[First in a series about the future of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base]
In a wide-ranging interview about the future of Davis-Monthan Air Force base, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said that while he does not expect the base to be closed or sharply reduced in scale as the military cuts spending, “people should always be considering Plan B, even if there’s not a lot of reality to it.”
Rothschild was responding to questions about how he — or a successor as mayor of a mid-sized city whose economy depends greatly on the $1.1 billion in economic benefit the base accounts for annually — might be required to deal with the fallout from military reductions that might include base closings as the Defense Department scales down spending.
Davis-Monthan, which employs 3,300 civilians and has 7,300 military personnel, is one of Tucson’s three largest employers, along with the University of Arizona and Raytheon. The main mission of the sprawling base is to train pilots for the Air Force’s A-10 attack aircraft — a warplane that the Pentagon has said it is considering retiring.
[In Washington on Wednesday, the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welch told Congress that as hard decisions are made about reductions, “we must cut people and force-structure now to create a balanced Air Force.” He said that cutting the A-10 fleet would save $3.7 billion across the future-year defense program. He said that cutting the A-10 fleet is “the lowest-risk option,” and that “from a military perspective, it’s the right decision.”]
As it becomes more likely that the A-10 will be eliminated because the Pentagon has called it an outdated “single-mission” airplane designed for Cold War battlefield strategy, Mayor Rothschild said that strong local support to maintain Davis-Monthan at current levels is crucial. So he and others hope to stress to the Pentagon that the base has capabilities beyond the A-10 training missions.
Far off — and hopefully not likely — in any municipality’s planning, he acknowledged, would be to evaluate an economic recovery in the event of a base closing or sharp reduction. The closest large municipality with such precedent is Mesa, where a round of Pentagon base reductions in 1993 closed the large Williams Air Force Base. Mesa annexed the land, which is now the site of Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. Allegiant Air now operates commercial air service at the airport, where there is also an industrial park with dozens of aerospace, private aviation and other companies. Mesa Gateway claims to pump $1.3 billion into the Phoenix regional economy.
“I do know it is not a road you want to go down, and Mesa’s recovery is probably one of the more quickly successful ones,” Rothschild said. “I only mention it to say that you can recover — but you don’t want to have to go through that exercise.”
As concern spreads about effects of a possible A-10 elimination, community groups have organized, among them the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, to shore up local support, while promoting to the Pentagon the strategic and other virtues of Davis-Monthan, including its location in an area condicive to year-round training, with strong local partnerships allied with the military.
[Here is the Air Force’s study on economic importance of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in the 2012 fiscal year.]
Eliminating the A-10 could cost 2,000 direct jobs to the community, according to Rothschild. With the base as one of the three top economic drivers in the community, Rothschild said the focus now should be on pressing for a diversification of missions. Besides the A-10 operations and other military activities, the base is the site of the vast aircraft storage site called the Boneyard, where about 4,400 mostly retired military aircraft are parked. The Boneyard is formally known as the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group.
How a city succeeds after a base closes is a question of how “adaptable” it is, Rothschild said, emphasizing that he was speaking hypothetically.
“There’s no question that to lose something like that is a huge hit, particularly to this community,” Rothschild said. “And Mesa is a perfect example, but I don’t think we need to go there yet. There’s no BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure Commission) scheduled. People talk about a BRAC coming in 2017 or 2018 — nobody has put a BRAC on the table. But, quite frankly, right now I have to deal in the immediate present.”
In 1993, the conclusions of the so-called federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission led to multiple rounds of reductions that eliminated dozens of bases and other military operations throughout the country. But even after those cuts, the Defense Department said in a report in 1998 that “we still have more infrastructure than we need to support our forces.”
Although Rothschild said he has not looked at other bases that have closed, he said he understands the significant impact a reduction could have on a city and a region. Here are some excerpts from the Arizona Sonora News Service interview with him:
“First of all, I don’t believe the base is going to close, and I know that that rhetoric is out there. The fact of the matter is, a number of the missions that are here at the base are unique to the base. Particularly the Boneyard, the border security. Those two are really geographically dependent on the base,” he said.
All military people he has spoken with, active-duty and retired, “believe the A-10 is an important part of the military mission, and as near as we can tell there’s nothing yet to replace the A-10. We all have to make that case to Washington. Of course, if we could end the sequester, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” he said, referring to the congressional Budget Control Act of 2011 and its effects on the military.
The mayor added:
“Going forward, I think it does need to be a wakeup call to this community that military technologies are always changing, and so if the A-10 is going to be here another 20 years, at some point that technology will be changed out. Some of the things the base continues to do well and can be expanded: the military drone program is here and in conjunction with Sierra Vista we need to expand that. The military is going to move toward unmanned aircrafts. The fact that we’re one of the sites of the military drone program is something we need to work to expand. Border security is going to move more toward technology. The fact that the base does some of that work is important. I think one of the futures for the military is in cyberspace security. We have to sell Davis-Monthan both for its airspace, but also for its weather; for its security and for its connections to the surrounding bases. And if we do that, and do that in an organized fashion, we should be O.K. But it’ll be a fight.”
Still, he was asked, is there a Plan B being considered for the loss of Davis-Monthan or a significant part of its operations at some point in the future, if military spending cuts continue amid a force-drawdown with the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?
“Right now the thought has to be, first of all, what do we do to keep all options on the table and to pitch for many varied missions.” Rothschild said. “In a sense, Davis-Monthan ,or any Air Force base, is as strong as it is diversified — and so to have diverse missions on the same base keeps you active. So that’s plan 1. People should always be considering Plan B, even if there’s not a lot of reality to it. And Mesa is a perfect example, but I don’t think we need to go there yet. There’s no BRAC scheduled, people talk about a BRAC coming in 2017 or 2018. Nobody has put a BRAC on the table. But, quite frankly, right now I have to deal in the immediate present. I don’t want to lose the A-10 and 2,000 jobs. Whereas if I’m going to lose it, I need to know there’s a substitute mission similar to what the A-10 can do.”
He added, “I think our first discussion has to be about how we keep all of our missions here.”
Local efforts can strongly support such a goal, he said. “We have a great relationship,” he said of cooperation between the city and the Air Force. “I talk with the commander of the ANG [Arizona National Guard], and the commander of Davis-Monthan on a regular basis. It’s where I get my information from. I find it to be the most accurate. All the commanders say the support of this community is some of the best they see around the country, that they feel welcome here. The base is part of the city, so from time to time we have issues, regarding water or whatever it might be, but we have a really great working relationship with the base.”
Besides the direct jobs on the base, Davis-Monthan’s 2012 study said that it accounts for another 4,700 “indirect” jobs in the community. Of that, Rothschild said, “I think I’m pretty confident in saying that what the base delivers to the community in terms of secondary jobs, in terms of people coming off the base and spending sales tax and purchasing items, is far more than what we do there.”
He added, “Anything we can do to make it so that the missions here can fly, absolutely we should do it.”
In other comments, Rothschild discussed one of his favorite subjects, the opportunities for far greater economic activity and cross-border cooperation between southern Arizona and northern Mexico, particularly Nogales, Sonora.
“I am convinced our economic future is tied to the future of Sonora,” he said.
One issue that has often come up in that area is the perception in Mexico of hostility toward Mexico in Arizona politics as perceived coming from rhetoric about immigration and other issues in Phoenix.
Rothschild said: “In the past it has been very unhelpful. Phoenix now, its mayor and a number of people at the state level, are working to repair those relationships. They’re spending more time in Mexico, city in particular. I think the tide has turned and I think from certainly the Phoenix perspective, they would like to put that rhetoric and behavior behind them. It’s going to take time to heal. And in Tucson, we don’t have that problem. Whenever I go to any place in Mexico, we’re really very warmly received and that’s helpful for all of us. “