base

IN SHORT: The Pentagon recommends making Little Rock Air Force Base the center for C-130s that are stationed in the U.S., assigning more than 120 planes here and turning LRAFB into a mega-base with over 11,000 people.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Local officials are exuberant about Little Rock Air Force Base’s net gain of 3,898 jobs and about 50 C-130s, proposed by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, but it’s bad news for some bases elsewhere, including Niagara Air Force Base in New York, the state Sen. Hillary Clinton represents.

The concentration of about 116 C-130s and four C-130Js at Little Rock Air Force Base—in “tornado alley,” New Yorkers claim—constitutes an unacceptable risk, according to Clinton and others hoping to save the Niagara base and its eight C-130s.

Clinton called LRAFB “a fine base … but to put all our eggs in one basket makes no sense,” she told the Buffalo News.

Arkansas ranked as the state with the fifth-highest tornado prevalence between 1950 and 1998, according to the paper.
“There are a lot of reasons why we think this decision is contrary to military merit,” Clinton said.

While the BRAC recommendations earmarked 33 major installations for mothballs, the workforce increase from 7,166 to 11,064 at the base at Jacksonville would be the ninth largest recommended.

The nine-member BRAC commission now has four months to consider the recommendations, during which time it will travel and hold hearings, according to Cong. Vic Snyder, D-Little Rock.

It would take only five votes for the commission to overturn a “closure” recommendation, but seven votes to put a new base or installation on the closure list.

Bases in Schenectady, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Nevada all would lose C-130s to Little Rock AFB under the Defense Department recommendation.

LITTLE ROCK GROWS

“Little Rock grows to become the single major active duty C-130 unit, streamlining maintenance and operations of this aging weapons system,” according to the recommendation.

“This consolidation presents opportunities for efficiency in maintaining an aging aircraft fleet,” according to the Defense Department. “Little Rock will become a single location for CONUS active duty C-130 force structure.

“I have great respect and affection for Senator Clinton,” said Snyder.

“I appreciate her zealous advocacy on behalf of the wonderful people working at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Center. But for 50 years Little Rock Air Force Base has consistently demonstrated its su-perior military value to our national security in all kinds of weather.

“LRAFB is known throughout the Air Force for the great job done in accomplishing the C-130 mission,” the congressman said.

A tornado hasn’t touched down at the base since 1975, according to Lt. Jon Quinlan, a base spokesman.

Since 1956, the base has averaged about 65 thunderstorm days a year, when landings and takeoffs could have been delayed, he said. Last year there were only 44 thunderstorm warnings, and 17 so far this year.

While the addition of planes and personnel to the base won’t be official until after the BRAC commission, the president and the Congress all act, base officials have pored over the 1,000-page document released Friday by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to get a sense of what the Defense De-partment intends for the base.

“We’ve been trying to figure out what that means,” said Quinlan. “A lot of things are itemized but won’t be decided until the commission sends a team here.”

DETAILS UNCLEAR

“Details about C-130J training are unclear,” he added. “We think maybe the Pentagon wants us to work more hand-in-hand with the (Arkansas National Guard) 189th Airlift Wing on C-130J training.”

While the active base will receive a net gain of about 50 C-130s, the seven newer C-130Js originally slated for the base all are headed to Guard or Reserve bases, according to the BRAC report. Four of the seven will go to the 189th, which is located on Little Rock Air Force Base.

Would the increase in the number of C-130s require an additional runway?

“We’ll know more after the commission visits,” said Quinlan.

If, as seems apparent, the base is going to be the continental U.S. C-130 hub, will the command of either the Air Mobility Command or the Air Education and Training Wing be transferred to LRAFB?

“These proposed changes can only enhance the importance of the base,” said Snyder.

“At this point, we just don’t know,” said Quinlan.

“There could and probably would be some changes. We support whatever the Department of Defense recommends and the president signs,” he added.

Implementation of all BRAC changes must begin within two years of the final decision and must be completed within six years of the decision, Quinlan said. That would include any new runways, hangars or other buildings.

INCREASE ENROLLMENT

Creation of 3,898 new jobs at the base could increase enrollment at local schools and, according to Richard Magee, assistant director of Metroplan, could induce officials to four-lane state Hwy. 107 all the way north to the base’s back gate sooner. “I would guess it would push the priority…up in our minds.”

Right now, the 1.5-mile, two-lane stretch of highway between the back gate and Bayou Meto Elementary School averages about 7,600 vehicle trips a day, almost enough to qualify for a four-lane road, according to Randy Ort, spokesman for the state Highway and Transportation Department. “Seven thousand, six hundred is right at the threshold,” he said.

Current plans call for four-laning state Highway 107 from Bear Paw Lane through Gravel Ridge, with the stretch between Gravel Ridge and Bayou Meto sometime after that.

Quinlan said adding 4,000 more people on base would bound to increase traffic not only at the front Vandenberg gate, but also the back gate, whihc is more convenient for many commuters from North Little Rock or Little Rock.

The proposed increase in manpower and air craft “validates what we at Little Rock Air Force Base believe we do best,” said Quinlan. “Training.”

“With the base celebrating 50 years, we really appreciate the contributions that the central Arkan-sas communities have given the base,” the spokesman added.

This is the fifth round of base closings, the most recent in 1995.

NET GAINS

Only eight other bases received higher net gains in personnel than Little Rock. They were, listed by size of increase:

-- Fort Belvoir, Va., 11,858
-- Fort Bliss, Texas 11,501
-- Fort Benning, Ga. 9,839
-- Fort Sam Houston, Texas. 9,364
-- Fort Lee, Va. 7,344
-- Fort Meade, Md. 5,361
-- Fort Carson, Colo. 4,377
-- Fort Bragg, N. C., 4,325