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Local Guard base in strong position as closures loom

Springfield leaders tout Predator and intel missions, plus ties with Wright-Patterson.Last BRAC’s estimated $2.5 million local savings won’t happen.

The 2005 process to close and realign the nation’s military installations stripped the Springfield Air National Guard Base of its 18 fighter jets in a move originally predicted to save $2.5 million a year.

A revised cost-savings estimate by the U.S. Government Accountability Office determined that the loss of those F-16s won’t actually save any money. But the base is in a strong position, military and local leaders say, as the contentious process known as BRAC appears likely to occur again within the next two years.

“There’s no such thing as BRAC-proof,” base commander Col. Gregory Schnulo confessed. “But I’d think we’re close. I’m exceedingly confident we’re in a good position because of the missions we’re in.”

Springfield Guardsmen now serve as real-time drone operators and play a key role in gauging the air and space capabilities of foreign nations.

Schnulo said at least $21.2 million will be spent to remake the base into a hub of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but building upgrades aren’t a safeguard against the Base Realignment and Closure process, if the last round proved anything.

“For a lot of people, BRAC is a four-letter word, and I’m not just counting up the letters,” said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States. “BRAC creates fear in local governments and local communities.”

In the years leading up to BRAC 2005, the Springfield Guard base underwent about $65 million in upgrades in order to become an F-16 training site — yet that mission was still taken away by BRAC.

“We were told that if you guys convert to be a training mission, we were told we were going to be protected,” said Richard Lohnes, a retired F-16 pilot and base commander during BRAC 2005 who’s now a Clark County commissioner.

“Been there, done that,” he said.

The local base — which has an annual economic impact of $99.4 million, according to the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, and is among Clark County’s top 10 largest employers — has so far survived each of the five rounds of BRAC conducted since 1988.

Whereas previous rounds explicitly set out to save money in a post-Cold War world, the primary goal of BRAC 2005 was to enhance “military value,” although the process still will save $3.8 billion annually, according to last summer’s GAO report. That’s a 9.5 percent decrease from the $4.2 billion in annual savings originally forecasted.

Until Congress authorizes the Pentagon to conduct another BRAC, nobody knows what the criteria will be in the next one.

With the budget the way it is, though, it’s not hard to guess.

“Everyone can see the intense pressures on the defense budget,” said Tom Franzen, Springfield assistant city manager and director of economic development. “There will be a greater emphasis on saving money, no doubt. I think they’ll be more focused on actual closures this time.”

The U.S. Department of Defense asked Congress to authorize new BRAC rounds in 2013 and 2015, but lawmakers didn’t act favorably to the request, Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright said.

But in February, then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told a media roundtable that another BRAC is likely to be proposed.

“We’ll have to,” Panetta said, “because you can’t have a huge infrastructure supporting a reduced force.”

Mo McDonald, vice president of military affairs at the Dayton Development Coalition, said his organization, which advocates for a 14-county area, is planning as if it could happen in 2015.

“There’s a lot of activity in Springfield that we’re going to accentuate,” McDonald said.

By the time another BRAC occurs, the area around the base will look radically different than it did before BRAC 2005.

As required by that last BRAC, an Armed Forces Reserve Center was built onsite in 2009 to house an Army Reserve unit and two Ohio Army National Guard units.

“That makes us a tougher target to say we don’t have value,” Schnulo said.

Also as mandated by BRAC 2005, four radars used by the Air Force Research Laboratory were dismantled in upstate New York and re-erected locally. Three were relocated to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the fourth, atop a 100-foot antenna tower, was relocated to the Springfield Guard base in 2011.

Other changes will occur this spring, including the opening of the 32,000-square-foot David L. Hobson Communications Complex to house two Air Guard communications units.

In addition, Ohio 794, the public road that currently runs through the base area, will be relocated this spring for security reasons at a cost of $3 million.

“It’s hard to say what DOD is going to look at,” McDonald said, “but we see (Springfield) as a very strong installation that’s very important in the mission of the Air National Guard and the Department of Defense.”

While Springfield Guardsmen are no longer pulling G’s as F-16 instructor pilots, they’re now at the “tip of the spear,” as it’s known, for perhaps the first time in the 178th Fighter Wing’s 58-year history — as drone operators.

The local wing is one of just six units in the Guard remotely piloting the unmanned MQ-1 Predator, an already iconic drone used overseas to both see and kill the nation’s enemies. A seventh Guard unit, in Syracuse, N.Y., is the only one piloting the even deadlier MQ-9 Reaper, according to the National Guard association.

The 178th, which traded afterburners for computer monitors, began flying combat air patrols around the clock from Springfield a year ago.

“It would appear to be a growth mission,” association spokesman Goheen said.

The current Air Force plan, Goheen said, is to increase the remotely piloted aircraft mission in the Air National Guard.

In fact, the Des Moines, Iowa, Guard unit originally recommended during BRAC 2005 to receive nine of Springfield’s F-16s is about to also lose its jets and take on a drone mission.

The Associated Press in February reported the Air Force will need about 1,700 pilots and 1,200 sensor operators to carry out the order to increase the number of 24-hour combat air patrols by drones from 59 to 65 a day by May 2014. Currently, the AP reported, fewer than 1,400 pilots and about 950 sensor operators fly drones over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and parts of Africa.

Of the 178th Fighter Wing’s 882 full-time and traditional Guardsmen, about 200 are involved in the Predator mission.

Also in the aftermath of BRAC 2005, a greater number of local Guardsmen have begun performing an even more unique task within the Guard. About 300 of them are tasked with analyzing classified satellite imagery, monitoring foreign space launches and trying to exploit foreign-made technology on behalf of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson.

Strengthening ties with Wright-Patterson is seen as key to withstanding future rounds of BRAC.

“We’ll be so enmeshed in NASIC it would be difficult for them to say, ‘Eh, we don’t need you anymore,’ ” Schnulo said.

The last BRAC also pulled together economic development leaders in Springfield and Dayton.

“We’ve come together and advocated much better as a region since then,” Franzen said. “From an economic development standpoint, our problems are regional and our opportunities are regional, if not statewide.”

Since BRAC 2005, the effort to tout the Springfield Air National Guard Base and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as a package deal to lawmakers and military officials has been constant.

“They know what assets they have across the country,” said McDonald, of the Dayton Development Coalition.

“Springfield,” he said, “is conducting a very important mission to national defense today.”

Even still, the Guard is no hurry to go through another BRAC after the last one.

“The 2005 BRAC was such a bad experience for the Guard,” Goheen said. “To the Air Guard, you mention BRAC and the hair on the back of your neck stands up.”

Of the 42 Air Force proposals in BRAC 2005, 37 of them were aimed at the Air National Guard, a move that didn’t sit well with many governors.

“The Guard doesn’t fear honest discussions about cost,” Goheen said. “We win those. We know we’re cheaper.”

Lohnes, the former fighter pilot and base commander, said the active-duty Air Force “took advantage of the weak sister” during the last BRAC.

“The Guard can supply the same firepower for less money,” Lohnes said.

Eight years later, he still remembers the exact date — May 13, 2005 — that the Air Guard lost a third of its aircraft, including Springfield’s 18 F-16s.

“With the stroke of a pen,” he said, “it took about 60 seconds and one-third of the Air Guard was gone.”

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