Jim Hillibish: Congress mandates expense cuts but won’t close unneeded bases

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The press is full of a report that Congress has approved $350 million for a NASA rocket-engine test stand. Problem is, the project was canceled in 2010. No problem — the device will be mothballed as soon as it is finished.

We’re weary of hand-wringing over the national debt from the same crowd that has made spending federal money a life’s passion. Prepare yourself for another confounding revelation. The background this time rests with no less than our Air Force.

Budget sequestration required instant cuts. There was nothing gradual about it. The Air Force slashed training, mothballed fighter wings and drilled down on all expenses.

Congress says not to worry, it’s a peace dividend. But we face alarming events in Asia, from North Korea’s nuclear threats to China’s rearming and coveting of natural resources claimed by Japan and South Korea. It might be easy to dismiss these as bluster, but our military is paid to take the world on its face.

We are to the point where the Air Force leadership is questioning its ability to accomplish its mission.


Congress at the same time faces yet another round of questioning about one of the most sacred of its sacred cows — Air Force bases.

Despite the drawdown of the Air Force in the Middle East, the number of domestic bases has remained the same since 2005. That pleases members of Congress as they funnel hundreds of millions into a few lucky congressional districts. Bases are considered untouchable not for because of what they do but because of what they spend. The Air Force may run out of bombs and planes but it still will have bases, even if they’re uninhabited. Some of these bases no longer house aircraft or have a specific job, yet they still exist.

That has not daunted Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning. He’s got a plan. Some 20 percent to 25 percent of Air Force bases across the country are surplus and can be closed without affecting the force’s combat readiness. That would offset sequester cuts to the most important programs.

Congress responded in typical fashion: no base closures for at least the next two budget cycles, if ever. If history is any lesson, the latter is most likely. We’ve heard this before.

Our politicians on one hand are insisting that the Air Force downsize quickly and on the other are blocking downsizing. It’s a textbook catch-22.


Fanning drew up a face-saving plan to convert the unwanteds to “cold” bases, not quite padlocked but bare bones with no mission.

Congress says that would threaten local economies.

But wait. The communities housing these bases are salivating over the chance to convert them into industrial parks, commercial airports and even private spaceports, which would turn a federal deficit into a local asset.

Meanwhile, our war-fighting planes are wearing out, our service members are overworked, our military research and development is paralyzed and obsolete Air Force bases are siphoning billions from an increasingly tight budget.

Will the bases close this time? That story continues.

All we know is that so far, Washington politics takes precedence over common sense.

Reach Jim at 330-580-8324. On Twitter: @jhillibishREP.