SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — Spangdahlem Air Base leaders are taking a hard look at consolidating operations at the Bitburg annex, where three schools, a commissary, housing for 1,000 families and a hospital are located, the base commander said last week.

Col. Stephen P. Mueller, commander of the 52nd Fighter Wing, said such a move would “save money and manpower,” at a time when the Department of Defense is mandating such measures.

“It’s every commander’s job to look at consolidation,” Mueller said.

Leaders also are studying whether to reduce the number of “geographically separated units,” or wing detachments around the region. The wing now has 17 GSUs in such far-flung locations as Holland, Belgium, France and Denmark.

Steps already are being taken toward shrinking the footprint of Air Force operations in the Spangdahlem community, home to two F-16 squadrons, an A-10 squadron and an air control squadron.

Construction will begin this fall on a new $38 million hospital northwest of Spangdahlem Air Base. When completed in mid-2006, the new medical facility will replace the aging hospital on Bitburg that doesn’t meet Air Force standards, Mueller said.

In addition, the service is studying the local housing market to see whether families who moved from Bitburg could find off-base homes. Right now, 2,700 rental properties are available off base, where there is a 96 percent occupancy rate. Mueller said he has met with local mayors about adding more units.

Mueller made the comments at a town hall meeting Thursday night, the first since the F-16 pilot and brigadier general-select took command of the wing in July 2002. He invited airmen, their families and civilians to the gathering to quell rumors and ease uncertainty, especially as war looms, Mueller said before the meeting. He also addressed such issues as deployments and future construction at the wing, which has 5,000 active-duty personnel and 7,000 dependants.

Consolidation wouldn’t be the first time operations at Bitburg have shrunk. The once-bustling Bitburg Air Base lost the last of its operational units, a fighter squadron and an air control squadron, in 1994 and 1995 when they moved to Spangdahlem. The Air Force turned over the old Bitburg airfield to the Germans, but kept the living area, some services and the schools.

“We kept Bitburg because of the housing and the hospital,” Mueller said. Initial studies have shown that a Bitburg closure would eliminate the need for at least 100 positions, which Mueller called a significant savings.

The future of the three schools at Bitburg is perhaps the thorniest issue in the mix because teachers fear for their jobs and parents worry that children would be displaced. But Mueller told listeners that the discussion was in the early stages.

“We’re too far away to make these decisions now,” Mueller said.

The Department of Defense Dependents Schools runs five schools for Spangdahlem area students, two on Spangdahlem Air Base and three on the Bitburg annex, DODDS spokesman Frank O’Gara said in a statement issued Friday. An elementary and a middle school on Spangdahlem Air Base serve 780 students. At Bitburg, 991 students attend the elementary, middle and high schools.

O’Gara said Air Force officials hadn’t formally contacted DODDS-Europe about any consolidation at Spangdahlem. DODDS officials were aware, however, that the issue was brought up at the town hall meeting.

He said that such consolidations are made for “manpower and efficiency” reasons and not because of a decline in school enrollment.

“If this preliminary review indicates that we could realize efficiencies for the base and the school system by consolidating school operations in the Spangdahlem community, the Air Force would contact DODDS-Europe and the district superintendent to discuss options and recommendations,” he said.

Many additional steps would have to be taken, including a study of the best use of space, manpower, transition issues for students and military families and talks with the teachers’ union. In past consolidation cases, he said, permanent DODDS employee were placed in other positions.

Mueller emphasized that regardless of the studies his leadership and outside contractors are conducting, any actual closure of Bitburg would not happen for years. In the first place, the base’s construction wish list would at the earliest be part of the 2006 military construction budget.

“Yes, Bitburg might close,” Mueller said. “But it would take a lot of steps to get there.”

1,600 airmen ready to deploy

Up to 1,600 Spangdahlem Air Base airmen are poised to deploy to more than 18 locations, 52nd Fighter Wing Commander Stephen P. Mueller said last week.

The airmen, from various units, including fighter squadrons and support troops such as firemen, engineers and medical troops, are on 179-day orders if and when they go.

“They are locked and loaded,” Mueller said during a town hall meeting at the fighter base Thursday. The deployments are part of an Air Force buildup for “a major theater war,” he said.

Many of the airmen are waiting for the approval of the receiving country, which could be anywhere within the Central Command which spans from Europe and Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia.

“We are at the mercy of the entire diplomatic process,” he said.

Spangdahlem is home to the 22nd and 23rd Fighter Squadrons, both of which fly F-16s, the 81st Fighter Squadron, which flies A-10 Warthogs, and the 606th Air Control Squadron.

Some 800 troops from the 22nd Fighter Squadron and other supporting units deployed to the Middle East in January and February. If an additional 1,600 troops leave Spangdahlem, nearly half of the base’s 5,000 active-duty troops would be gone.

Mueller urged troops and their families to be patient if there is any decline in base services.

— Marni McEntee

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