Bases brace for Pentagon decision on which military construction projects will lose funding
By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 5, 2019
AUSTIN, Texas – Shift work, shrinking workspace and multiple workers sharing one desk – these are just a few ways that military personnel are dealing with overcrowding at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
A new facility designed to accommodate the increasing workforce at the center, which has grown 87 percent since 2000, is just one of hundreds of military construction projects at risk of a delay because funding could be diverted to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
The long list of projects threatened by the cuts mostly includes those appropriated in fiscal year 2019 that have not yet been started. It spans the globe and includes everything from new schools and child development centers to housing and barracks updates to the facilities needed for servicemembers to conduct day-to-day operations.
Since President Donald Trump declared illegal immigration from Central America a national emergency on Feb. 15 and ordered the Defense Department to use $3.6 billion from its military construction budget to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, speculation has mounted about which projects could lose funding.
The Defense Department has stated criteria for how officials will determine which projects are affected, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. The most protected projects have an operational impact, such as a hangar or motor pool for a new piece of equipment. Then projects related to health and safety, he said.
After congressional hearings on the housing problems at some military bases, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan said no dollars will be taken from these projects. He is expected to endorse the president’s national emergency and present to Congress a list of projects that he’s willing to delay as early as this week, The Associated Press reported.
The Pentagon has said it will backfill any delayed projects in the fiscal year 2020 budget, but whether Congress is willing to go along with that is unclear, Cancian said.
“Many members may be very angry that they have to, in effect, fund the same project twice and that they’re indirectly funding the wall,” he said. “The military will point out that the failure to fund these projects have no effect on the wall, it will just hurt the military.”
The intelligence center in Ohio was authorized in fiscal year 2019 for $182 million but funded $61 million so far, said Michelle Martz, spokesperson for the center. It’s in the design phase and officials plan to award a construction contract this year and move in to the 255,000-square-foot facility by 2023. The additional funding for the project would need to be added to future budgets.
With 4,000 workers and a budget of more than $450 million, NASIC is charged with identifying air, space, missile and cyber threats to enable a military response. It is also responsible for informing decisions on weapons systems acquisition and shaping national defense policy.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, whose district includes the NASIC project, was one of a handful of lawmakers to express concern over losing projects in their districts and called the idea of taking these predetermined construction dollars as a “dangerous precedent.” Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, also said there have been “real concerns about money being taken away from much-needed barrack and facility renovations at Fort Hood.”
The Texas installation has $61 million in reconstruction money on the table for the renovation of five barracks buildings. Until renovations are complete, soldiers are being asked to crowd into the remaining living spaces.
During a Fort Hood town hall held Feb. 25 to address the living conditions in on-post housing and barracks, soldiers described two or three soldiers living in single-occupancy rooms. The meeting was broadcast on Facebook, and one soldier explained how in three years at Fort Hood, he’s always had a roommate in a single-occupancy room. The soldiers shared one closet and there was no place to secure personal items, he said.
“That is hugely insane. I’m sorry,” Sgt. Maj. Byron C. Larsen of the base Garrison Command said in response to the soldier’s description.
Brian Dosa, the director of the post’s Directorate of Public Works, told the soldier that overcrowding will continue until barracks renovations are complete. Fort Hood has 99 barracks buildings on its main post. Of those, one-third have been renovated during the last decade and converted into single-occupancy rooms. Another 20 are being renovated and 28 remain in need of an overhaul.
“To be honest, I think we are going to continue to see it be that way for the foreseeable future because we have a backlog of barracks to be renovated across post,” Dosa said at the town hall.
On the East Coast, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said she is watching four projects in Virginia that total up to $131.7 million. Of that, $22.7 million is deemed for two projects at Joint Base Langley-Eustis.
A new fuel cell hangar is needed at Langley Air Force Base to house two F-22A aircraft, based on the construction requirements provided by the Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District.
The new facility will replace a smaller existing hangar to enhance the support of the 1st Fighter Wing F-22 open-tank fuels maintenance operations, said Nicholas J. De La Pena, spokesman for the 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs.
“The new 29,700 square-foot hangar will nearly double the size of the existing structure to enhance readiness capabilities, improve safety for fire suppression and exhaust ventilation to personnel and aircraft operations,” he said. Though the project is slated to begin within the third quarter for this fiscal year, a contract has not yet been awarded.
Langley also needs a facility to house operations for the new 185th Cyber Operations Squadron, which falls under the 192nd Wing of the Virginia Air National Guard. Activated in 2016, there currently isn’t an existing facility on Langley-Eustis to support its needs, said Bryan C. Myhr, spokesman for the 192nd Wing. Instead, the squadron rents space off base.
Specifically, the squadron requires adequate space for training, testing, meetings and conference rooms, as well as space for support and cyber operations.
Though Cancian said he sees projects that replace office buildings as high risk for delay, he thinks the cyber squadron’s facility could be safe, because it’s for a new mission.
The most vulnerable projects are ones that upgrade existing facilities, such as replacing old barracks and upgrading office buildings and old warehouses, Cancian said. But, he also said, this situation is new territory and he too is waiting to see how it plays out.
“My guess is they will cut fewer projects so they [minimize] the pain,” Cancian said.