At the height of the Cold War, Fairchild Air Force Base was ringed with missiles to defend against enemy planes.
The Cold War is over, the missiles long gone. Now Fairchild has a new defense system to protect it against the threat of the ‘90s, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
It is a defense system made not of radar screens and rocket fuel, but of consultants and slide shows. The fighting could be fierce, and the enemy will be other communities that, like Spokane, have a major military base to protect.
“Nobody wants to lose their base,” said John Allen, a former Fairchild wing commander and retired general who helps communities stay off the commission’s final closure list.
Allen and his team of consultants are being hired by a special Spokane task force which could raise and spend more than $100,000 to guard against closure.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., and other members of the state’s congressional delegation are cautiously optimistic that Fairchild, the nation’s largest base for aerial refueling tankers, will not be closed in this latest round of cuts.
“I think Fairchild’s mission looks secure,” Nethercutt said.
“Mobility is the big issue in the future, and tankers are critically important for that,” said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., a 17-year member of the House national security appropriations subcommittee.
Dicks said he believes all of the state’s major bases will survive this year’s round of base closures. But that’s no reason not to prepare, he added.
Rich Hadley, Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce president and a member of the task force, agreed.
“It’s 4,500 jobs, 10,000 people. It’s part of our economic base,” Hadley said.
Two years ago, Spokane business and political leaders were taken by surprise when the commission placed Fairchild on a list of bases to compare with other facilities the Pentagon wanted to close.
The Spokanites had only 10 days to prepare their arguments that the West Plains base was too modern, too valuable and too expensive to close.
“We don’t want to wait this time,” Hadley said.
The task force has some 25 members from the chamber, Momentum, local government and the military retirement community. Since last fall, they have been studying the complicated process Congress set up to do something it has been reluctant to do - close bases the nation’s shrinking military no longer needs.
The commission is expected to close as many bases this year as it has in the last five.
“It’s the most effective law Congress has ever passed,” said Allen, who worked with Minot, N.D.; Columbus, Miss.; and Charleston, S.C., during 1993.
The base-closure process is a special blend of political and nonpolitical steps.
The president, House speaker and congressional majority and minority leaders share in the nomination of the commission’s seven members.
The nominations were announced Jan. 3. The Pentagon, which has been gathering data on all of its bases for months, will send the commission a list on March 1 of the bases it wants to close.
Staying off that list is the Spokane task force’s most immediate goal because in the last three rounds of base closures, 85 percent of the bases on the Pentagon’s list have been ordered shut down by the commission.
“I think the odds of staying off the first list are very, very good,” said Allen, who was at Fairchild in the early 1980s when the base began its modernization.
Modern bases are less likely to face closure, Dicks said. In the last 14 years, the Air Force has spent more than $200 million building houses, hangars, classrooms and offices at Fairchild.
The base’s KC-135 tankers are scheduled to be flying Air Force missions well into the 21st century, and Fairchild is strategically located for flights to the Far East and across the North Pole to Europe. Its Survival School is the main training facility for air crews.
Fairchild never has been placed on the Pentagon’s list for closure, and Dicks said his sources indicate it’s not likely to be this time.
But between March 1 and July 1, when the commission sends President Clinton a list of bases to close, there is another step in the process.
The commission makes a list of other bases with missions similar to the ones the Pentagon wants to close. The panel checks data and holds hearings to compare the two sets of bases. On rare occasions - about 15 percent of the time, Allen said - it decides to close a base on the comparison list and leave open a base on the Pentagon’s list.
In 1993, Fairchild was placed on that comparison list and was matched against several other bases - some with tankers, others with B-52 bombers - the Pentagon ultimately closed.
That was the announcement that took Spokane by surprise and sent business and political leaders into overdrive to argue for Fairchild.
“I’m told there’s a likelihood that we will be on the comparison list,” said Nethercutt, who also serves on the House national security appropriations subcommittee.
But Dicks said he isn’t so sure that Fairchild is a candidate for the comparison list, in part because commissioners likely will compare fewer bases this year.
“They cause a lot of anguish” in communities where bases weren’t closed, he said. “I think they learned that is not wise. But who knows?”
After the Pentagon’s list is announced, particularly if another tanker base is slated for closure, Allen and his team of consultants will prepare a defense for Fairchild.
They’ll compare how that base fits into the current military strategy and prepare arguments that Fairchild is more vital. They’ll compile detailed lists of the amount spent at Fairchild and data on the quality of its buildings, roads and runways to compare with the infrastructure of the other base.
They also will look for any mistakes in the Pentagon’s data that might suggest Fairchild is lacking any vital facilities.
“Frequently, errors get into the data,” said Allen.
But the loss that community leaders fear most - the jobs and their estimated economic impact of $389 million - is one of the least of the commission’s concerns. Allen and congressional leaders are warning Spokane that they must not concentrate on that.
“They must make the case based on Fairchild’s military value,” warned Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
That’s because all communities stand to suffer a crippling economic blow by losing a military base.
If Fairchild is placed on a comparison list, Spokane will be given one hour. Its designated speakers will argue the base is vital to the nation’s military readiness, that the infrastructure is good and the airspace uncrowded, that it is flexible enough to take on new roles and that closing it would cost more than it would save.
Only then will the commission consider the economic consequences of closing the base.
“If you can’t make your case on the military value of the base, the rest of it is a waste of time,” Allen said.
If Fairchild stays off both lists, business and military leaders will be able to heave a sigh of relief. The likelihood of being closed then would be negligible.
But that doesn’t mean the money spent on consultants would have been wasted, business and political leaders agree.
“It’s like an insurance policy. It’s best to be prepared,” Nethercutt said.