Federal budget cuts have Utah's air base advocates on edge
Advocates for Hill Air Force Base Utah's congressional delegation, civic leaders and business executives are not operating under an official military state of alert.
But it's close.
Federal budget slashing, even if Congress and the Obama administration avert the so-called fiscal cliff, has HAFB backers paying close attention and taking steps to protect or even increase the northern Utah base's workload.
Among the possibilities: Move Army Reserve and Utah Air National Guard units from Salt Lake City to the base 25 miles north.
First District Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, says such consolidation would expand and diversify HAFB, putting it in a stronger position in any future base-closure discussions.
But, he says, "nothing is ready to be rolled out yet." The ideas "take some kind of funding source and that is the key element right now: What would that funding source be?"
Funding is, after all, at the heart of the uncertainty facing all U.S. military installations.
The Obama administration, responding to a congressional mandate, plans to slash $487 billion roughly $49 billion a year from military spending during the next decade. By 2015, or even as early as next year, that may require base closures, which would be decided through one or more Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) processes.
If Congress and the administration don't agree on a way to reduce the federal deficit in the coming weeks, pushing the government off the so-called fiscal cliff, there would be another $500 billion in military cuts.
"To us, that's very alarming," says Tage Flint, president of the Utah Defense Alliance, a group of civic and business leaders given $500,000 from the Utah Legislature this year to advocate for the state's military installations. "Then we would be very much on alert because we know those [cuts] would be across the board."
As a result of this year's piece of the $487 billion in cuts, HAFB's parent command was reorganized and the Ogden Air Logistics Center was renamed a complex, losing its headquarters to Oklahoma and reducing its workforce by 159.
Kevin Sullivan, former commander of the Ogden Air Logistics Complex and a retired major general, says it's a good idea to bring units from other military branches to Hill. For one thing, it's more cost effective to group units behind secure gates and fences.
"The more robust any Air Force base is, the better it scores in a BRAC exercise," says Sullivan, who will become executive director of the Utah Defense Alliance in January. "The more missions you have at a single location, the more bang for your buck."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is proposing a funding mechanism that could allow Reserve units to move from Fort Douglas without cost to the military. It's an enhanced-use lease, such as the one being tapped at Falcon Hill National Aerospace Research Park on the west side of HAFB.
The University of Utah would lease the 51 acres at the historic fort that remain under military control, and the lease revenue would allow the Reserves to build new structures elsewhere, perhaps at HAFB. Two Army Reserve commands are headquartered at Fort Douglas, as are several smaller units, including Navy and Marine Reserves.
A way to fund moving all or the bulk of the Utah Air National Guard is not as clear. Hank McIntire, spokesman for the Utah National Guard, acknowledged moving the 151st Air Refueling Wing to HAFB is one option under consideration.
The wing is the largest piece of the Air Guard, which is based on the east side of the Salt Lake City International Airport. The wing flies eight KC-135 refueling tankers, which are decades old.
The objective, McIntire says, is to preserve the long-term viability and the relevance of the Utah Air National Guard.
"Hill is a partner, so what affects them will affect the Utah Air Guard and vice versa," he says. "That has to be part of the equation."
Besides pressing for consolidation at HAFB, Hatch says he and others in the delegation are working to keep and expand existing missions, such as the base's military-software facility.
That effort takes grand gestures as well as behind-the-scenes diligence. Hatch, for example, brought Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to HAFB last spring to convey the base's importance.
And Sullivan has traveled three times to Washington in the past year to argue against defense-authorization bill language that favors private companies over government depots, such as HAFB, for maintaining fighter aircraft.
Flint says the alliance, while charged with promoting HAFB, realizes the Utah base may have to take its share of cuts. "We can't say, 'Everybody should be cut but us.'"
Nonetheless, he says, HAFB's assets may put it in good stead to take on work now performed elsewhere. The massive Utah Test and Training Range in the west desert is one-of-a-kind, and area governments have kept residential development away from Hill's runways so there is no encroachment, as is the case at many other bases.
The Falcon Hill project, a public-private venture, can provide new buildings at no cost to the military. Flint says the base has an efficient workforce and space for more structures.
"We're not ready to concede that Hill will get smaller," Flint adds. "All of this may culminate in more work coming to Hill."
Tribune reporter Matt Canham contributed to this story.
Related story: The benefits of Falcon Hill
The Falcon Hill National Aerospace Park, a private development on leased land on the west side of Hill Air Force Base, is seen as a piece of armor against the coming storm of military budget cuts.