USAF ordered to probe lobbying

The Air Force has been ordered to investigate whether officials lobbied members of Congress improperly on a plan to merge military bases.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England asked the secretary of the Air Force  —days before he was forced to resign  — to conduct an internal investigation after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) raised concerns over the Air Force’s actions.

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McCain, the GOP candidate for president, believes a provision in the 2008 emergency supplemental sponsored by Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the leading defense appropriators, was the result of lobbying by Air Force officials. Similar language is in the House bill.

The measure would allow a military service secretary or the head of another federal agency to delay or veto a decision by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) on “joint basing,” an initiative that requires branches of the military to consolidate bases to save money.

The Inouye -Stevens language would prohibit funds from being spent on the initiative if a military service secretary finds joint basing would not significantly save money or that it would hurt the military’s morale.

The stakes could be high for Hawaii, Inouye’s state, as Hickam Air Force Base is slated to merge with the Navy’s Pearl Harbor base. Congressional sources said, however, that concern about joint basing is spread across the country.

The call for an investigation comes at a tough time for the Air Force.

The Air Force was embarrassed by the disclosure that it had twice lost track of nuclear weapons; Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley were forced to resign over the matter earlier this month.

Additionally, the General Accounting Office last week upheld Boeing’s protest of the Air Force’s decision to award a contract to build refueling tankers to Northrop Grumman.

The language in the spending bills follows a 2005 BRAC decision that the Air Force would manage six joint bases, the Navy four and the Army two. Congress approved the commission’s recommendations into law.

McCain expressed concern about the Inouye-Stevens language in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates in mid-May. In it, he claimed that senior Air Force officials worked on the legislation with Senate members. McCain said the language could negate the 2005 BRAC decision.

“I believe it is inappropriate for senior Air Force officials to lobby legislators to delay or overturn BRAC decisions,” McCain wrote.

McCain said the Air Force already has the flexibility to resolve its concerns with the Pentagon leadership about the allocation of appropriate resources without resorting to congressional intervention.

McCain also expressed concern that the proposed legislation could open the door to other provisions seeking to affect the latest BRAC round.

In a written response to McCain, England said the Air Force was tasked with the investigation. His letter said the Office of the Secretary of Defense was not aware of any lobbying efforts, and that the Pentagon “does not condone” efforts to undermine the BRAC  joint basing recommendation.

“The Secretary of the Air Force has been asked to conduct an internal investigation of this matter and to recommend appropriate actions,” England wrote in the May 28 letter.

England also said that the Pentagon “strongly opposes” the provision in the supplemental and that the Pentagon would recommend that the president veto any bill that “weakens, delays, prevents implementation of, or otherwise affects the BRAC process.”

However, the most recent Statement of Administration Policy does not touch on the issue and could give the provision a pass.

While the Air Force publicly has supported joint basing, it has also expressed some concerns.

Services that lose management of a base are supposed to turn over the land as well as operating dollars to the new manager. The Air Force would prefer to keep controlling its real estate and budget, while the new manager would provide a whole range of services.

However, the military services recently agreed that the Air Force would be in charge of running all airfield operations at the joint bases. Traditionally, Air Force installations have their wing commanders run the airfield operations, while in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, airfield operations have always been installation functions.

Nonetheless, congressional sources said concerns over joint basing have spread across the country. Local communities fear that joint basing could create clashes between services, negatively affect employment and hamper military rotation assignments.

The Air Force was the only service that went public with its concerns, according to Mike Yuen, Inouye’s spokesman.

“Sen. Inouye and Sen. Stevens want to catch the attention of the Pentagon to make it slow down and rethink the joint basing approach, because their feeling is that joint basing can create more problems than provide for military efficiency,” Yuen said.

In congressional testimony, the Air Force has presented a united front in favor of joint basing.

“We are committed to making joint basing a raging success,” said Kathleen Ferguson, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for Installations. “The Air Force fully supports the spirit and intended results of [the] joint basing provision of BRAC 2005.”

She added that the Air Force has expressed concern related to the execution strategy of joint basing, which may affect mission. “However, the Air Force is not advocating any position that would inhibit carrying out any BRAC recommendation,” she said.

The provision in the 2008 supplemental is set to expire on Sept. 30 since the supplemental only covers fiscal year 2008, according to Yuen. However, the issue could resurface when the Senate takes up the 2009 defense authorization bill after the Independence Day recess. At press time, it was not clear whether the Senate would vote on the supplemental this week.

The Pentagon and the Air Force did not provide an update on the investigation by press time.