Steller: Threats to D-M are real but there's no need to panic

2013-09-01T00:00:00Z Steller: Threats to D-M are real but there's no need to panicTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

If you’ve lived in Tucson long enough, you’ve undoubtedly heard the bad news about the annual gem and mineral shows: They’re moving to Las Vegas!

That rumor has circulated for years, with varying degrees of certainty attached, while the gem shows here go on and on.

It’s one of the night terrors that hobbles some Tucsonans, arising from their sense of inferiority and economic doom.

Speaking of that — did you hear D-M is doomed?

The deep-seated worry that Davis-Monthan Air Force Base will close has erupted again in recent weeks, emerging from the local radio talkers who thrive on fear and a giddy sense of impending disaster about Tucson. Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, a likely Republican candidate for Congress, extended the concern with a Tuesday column in the Star saying the community needs to “wake up” to protect D-M.

The good news is that little has changed to make this conversation arise again — it was a case of one radio host, James T. Harris of KQTH 104.1 FM, claiming during an Aug. 16 interview with Sen. Jeff Flake to have a scoop that the A-10 is soon to be eliminated. Also, Tucson has not been asleep when it comes to the threats to D-M.

The bad news is, long-term threats to D-M’s reason for being do exist, and short-term dangers have sharpened a bit due to the federal sequestration process.

The key to Davis-Monthan’s medium-term existence is the A-10, a combat aircraft best known for providing “close air support” to troops fighting on the ground. The F-35 is supposed to replace the A-10 eventually, but the F-35 hasn’t shown it can perform that role adequately.

“In the close air support area I think it’s going to have some serious limitations,” retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Brown, who was an A-10 pilot and instructor, told me Friday.

Senior Air Force officials, enthralled with the F-35 and distant from ground combat, may not appreciate the A-10’s superiority, Brown said, but junior officers do, as does much of the Army, whose soldiers the A-10 protects. Special operations have received the same sort of support, he said.

“If this capability goes away, we’ll pay for it in blood,” Brown said.

Asked Saturday if there are any short-term threats to the A-10 and D-M, U.S. Rep. Ron Barber said flatly, “No.”

Barber, a Democrat and member of the House Armed Service Committee, noted that the A-10 fleet at D-M has had new wings and electronics packages installed, advancing their lifespans by at least 15 years.

The city’s lobbyist in D.C., Terry Bracy, put it to me this way in an email: “As of now, we know that the A-10 — whose death has been exaggerated, to say the least — is still the best ground-support aircraft in our fleet, and while we hear there will be some cuts, we do not hear that the weapons system will be retired.”

Still, the long-term threat is there. Several Tucsonans who belong to the newly formed Southern Arizona Defense Alliance went to Washington, D.C., in July to talk with officials about D-M and other issues. One of them, Bruce Dusenberry, told me Friday that some officials are looking at cutting entire lines of aircraft in order to save money under the budget cuts.

The A-10 could be targeted in short-term cost-cutting efforts, but it probably won’t, he told me.

The next big threat to D-M could be another Base Realignment and Closure process, which could begin by 2017, Dusenberry said. D-M was considered for closure in the last such process but emerged unscathed and with high ratings in 2005. But before the Pentagon can start considering closing bases, Congress has to fund the process. And once that happens, the politicking begins in earnest as communities fight to protect their local bases.

Barber noted that Congress rejected the president’s request for a new BRAC process and said there is no timeline for a new one to start.

“We still haven’t saved any money from the last BRAC. There’s no reason to launch a new BRAC,” Barber said.

The A-10 could be targeted for “realignment,” meaning it could be moved, reduced or otherwise changed in a way that hurts D-M and Tucson, said Mike Grassinger, president of the DM50, a local civic group that supports the base and its airmen. But closures aren’t lightly done.

“Closing bases has been problematic for the Air Force,” Dusenberry said. “The initial base closure is very expensive.”

To be clear — we want to avoid this, even if it isn’t immediately likely. If D-M were to close or lose its core functions, that would cause an economic shock to Tucson. To grasp the scale, imagine 7,000 or 8,000 local homes quickly going vacant.

The base ranked as Southern Arizona’s third-largest employer in this year’s Star 200 survey, with 9,100 employees. Also, the money to pay those employees comes from outside Tucson, meaning the base plays the same economic role a steel mill plays in a Rust Belt city, bringing in outside money rather than simply recirculating local money the way a retailer does.

Over the long run — a period that could run into decades — the F-35 will probably replace the A-10. The community has been grappling with bringing some F-35 functions to Tucson International Airport or D-M, though some locals don’t like the idea because the aircraft is so loud.

But the thing is, Tucsonans have been working to protect D-M for decades. Longstanding civic organizations exist to work on it, as well as the new Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, and public officials are aware of the threats. In February, the Tucson City Council passed a resolution of support for Davis-Monthan that was so broad that conspiracy theorists nationwide thought martial law had been declared in Tucson.

“We can control what we can control — that’s community support,” Dusenberry said.

To that I would add: We also can control our fear.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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