Third in a four-part series.

The competition is fierce.

And with so many bases fighting to survive the next round of closures, it's hard to determine the odds.

Hill Air Force Base is not only competing with eight other major military depots. It must also contend with threats of privatization and even unrelated business ventures, said Vickie McCall, president of the Utah Defense Alliance.

"We'll compete with the best of the best," McCall said.

Nobody really knows how each base will be compared. The entire Base Realignment and Closure process is extremely secretive.

Commanders of every military installation recently sent the Defense Department answers to thousands of questions pertaining to personnel, infrastructure and equipment. That data is currently being reviewed by the Defense Department and will not be released until the BRAC list of bases proposed for closure comes out on or before May 16.

"We don't know how the commission is going to compare," said Kari Tilton, a Hill spokeswoman. "There is going to be some apples to apples, there is going to be some apples to oranges. It's complicated."

Military togetherness

Three major maintenance depots remain in the entire Air Force.

BRAC shut down two bases with air logistics centers during the 1995 round of base closures. Hill escaped that year, but Kelly and McClellan Air Force bases in San Antonio and Sacramento, Calif., didn't make the cut.

Hill Air Force Base remains, as do Robins and Tinker Air Force bases in Georgia and Oklahoma. But these maintenance-based installations, also known as "air logistics centers," are not competing against each other for survival. In fact, they are the future of the U.S. military, McCall said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's call for "jointness"?

"We've already got that in all of our (air logistics centers)," McCall said.

Rumsfeld has called for a transformation of the military that calls for teamwork among every branch of the military in the post-Cold War era.

Key to this transformation is creating jointness — a strategy that will improve efficiency levels across the Department of Defense. In this new, transformed, military, airmen will train with soldiers, Marines with seamen — all branches of the military will train and deploy together. Depots from every branch of the military will work together to maintain expensive defense equipment.

"Jointness is an important part of the BRAC process," Philip Grone, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, recently told the House Armed Services Committee.

The air logistics centers at Hill, Robins and Tinker Air Force bases are the perfect place to execute Rumsfeld's transformation, said Ron Carbon, executive director of 21st Century Partnership, a group lobbying to save Robins Air Force Base.

Work at some Army and even Navy maintenance depots could be transferred to one of the remaining Air Force air logistics centers, he said.

"We have some very large bases, we have the ability to receive new missions, and we don't have any operational restrictions," Carbon said. "We can easily serve the roles that the (Department of Defense) is wanting to do."

Private-sector competition

Even if Utah's bases are not shut down, they could lose some of their workload to private contractors.

Boeing has expressed interest in taking over Hill's landing-gear workload, McCall said. Hill performs 70 percent of all Defense Department landing-gear repair efforts.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said one possible BRAC outcome would leave all workloads at Hill privatized except for the intercontinental ballistics missile mission.

But Hill can find hope in a law that limits how much work the Defense Department can contract out.

Under the 50-50 law, at least half of all military maintenance must be performed by government-run facilities like Hill.

"You can't privatize everything," McCall said.

Indirect threat

A small Indian tribe in Utah's western desert is another major player in Hill's fight for survival.

Some leaders of the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes want to store spent nuclear rods above ground near the military's Utah Test and Training Range.

With 12,574 square miles of airspace, the Utah Test and Training Range is the Defense Department's largest test range and "critical to our national defense," McCall said.

On that land, F-16 pilots at Hill can train in air-to-air combat in a place that mirrors where U.S. troops are fighting today. The hills and valleys match the geographical features of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Utah Test and Training Range is also the only place where the Air Force tests cruise missiles.

F-16 pilots shouldn't have to worry about crashing into in spent nuclear waste, said Jim Hansen, the former Utah congressman who has been appointed the the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

"That's scary business. If you're in the Air Force and you don't want that liability, what would you tell your pilots?" Hansen asked. "You'd probably exclude a big chunk of that range."

Rep. Rob Bishop recently introduced legislation that could save Hill and block nuclear waste at the same time. The Utah Republican wants to accomplish both goals by designating 100,000 acres of Utah's western desert as wilderness.

A wilderness designation would block the Goshutes from transporting nuclear waste through the Cedar Mountains.

Eliminating that concern is crucial as Hill struggles to survive a new round of base closings this year.

"This bill would make it so the Goshute Nation can't put spent fuel rods on the reservation at probably the worst place they could possibly find — the driveway into the Utah Test and Training Range," Bishop said.

The proposed Private Fuel Storage nuclear-waste facility would hold up to 4,000 casks filled with spent nuclear fuel. Utah leaders have exhausted nearly every option in blocking the waste facility.

Encroachment issues aren't a major problem in the West Desert. The potential for nuclear waste as a next-door-neighbor to the Utah Test and Training Range, however, is a big problem as BRAC convenes, Bishop said.

"Let's say you exclude a big chunk of that range," Hansen said. "The base closure commissioners could say, 'What good is that base; we can't even fly over it?'

"We're headed to another base-closure round. Why give another weak point to the base closing commissioners if you can forestall it?"

The range is a "vital and irreplaceable part of the test and training infrastructure at the Department of Defense," said Gerald Pease Jr., the Air Force's associate director for ranges and airspace, in a 2002 affidavit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

"The proposed PFS facility must not impact our ability to conduct tests or train our forces at the Utah Test and Training Range. The Air Force opposes any flight restrictions that might result from the siting of their facility that would impair our testing and training at the Utah Test and Training Range."

Fighting over the remains

If Hill can survive these hurdles, another battle is right around the corner.

The prize: coveted workload from bases shut down in the BRAC process.

"You're kidding yourself if you don't think that other bases are salivating at what's at Hill Air Force Base that they'd like to get their hands on," Hansen said. "It's a dog-eat-dog situation."

A mass-realignment could take all but the intercontinental ballistic missile systems mission at Hill, Bishop said — a move that would dramatically cut the base's civilian staff of about 17,000.

McCall said she believes Hill will not be closed, but a major realignment is not out of the question.

The Utah Defense Alliance's McCall and Rick Mayfield plan to be in Washington, D.C., when the official BRAC list comes out so they can plan their attack.

"Hill would be smart, as every base would be smart, to start looking around and saying if so-and-so closes, can we get that mission? Is that mission compatible with our base?" Hansen said. "Everyone has got to be prepared."

Coming Wednesday: Do Tooele Army Depot and Dugway Proving Ground stand a chance?


E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com