SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — When Brig. Gen. Christopher P. Weggeman looks back on his two years as the 52nd Fighter Wing commander, a night in March 2011 stands out.
Gazing out an open window, he watched as the first of eight F-16 fighters took off for Libya under a full moon.
“If someone asked me, ‘What’s your greatest memory to date of the United States Air Force?’ that was it,” he said Tuesday, minutes after relinquishing command of the Spangdahlem-based wing to his former No. 2, Col. David J. Julazadeh. “That was the proudest, coolest day of my career.”
Generating combat power from this base in Germany’s rural west could be less frequent in the future. Amid cost-cutting and downsizing, the 52nd Fighter Wing, the largest in the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and the only one remaining in Germany, is losing a significant portion of its air power. And, while it was once strictly a fighter base, Spangdahlem now is the second largest air mobility hub in Europe, after Ramstein Air Base, Weggeman said in an exit interview a few weeks before Tuesday’s ceremony.
Julazadeh, whose name and call sign — “Hajii” — now adorn the commander’s F-16 at a Spangdahlem hangar, will oversee the changes here over the next two years, including the loss of the wing’s 81st Fighter Squadron.
“Right now it’s scheduled for the fiscal year 2013, but we don’t have a specific date or time when that’s going to happen,” Julazadeh said in an interview after taking his new post.
Inactivating the 81st is among cuts the Air Force announced earlier this year to meet its part of a Pentagon plan to slash $487 billion in spending during the next 10 years.
About two years ago, the wing lost one of two F-16 fighter squadrons in a round of service-wide cuts meant to free money for force modernization.
While the loss of a second squadron – the Air Force’s only A-10 squadron in Europe – would signal the end of an era, Weggeman suggested the current era of cost-cutting could spare the base itself, but acknowledged Spangdahlem’s survival is not guaranteed.
“I’m an optimist. A perpetual optimist,” he said after Tuesday’s handover. “And if you look at the infrastructure investment that we have, I think there’s a bright, bright future here. Now, it could all change tomorrow, but I think the future here is bright.”
But given the drawdown of forces in Europe and the current austere resource environment, he acknowledged in the earlier interview that could change and that every piece of real estate in USAFE “is in play right now as to whether it’s going to be modified, stay or go.”
The base’s mission diversity is the basis for Weggeman’s assessment of its bright future, he said.
Spangdahlem in recent years has quietly carved out a niche apart from its combat role that has made it integral to USAFE’s mobility mission, Air Force officials say.
Spangdahlem began diversifying its mission after Rhein-Main Air Base, once the primary airlift and passenger hub for U.S. forces in Europe, closed in 2005. A new ramp with enough space to park 11 C-5 Galaxy aircraft — the Air Force’s largest cargo lifter — was built at Spangdahlem to handle Rhein-Main’s overflow flights, 33 percent of which were directed to Spangdahlem, with the remainder going to Ramstein, Weggeman said in the earlier interview. Last year, more than 2,700 transport aircraft transited Spangdahlem, he said, to and from the Middle East, Africa and other locations.
It’s a mission that seems to have secured a pivotal role for Spangdahlem, one of seven USAFE main operating bases in England, Germany, Italy and Turkey.
“Places like Ramstein and Spangdahlem, which are the core of our mobility footprint in Europe, are essential to supporting that enduring mission of air mobility,” Gen. Mark Welsh III, the USAFE commander, said in an interview earlier this year. That mission, he said, requires access to airspace, over-flight agreements, basing for maintenance and interim fueling capability, and the ability to load and transport people and equipment.
But much is on the chopping block.
The Air Force wants to cut 286 aircraft, including 123 fighters, 133 mobility aircraft and 30 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. Of the aircraft the Air Force wants to retire, 102 are A-10 Thunderbolt IIs. The 81st is the only active-duty A-10 squadron targeted by the proposed cuts, the others being three National Guard and one Reserve unit in the States.
Within the 52nd Fighter Wing, which has about 4,850 airmen, 502 positions are tied to the A-10 mission, Weggeman said. Most, but not all, of those jobs are expected to go away, he said, yet some A-10 support and maintenance jobs could be transferred to the F-16 mission within the fighter wing, he said.
Despite the expected cuts, Spangdahlem, where about 15,000 airmen, family members and civilians live and work, shows no signs of slowing down.
A new medical clinic is scheduled to open in August, followed by a new base exchange in October. A new fitness center and a new commissary are being built. Plans are under way to construct a new high school and middle school, and expand and renovate the elementary school, base officials said. A new child development center is to be constructed, officials said.
“All construction’s on track,” Weggeman said.
Much of the $375 million in projects is tied to the future closure of the neighboring Bitburg housing annex, which the Air Force plans to return to the German government by 2016, Weggeman said. About 240 families still reside in Bitburg housing.
Julazadeh, who served as vice commander of the 52nd for about a year before moving up to command, said the most important piece of the change likely to occur on his watch is “to make sure we take care of our airmen … because there’ll be some families that have to move out of here.”
The 81st Fighter Squadron recently returned from a deployment to Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, where they provided close air support to coalition ground forces supporting Operating Enduring Freedom, according to a Spangdahlem spokeswoman. It was the squadron’s sixth deployment to Afghanistan since 2003.
The squadron’s pilots’ future is uncertain. But it’s unlikely all of them will be able to continue flying the A-10, Weggeman said, since there will be fewer Warthogs in service.
“A lot of them love the A-10,” Weggeman said. “They don’t want to fly something else, but they don’t know that until they fly something else.”