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April 29, 2013

Could Congress close Scott Air Force Base?

If you worry about Scott Air Force Base's future, then the Pentagon's most recent budget bill contains good news: The next round of Base Realignment and Closure, the process that Congress uses to decide which military bases to close, won't begin until 2015 at the earliest.

If you worry about Scott Air Force Base's future, then the Pentagon's most recent budget bill contains good news: The next round of Base Realignment and Closure, the process that Congress uses to decide which military bases to close, won't begin until 2015 at the earliest.

So that means Scott, the metro-east's economic mainstay, is off the hook for the next two years, right?

Not so, according to metro-east leaders.

They worry the U.S. Air Force will continue to make big cost cuts at Scott because of growing federal budget pressures fed by mounting alarm over soaring costs of Medicare and other entitlement programs.

Because of the federal budget sequester, which stems in part from congressional fears about runaway entitlement spending growth, nearly 4,500 civilian Scott workers are scheduled to begin taking 20 days of unpaid furloughs between next month and September.

It's an issue that worries U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.

"If we don't reform our entitlement programs," Shimkus said, "discretionary dollars will continue to get cut, which puts Scott more at risk."

Shimkus repeated a lament that's being heard a lot these days. It's a lament that alludes to the recent retirement of veteran U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville.

Costello, known for his deal-making, made his mark not only protecting Scott, but expanding the sprawling air base.

"It's in times like this that I miss Jerry Costello," Shimkus said.

The Pentagon's 2014 budget calls for a new round of BRAC actions in 2015, costing about $2.5 billion during the next five years.

Defense Department officials are pushing hard for the base closures because, by their own admission, the military has nearly 25 percent more infrastructure than it needs.

This excess capacity will only keep growing as draw-downs continue because of America's exit from Iraq and the phasing out of the military mission in Afghanistan. The U.S. Army alone plans to cut its force to 490,000 troops from the current 570,000, a 14 percent reduction.

But members of Congress, despite their public professions of budget-cutting zeal, are in no mood for another politically bruising BRAC round. The last round, in 2005, ended up costing more than $35 billion, along with tens of thousands of civilian jobs.

What's more, Congress is still reeling from the financial hit of 700,000 civilian Defense Department workers being forced to take unpaid furloughs because of the federal budget sequester.

As a result, 42 Republican members of Congress recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama contending that another BRAC round "will cost more than it saves in the near-term and thus will negate its value for deficit reduction."

In some ways, the situation with Pentagon cost-cutting is more dire than it would be if another BRAC round were under way, said Matt Borron, the chief executive of the Association of Defense Communities, a lobbying group that represents towns with military installations.

"The problem is that we sometimes over-focus on BRAC," Borron said. "But the reality with what is happening now is that cuts are already playing out."

Borron noted that the Pentagon is already implementing $500 billion worth of cuts over 10 years that began with last year's budget.

In addition, Borron said, "The cost of the wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) was higher than they expected. That has caused ripple effects back here. And then you put sequestration on top of it. The situation is pretty severe right now."

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, who replaced Costello in January, is seen as a strong voice for Scott. A former commander of the Illinois National Guard, Enyart serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

Enyart spoke optimistically of community-wide efforts to protect Scott. It's a campaign bolstered by the fact the Air Force's Air Mobility Command cited the St. Louis region's strong support for military personnel at Scott Air Force Base as the reason for awarding the region the prestigious Abilene Trophy. The trophy is to be awarded officially in June.

"The folks are pulling together because they know how important it is," Enyart said. "We're going to be working very diligently to make sure that Scott isn't impacted by BRAC ... This is not a partisan issue. This is our region, our economy, and we're all working together."

Metro-east leaders will need to be on guard in the months ahead to protect Scott, regardless of whether the threat comes in the form of the next BRAC or in a series of smaller cuts to Scott's operational budget, according to Ellen Krohne, the executive director of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois.

The key thing is knowing what's ahead for Scott, to understand the future needs of both the air base and the Air Force, Krohne said.

"If the next new thing that's going to happen is around cybersecurity, for example, what can we do to make sure they got what it takes there to continue to grow that capability instead of having that capability grow somewhere else?" Krohne said.

After all, even if the defense budget continues to shrink, "Tthere's still going to be certain elements that will grow," she said. "That's because of the changes that come naturally, going through the course of the strategies and techniques and tactics that the Air Force uses."

Meanwhile, the Pentagon budget ax continues to chop away relentlessly, and will do so for years to come, said Borron, of the defense communities group.

"So cuts are occurring and impacts are occurring," he said. "It's not called BRAC. It doesn't have the name attached to it. But the feeling is the same. People are losing jobs. Contracts are getting cut. The base will not close, but in some ways it's getting worse. It's death by a thousand cuts."

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