Updated at 12:23 p.m., Friday, April 27, 2007
Cost-cutting hits Hickam and other Air Force bases
By JAMES HANNAH
Even the grass is being cut less often.
Air Force bases around the country are scrambling to save dollars, nickels and pennies as fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, aging aircraft, and rising energy costs gobble up funding all at a time that $137 million F-22 fighter jets are being deployed.
"It's the small things consistently practiced over time that can help reduce costs," said Lt. Col. Trent Edwards, comptroller of the 88th Air Base Wing, which operates Wright-Patterson Air Force Base here.
One of the three fitness centers has closed at the base, where the budget shriveled this year to $452 million from $626 million. Towel service at the other two gyms has been canceled for an annual savings of $247,000.
No extra weight at Hickam
Every 100 pounds of extra weight on a plane costs about $500,000 in fuel a year.
So at Hickam Air Force Base, airmen stripped a KC-135 refueling plane of bunks, tool boxes and even 290 pounds in floor mats and runners to lighten the load. Some of the items which weighed a total of about 5,000 pounds will be returned to the plane, although possibly in lighter versions.
"We took apart everything that wasn't bolted down and in some cases things that were bolted down," said Maj. Charles Anthony, a spokesman for the Hawai'i National Guard.
The Bush administration estimates military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost $142 billion in 2008. Under the Bush budget, both the Army and Navy would get bigger percentage increases than the Air Force.
"There seems to be a perception among policymakers that the ground forces are carrying most of the burden in Iraq and therefore the Air Force and Navy need to give up money to help them," said Loren Thompson, defense analyst for the Lexington Institute. "The Air Force is under a lot of stress."
The Air Force has asked for about $111 billion in fiscal 2008, up $6 billion from the current budget. However, funds for infrastructure base construction and maintenance would fall from about $6 billion to $5 billion.
President Bush also has directed the Air Force which consumes 60 percent of the energy used by the federal government to reduce energy usage by 3 percent a year for the next 10 years to save money.
And then there is the rising cost of maintaining a fleet of aging aircraft and paying healthcare for aging personnel.
"All of those costs are putting dramatic pressure on our Air Force," said Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert, director of Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century, which is trying to improve productivity and energy efficiency.
Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C., has replaced 11 pickup trucks with smaller, lighter two-person vehicles with flatbeds. Limited to speeds of 25 mph, the trucks carry aircraft parts, patrol housing areas and perform other jobs. Fuel-cost savings are estimated at $5,000 a year.
"It's a lousy Cadillac, but a really great small vehicle," said 2nd Lt. Zachary Buckallew. "I think it can be a very smart way to save money."
Mechanics at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga., found a way to prolong the lives of the metal arms that hold the propellers in place on C-130 cargo planes by machining sleeves that slide over the arms. The idea will save $1.1 million in replacement costs annually.
Mess hall privileges cut back
Wright-Patterson's decision to cut mess hall privileges was unpopular.
"We had a lot of pushback from retirees," said base spokeswoman Libby VanHook.
Military retirees now are allowed to eat at the mess hall only on holidays, and midnight meal service was canceled for everyone. The base has served about 31,000 fewer meals since the policy went into effect 11 months ago and saved $199,000.
John Merryman, a retiree who works on the base as a civilian, said he understands the need to cut costs but misses eating at the mess hall, where he could get a good meal for $3 to $3.50.
"It did give you an opportunity for fellowship with active-duty (airmen) and the other retirees," the 63-year-old said.
In perhaps a less visible move, the base now is mowing the grass in fields in less populated areas two to three times a year instead of nearly once a week.
Some experts doubt whether these kinds of cost-cutting measures will have a big impact.
"The kind of money the Air Force needs to make ends meet is measured in billions of dollars," said defense analyst Thompson. "So clipping the grass less frequently or painting the buildings every three years is not going to cut it."
However, he said, that as a symbol, it speaks volumes.
"It tells you how desperate the Air Force is that it would resort to these measures."
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U.S. Air Force: http://www.af.mil/