Flooding at Offutt Air Force Base destroyed expensive electronic equipment used to process classified data along with several crew training simulators, prompting an emergency request by the Air Force for $234 million to replace them.
In a recent letter to top members of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon asked for “urgent attention” to the request because lost defense capabilities are already being felt by commanders in the field.
In the letter, Bacon — a member of the House Armed Services Committee — warned of “significant additional readiness impacts” from the loss of the electronics gear, which was located in the flooded headquarters of the 55th Intelligence Support Squadron.
That building was one of 137 structures damaged in mid-March when the Missouri and Platte Rivers overwhelmed levees protecting Offutt.
Bacon, who commanded the Offutt-based 55th Wing while serving in the Air Force, wrote that the specific impacts are classified but “represent significant risk to the National Defense Strategy. The longer the delay, the great(er) the risk and the costlier the recovery.”
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The request comes on top of the $420 million the Air Force already is seeking, to cover cleanup and emergency repairs at Offutt this year ($120 million) and to replace ruined buildings next year ($300 million). With the cost of Offutt repairs now reaching the $650 million range, the Air Force is urging congressional action. The House of Representatives passed a disaster assistance bill 257-150 on May 10. The Senate hasn’t yet acted.
Outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has warned that nearly all recovery work at Offutt will stop July 1 if emergency funds aren’t approved.
Base officials also said the request doesn’t include the cost of outfitting the replacement buildings with furnishings and electronics. That figure hasn’t yet been calculated but is likely to top $300 million — perhaps bringing the total cost of rebuilding Offutt close to $1 billion.
The 55th Wing’s fleet of 29 RC-135 reconnaissance jets fly daily above or near political trouble spots from deployed locations in Europe, Japan and the Middle East. The planes monitor radio, radar and other electronic signals, and they’re in high demand in every theater where they operate, Bacon said.
The three destroyed simulators are not designed for training of flight crew (a cockpit simulator in a separate building wasn’t damaged in the flood) but rather for back-of-the-plane skills and functions. Offutt military leaders said the ruined simulators enable signal-monitoring crews to practice their work on the ground, and allow maintenance crews to practice repairing the highly sensitive electronics gear.
The simulators were too big to be moved.
In the interim, some Offutt-based airmen have been sent to England or Texas, where other RC-135 simulators are located. Other training is being done on board actual aircraft. That can cause problems because the planes are needed at the Wing’s deployed locations, in England, Greece, Japan and Qatar.
“Our training capacity is definitely suffering,” said Col. John Norton, commander of the 55th Mission Support Group.
Lt. Col. Aaron Gray, the 55th Wing’s director of staff, said training sorties were canceled in late March when floodwaters covered about one-fourth of the runway. But that training resumed in April, when 40 of 42 scheduled sorties were completed.
About one-third of Offutt staff has been relocated to a temporary workspace since the flood. When Offutt is rebuilt, Norton said, the 55th Wing plans to reorganize into eight “campuses,” with related activities grouped together.
“As we rebuild smartly, we’ll consolidate some of these functions,” Norton said.
At least one space, the SATCOM/MILSTAR satellite communications complex, will move to higher ground near the new U.S. Strategic Command headquarters because it is primarily for StratCom’s use.
Other planned changes include:
- Alert campus, including ready rooms for the E-6 Mercury and E-4B Nightwatch alert aircraft including headquarters office for the 595th Command and Control Group.
- Security campus, including headquarters of the 55th Security Forces Squadron and associated facilities.
- Logistics Readiness Squadron/Petroleum Oil Lubricants campus, for handling and storage of oil and fuel.
- Non-Kinetic Effects Center of Excellence, for squadrons belonging to the Wing’s Operations group.
- Power plant, including the base’s power-generation facilities.
- Flightline Hangars campus, including units that support aircraft maintenance activities.
- Lake campus, which consolidates recreational buildings near the base lake east of the runway.
The 55th Wing leadership won’t need a new building, because the unit already had planned to move into StratCom’s current headquarters in the Curtis LeMay Building. That space is available because of the recent completion of StratCom’s new $1.3 billion Command and Control Facility, which is scheduled for full occupation by the end of the year.
StratCom’s commander, Gen. John Hyten, has said he will do everything he can to expedite that move so that the 55th Wing can occupy the LeMay Building as soon as possible.
Norton said $950,000 has been budgeted in 2020 to redesign the LeMay Building for the 55th Wing. That suggests a total renovation cost of about $9.5 million.