Low-rated, damaged base gets Bush nod


WASHINGTON -- President Bush wants to commit hundreds of millions of tax dollars to rebuild a Florida air base that consistently ranked low in military evaluations and which an independent commission actually considered shutting down over the objections of the Air Force, according to military and commission records obtained by The Sun.

Homestead Air Force Base, which was severely damaged by Hurricane Andrew, survived that threat of closure last year on the strength of military arguments that its "strategic" location is ideal for launching counter-drug missions in Central America and South America and in tactical air operations against Cuba.

Yesterday, after landing at the base, Mr. Bush promised it would be rebuilt "to show our commitment to South Florida." His announcement means the facility would almost certainly survive the next round of base closings, slated to begin next March, Pentagon officials said.

Officials were unable to say how much the reconstruction would cost, but the Air Force estimated last year that $82.18 million alone was needed to replace or renovate substandard family housing on the base, records show.

Pentagon spokesman Bob Hall said he expected the reconstruction to cost "hundreds of millions of dollars." The Air Force would draw from existing funds to begin rebuilding soon, "but we are going to need to seek an additional appropriation from Congress," Mr. Hall said.

Congressional aides predicted that, for the next several years, the Air Force would have to delay or cancel military construction projects elsewhere in the country to cover the costs at Homestead.

"The location of the base is very important," Mr. Hall told reporters after Mr. Bush announced his decision to rebuild the crippled base, the southernmost Air Force facility in the continental United States. He cited the need to support counter-drug missions from Homestead and to keep sea lanes in the Caribbean open for U.S. trade.

But Mr. Hall failed to dispel suggestions that Mr. Bush was playing election-year politics in vote-rich Florida, considered a must-win state for the Republicans. "It's very clear that we are supporting the people of Florida and the people of these communities in their effort to recover," he said.

"I think, you know, it's very appropriate that he reassure the [Homestead] community that we are committed to rebuilding the area, and there is a federal facility there that we are committed to rebuilding. It's a very important message to be sending."

The 50-year-old base, once an isolated airstrip surrounded by long pines and palmetto scrub about a mile inland from Biscayne Bay, became vulnerable to post-Cold War budget cuts last year when a bipartisan U.S. base closing commission made it a "preliminary candidate" for closure.

To match facilities to a shrinking force of F-16 fighters and other combat aircraft, the Air Force evaluated all 16 tactical air bases in the United States.

It gave Homestead low ratings in several areas, including housing conditions, its ability to adapt to a new mission and the base's proximity to joint training areas for ground and air forces, records show.

"It kept coming up in the lower third of bases in the tac [tactical] category, but the Air Force secretary [Donald B. Rice] gave it a categorical exclusion from any base closing list," recalled Matt Behrmann, the commission's executive director. "He said its location was so critically important."

The Pentagon proposed closing Bergstrom Air Force Base iTexas and three other tactical air bases instead, but the commission chose to consider Homestead and other bases as alternatives and to give communities a chance to defend their local facility.

After classified briefings by the Air Force, the commission met June 7, 1991 and voted, 5-2, to remove Homestead from its hit list. Commission records show the major reasons supplied by the Air Force for saving the base included its "proximity to Cuba" and the presence of an air national guard "alert" detachment there.

U.S. forces are scheduled to withdraw from Panama at the end of the decade, and the military's Southern Command, operated from Howard Air Force Base in Panama, may move to Homestead at that time, the Air Force also argued.

One document argues that a commission vote to close Homestead "challenges Air Force leadership's military judgment."

In addition, the commission was told that the base supported an array of anti-drug operations and had no problems with air traffic congestion, noise complaints or other difficulties with surrounding communities. The 3,344-acre property was also deemed "hard to sell," but could be a "possibly good return someday," records show.

The commission finally voted to close only three tactical bases: Bergstrom; England Air Force Base, La.; and Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, S.C.

Homestead Air Force Base

Population: 4,157 active-duty personnel, including 2,204 living on base; 5,240 active-duty military dependents; 1,644 guard and reserve personnel; 1,024 civilian workers.

Family Housing: 1,613 units with an average age 24 years (before Hurricane Andrew).

Size of Base: 3,344 acres.

Major Units: 31st Tactical Fighter Wing; 482d Tactical Fighter Wing (Reserve); 301st Air Rescue Squadron; 3613d Combat Crew Training Squadron; 3752d Field Training Squadron.

Aircraft: 48 F-16C/D (authorized); 19 F-16A/B (for reserve wing); 4 HC-130N; 4 HH-3E.

Major Facilities: Air Force Water Survival School, for training aircrews; Air Force conference center, for major command meetings; Inter-American Air Forces Academy, for professional training of members of Spanish-speaking armed forces.

Other Tenants: U.S. Customs Service aviation unit with 14 radar-equipped Cessnas, Black Hawk helicopters and other aircraft; a federal prison camp, which provides vocational counseling to inmates and work on the base; USO-Dade County, which coordinates off-base recreational activities for military personnel.

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