By David Irvin
The top names from New Mexico’s leadership and the eastern New Mexico community walked into Marshall Junior High School auditorium Friday with a singular mission: Convince the Base Realignment and Closure commissioners that Cannon Air Force Base should not be shut down.
Judging from the boisterous mood at a press conference after the hearing, the group believed it was a success.
“We all have been working for years knowing that this day might come,” said Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M. “This is what I would call a home-run presentation. I think that everyone who came up to the plate hit a home run.”
Even the BRAC commissioners said the presentation was put together well, and Commissioner James Hansen called the arguments made by Cannon supporters “compelling.”
Nine supporters from the state, federal and local levels spoke on behalf of Cannon at the hearing.
However, the task ahead of the commissioners is not simple, they said after the hearing. In part this is because all the “low fruit” have been plucked from America’s arsenal during former BRAC rounds.
“We have tougher decisions to make than any other previous BRAC,” said Commissioner James Bilbray. “Cannon is wonderful, but I guarantee I’ve been to five other bases scheduled for closure that actually have hundreds of millions of dollars of new infrastructure on those bases. … So you’re one of the best, but there are about five or six other ones that are great bases too, so that’s what we’ve got to analyze.”
Hansen said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Commission the road would be hard.
“I still remember when Secretary Rumsfeld stood in front of our group. He said, ‘We have no bad bases. We just have too many bases.’ And that was the issue,” Hansen said.
Part of the logic behind having a BRAC round at this time, Hansen said, is to accommodate the future needs of the military and plan to confront military threats 20 years in the future.
To illustrate that point, Hansen spoke about a meeting he had with generals and admirals of the former Soviet Union’s military following the fall of communism.
“They said ‘We cannot run with you people, because your technology is so far ahead of ours,’” Hansen said.
Despite the odds against a Cannon removal — historically about 85 percent of bases slated for closure have been shut — New Mexico’s delegation and governor remained upbeat after the hearing.
“I think at the minimum we have truly created some questions in their minds,” said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
Rather than lay blame for what the delegates and other Cannon supporters have called “flawed” data, Domenici said the Pentagon faced a gigantic task and perhaps that’s how mistakes were made. Adding to that, he said the DoD’s case against Cannon was “clearly challenged, if not actually disavowed” by Friday’s presentation.
Gov. Bill Richardson said Cannon’s situation was considerably improved — “a month ago Cannon was on life support,” he quipped — but he continued to call the fight to save Cannon an “uphill battle.”
When asked what’s next in the process, Richardson answered, “We line up five votes, that’s what’s next.”
Compounding the difficulty of lining up those votes — and for the commission, taking a base off the list — is the domino effect that any base removal has on the entire Pentagon’s recommendations, commissioners said.
“It’s like playing checkers, you wonder where it’s going to stop,” said Hansen. “So all of these are going to be a little more difficult, in my mind, for this commission to deal with.”