The Air Force's top general wants to create a handful of "superbases" in the United States by bolstering some and paring down or closing others.
"This is an urgent issue," Gen. Michael Ryan said in an interview. "We need to reorganize ourselves. We need to get rid of excess infrastructure."The pressure in recent years of establishing bases at overseas crisis points - Bosnia, the Middle East, Africa - has resulted in domestic bases being "stretched too thin," Ryan said.
And while Air Force combat units are designed to deploy at a moment's notice, the cooks, engineers, medical personnel, military police and other units that keep bases humming aren't organized for immediate assignment abroad.
So the general is looking at consolidating such support units at four to six bases in the United States. He would not specify them, saying he's asked his staff for a "template" of which bases should grow and which should be slimmed or closed. He also is considering organizing combat units into "expeditionary" forces to rotate responsibility for overseas deployments, allowing personnel to count on time at home with their families, he said.
But he stressed the Air Force needs to close bases, and that is a suggestion that sends chills through communities across the nation and has been rejected by many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The service has 67 major bases in the United States and 14 abroad.
"This isn't easy, but it's necessary," Ryan said.
Bruce Collins, deputy director of public affairs for Hill Air Force Base, said comparing Utah's air logistics center with a regular Air Force base is like "comparing apples to oranges."
Hill is a depot with a logistics center, Collins said, so deployment doesn't leave the base strapped, as Ryan suggests happens on bases.
"Hill is not like a normal base," Collins said. "Hill is one of those types of bases Gen. Ryan is talking about."
The aftermath of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that claimed 19 airmen, bases at home and abroad are creating special security teams to counter possible terrorist threats. Bigger bases would make that process easier to absorb.
"We are spread so thin across our bases that when you take a 44-man security force team off the base it's a big whack out of the security force on the base, and everybody starts working twice as hard," Ryan said. Such Air Force units both at home and abroad work 12-hour shifts. "We have to fix that," he said.
The general lauded the Navy and the Marine Corps for consolidating support units at a few bases, moves made in base-closure rounds in 1993 and 1995. Those services "have it about right," Ryan said. "When they leave a port, they do not strip their support out of the home bases to put it on the ships."
" We've been doing this for eight years now, and it is really wearing on the force," he said.
In the past, the Air Force was designed to be much bigger and structured to "surge" its forces forward into battle against the enemy - relying to a great extent on allied bases with supplies ready to offer arriving combat units.
The post-Cold War drawdown is responsible for some of the manpower problem. Over the past 10 years, the service has plummeted from 607,000 members to 371,000 men and women this year - a cut of about 40 percent. But since the base closure process began in 1988, only 17 Air Force bases have been closed and 16 realigned, a cut estimated by the Air Force of about 21 percent.
The general's "superbase" proposal dovetails that of Defense Secretary William Cohen, who has been pressing Congress for two additional rounds of base closures - and getting the cold shoulder in return. Cohen has told lawmakers uniformed leaders support his conclusions on the need for base closures. In last week's Associated Press interview, Ryan gave a rare look at the issue from the military perspective.
Cohen argues the military must cut back on unneeded bases to keep troops ready to go to war and to glean long-term savings for updating weaponry for the next century.
Last week on Capitol Hill, the secretary warned that closures will not result in "a reduction in the quality of life of our men and women in uniform, a reduction in the readiness of our forces or a cutback rather significantly in our procurement plans."
Gen. Michael Dugan, a Ryan predecessor as Air Force chief of staff, said Ryan's move to close bases is imperative.
"We are not getting the bang for our buck," Dugan said. He added he sees little chance Congress will allow such shutdowns.
Dan Kuehl, an air-power expert at the National Defense University in Washington, warned that such centralization of troops also increases their vulnerability. Kuehl, who worked on a study of the Air Force and the gulf war, noted that much of the service's support equipment "was stressed to the max" during that endeavor, when it was much larger.
"You have to watch it, that when you reduce bases, you don't also cut back on those mundane things you need to go to war - those hardware items that make going into combat possible," he said.
Ryan noted that Cohen has said he might consider just cutting back on bases if Congress doesn't approve closures. A renewal of the Base Closure and Realignment process would be preferable, the general said, because that procedure provides ways to help communities find uses for closed bases.