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Grand Forks braces for base closing rounds

GRAND FORKS - The Grand Forks region will likely be fighting again to keep Grand Forks Air Force Base following news Thursday that the Obama administration will ask Congress to cut defense spending by $487 billion over 10 years and start another ...

GRAND FORKS - The Grand Forks region will likely be fighting again to keep Grand Forks Air Force Base following news Thursday that the Obama administration will ask Congress to cut defense spending by $487 billion over 10 years and start another round of base closures.

"It was inevitable. It has to come. We will be on the list; I'm sure we will," said F. John Marshall, who has led the city's base retention effort over the past 20 years. Through military contacts, he said he's heard that there may be two Base Realignment and Closure rounds, in 2013 and 2015.

"There's been talk of a potential BRAC for quite a while," said Barry Wilfahrt, Chamber president and member of a base retention group. "I don't think it comes as a huge surprise to anyone in the community."

He and Marshall said the community has been getting ready for this since the last BRAC round in 2005, when Grand Forks Air Force Base lost its flying tanker mission and many airmen and their families.

The base has since gained an unmanned aircraft mission, though its population has not yet recovered. There are now about 1,200 airmen, about half the number in 2006, at the base and about 1,000 employees.

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Officially, the Obama administration has been vague about the timing of BRAC. There is little chance lawmakers would agree to it in a presidential election year.

North Dakota's senators both expressed their displeasure with Thursday's news. Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in separate statements that budget cuts are needed, but BRAC may not be all that cost-effective.

There have been five BRAC rounds so far. The first started shortly before the end of the Cold War in 1988. After the Cold War, the Pentagon initiated a flurry of BRAC rounds in 1991, 1993 and 1995.

This next proposed round would come as the administration turns its focus to Asia, where China's rapid military modernization has raised worry in Washington and rattled U.S. allies.

Marshall has been through every BRAC round. He said he believes a lot more bases will have to close this time because the Pentagon has to save more money.

That means local government may have to spend more to fight to keep the base. The city set aside $180,000 for base retention this year, 80 percent more than in 2011, and planned to maintain that spending well into 2017.

In June, when city leaders discussed the 2012 budget, several said they worried that the city representatives aren't in Washington, D.C., enough compared to other cities. At that time, they thought BRAC would come in 2014 or 2015.

The money would pay for more trips to Washington and for keeping a lobbying firm on retainer. According to Marshall, the community is still working with George Schlossberg, a Washington consultant who wrote the original BRAC law, and retired Air Force Gen. Ron Fogleman, a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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In Washington, the state's congressional delegation has long kept an eye on Grand Forks Air Force Base. Many improvements to the base, such as new housing and new infrastructure, were budgeted as a way to make the base such a big investment the military would think twice about abandoning it.

"So many of my military friends I talk to say that if there was a perfect base that was most cost-effective right now, it would be Grand Forks," said Marshall.

The delegation also has worked very closely with Air Force officials, flexing its political muscle.

Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said in a statement Thursday that he has asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to testify. "I will be sure to examine every aspect of this budget to ensure that the reductions being made in no way harm our men and women in uniform nor jeopardize America's national defense."

He'll be pushing for alternatives to base closure, which he said raises "serious concerns."

"BRAC is a painful process with questionable cost savings," he said. "Before we shutter a single base here in the U.S. we must first look to reduce our military footprint overseas."

Hoeven, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he doesn't believe BRAC is a good way to cut spending. "Having gone through this process as governor, I am skeptical that it is the best way to prioritize and reduce Department of Defense spending. Instead, I believe the Department of Defense should work directly with Congress to find the most cost-effective way to reduce spending, while maintaining our nation's defense."

The two senators have been pushing the Federal Aviation Administration approve airspace for unmanned aircraft over North Dakota, a valuable asset for the state and the base because it would allow testing and training possible only in a few places in the country.

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Besides BRAC, the Obama administration is proposing cuts that would reduce the size of U.S. ground forces, slow the purchase of new fighter aircraft and the retiring of older ships and planes.

Panetta announced that the administration will request a 2013 budget of $525 billion, plus another $88 billion for operations in Afghanistan. Combined, those totals are about $33 billion less than the Pentagon is spending this year.

Panetta said, however, that the Pentagon's base budget will grow to $567 billion in 2017. At that point, the cumulative budgets over five years would be $259 billion less than had been planned before the administration struck a deficit-cutting deal with Congress last summer that requires projected defense spending to be reduced by $487 billion by 2022.

In a bid to pre-empt election-year Republican criticism, Panetta said the plan shifts the Pentagon's focus from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to future challenges in Asia, the Mideast and in cyberspace. More special operations forces like the Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden will be available around the world, he said.

"We believe this is a balanced and complete package," Panetta told a news conference, with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at his side.

Some lawmakers were quick to dispute him.

"Taking us back to a pre-9/11 military force structure places our country in grave danger," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that will hold hearings on the Pentagon budget plan.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Panetta plan "ignores the lessons of history." He said it provides for a military that is "too small to respond effectively to events that may unfold over the next few years."

Dempsey, however, said the military is united in its support for the new approach.

"This budget is a first step - it's a down payment - as we transition from an emphasis on today's wars to preparing for future challenges," he said, adding, "This budget does not lead to a military in decline."

Tu-Uyen Tran writes for the Grand Forks Herald.

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