Millions of dollars in construction funding for schools and airfield improvements at U.S. bases in Europe are on hold as Congress awaits the result of a Pentagon study into further reducing the military’s footprint in the theater.
The freeze, written into a spending omnibus passed in January, applies to nearly $500 million in projects on bases in Germany and the United Kingdom. It requires the Defense Department to complete the study, known as the European Infrastructure Consolidation Review, and create a new basing strategy for Europe before project funding will be released.
Defense officials say they expect the review to be finished in the spring, and they emphasize it will only consider infrastructure and make no recommendations regarding troop numbers across the Continent.
At RAF Mildenhall in the U.K., the freeze applies to almost $67 million in projects related to the expansion of the 352nd Special Operations Group, a unit that recently welcomed new CV-22 Ospreys and MC-130J Commando II planes and expects more in the coming years.
To accommodate the new aircraft, the group hopes to build a new hangar, a new operations facility and a warehouse for aircraft parts, and it wants to improve the efficiency of airfield traffic by adding more pavement, Capt. Jethro “Jet” Sadorra, the group civil engineer, wrote in an email. Construction is scheduled to begin in the fall, Sadorra wrote.
“SOG units are currently scattered across the base working toward the same missions, but in a variety of facilities,” Sadorra wrote. The new facilities “were designed to make things more efficient.”
The construction hold also applies to a new fuel tank and pumps at Mildenhall. The 100th Air Refueling Wing requested the replacements to update its more than 50-year-old aviation fuel tank, wrote Capt. Laura Balch, a wing spokeswoman, in an email.
The system is safe, but “given its age it is prudent to replace it with a modern system,” she wrote.
The construction freeze also puts a hold on spending more than $22 million on training and storage facilities for Guardian Angel personnel at RAF Lakenheath, England. Seventy-five percent of the personnel’s critical equipment is stored outside, and the remaining 25 percent is stored in an unheated aircraft shelter, according to an Air Force justification document for fiscal year 2014 construction.
Not only military infrastructure is affected. The freeze applies to five Department of Defense Education Activity schools slated to be built in Europe. They are: Ramstein High School, Wiesbaden Middle School and Kaiserslautern and Hainerberg elementary schools in Germany, and Lakenheath High School in the United Kingdom.
The projects are part of a multibillion-dollar program, scheduled through 2019, to replace or refurbish more than 130 aging schools, or more than 70 percent of the agency’s schools worldwide. The total cost for the school projects on hold range from $49 million for Kaiserslautern Elementary School to $100 million for Ramstein High School.
School officials say all five projects are still in the design phase, which has already been funded.
“All of our designs right now are still moving forward,” said Jose Tovar, facilities manager for Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe.
The projects, however, cannot and will not be awarded for construction until completion of the infrastructure review, school officials said.
School officials said they haven’t been told what to expect from the review. But they speculate that changes could range from adjusting enrollment projections to eliminating projects altogether if one of the military communities were targeted for closure.
“We’re in the same boat as the military,” said Russ Roberts, DODDS-Europe chief of logistics. “We really don’t know the outcome.”
The construction freeze excludes one project authorized in the current fiscal year — a $16.6 million family housing unit for junior noncommissioned officers on the Vilseck side of U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria in southern Germany.
The military has gradually reduced its footprint in Europe since the end of the Cold War, a process it accelerated again in 2013 with the removal of two Army combat brigades from Germany, two Air Force squadrons and a considerable number of smaller support units.
Changes in the theater coincided with the U.S. rebalance of military and diplomatic resources toward the Pacific amid tighter budgets. The approaching end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan removes other roles held by European-based units, which both deployed from the Continent and trained European forces deploying to Afghanistan.
Another push has come from Congress, which has loosely tied a future round of domestic base closures — a process referred to as Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC — to further reductions in Europe. The Defense Department can close overseas bases without congressional approval.
Military leaders, meanwhile, have underlined the importance of basing in southern Europe versus the Continent’s interior, with a growing focus on potential flash points in Africa and the Middle East. Navy bases in Spain and Italy and an Army base in northern Italy have seen modest growth and a change in roles in recent years.
“We are a force … that lives in a legacy positioning associated with Cold War outlooks,” the top U.S. commander in Europe, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, told Stars and Stripes last year. “We are seeing ourselves needing to be based closer to those places where we are continuing to find threats … Clearly, the Levant, the east Med, northern Africa are places we need to be positioned well to react quickly into those areas.”