John W. Henderson is the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Energy. He came to the Air Force after a 23-year career with the Army Corps of Engineers. He spoke with Air Force Magazine Editorial Director John Tirpak in late November 2019 about reconstruction at Tyndall and Offutt AFBs; power generation resilience; the backlog of facilities maintenance; and overcapacity. The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Q. Let’s start with the Tyndall and Offutt recovery. It’s been just over a year since the hurricane in Florida, and almost a year since the flood in Nebraska. Where do things stand?
A. The bottom line with Tyndall [AFB, Fla.,] and Offutt [AFB, Neb.]—because we’re kind of running those recoveries in parallel—is, we’re off to a good start, thanks to a lot of help from Congress. They appropriated a total of $1.67 billion in disaster supplemental funds that we’ve put to good use. We funded designs for over $3.6 billion in military construction, and those are underway. We’re getting traction on some of the bigger work that has to be done.
Both Tyndall and Offutt have restored their mission capabilities in the interim.
The numbers of people at Tyndall are still down because the folks flying the F-22s have moved to other places. But they’re still running Checkered Flag exercises; they still have the capability to run the exercises and do the missions. All the other mission sets that were there supporting Tyndall have been restored, and all those people have returned.
The flying mission is still coming back, and those folks will come back as the F-35s start arriving in 2023.
The $1.67 billion was a good start. But we’ll have to continue to work with Congress in FY 20 and probably FY 21 to authorize and appropriate additional funds to meet the rest of the construction that has to be done.
Q. So the grand total for Tyndall is about $5 billion?
A. Just under $5 billion, probably $4.8 or $4.9. That number includes the money spent out of operations and maintenance for the initial response; the recovery; the relocation of F-22s to other bases, etc. With regard to infrastructure and the rebuild, that bill is more like $3.6 billion to rebuild Tyndall. … So far, those have all been supplemental appropriations.
Q. Tyndall was virtually scraped clean—a chance to create a ‘base of the future.’ What will that look like?
A. We’re working with the provider to bring 5G into Tyndall and with public and private innovators on a lot of smart technologies, trying to figure out which ones make the most sense. Our intent isn’t just to go in and put a bunch of smart technologies in there if they don’t directly support the missions. We don’t want to be the early adopter on every new technology that’s out there.
But it will include some energy resilience technologies. Also, predictive artificial intelligence for facility maintenance. The idea is, as you rebuild the facilities, sensors are already embedded into the construction, and the facilities can tell you when they need maintenance, kind of like your car check engine light coming on.
It allows us to extend the lifespan of these buildings and nests very well with our infrastructure investment strategy. The idea is, get in and fix things before they’re completely broken, when it would cost 10 times as much to fix.
We’re also taking the opportunity to put improved and integrated base defense infrastructure in there; the security component. And then, things that are less technological but important for the mission, like walkable campuses and centralized community support facilities that will improve the overall quality of life for our airmen.
Q. Same ideas at Offutt?
A. There’s a little different problem set at Offutt. There, we’re probably more focused on rebuilding out of the flood-prone areas. A lot of what we’re doing is repairing the existing facilities in place just because that’s the most economical way to do it. We don’t necessarily have a clean slate.
But whether it’s repair or reconstruction, those new buildings will meet the updated codes, building standards, and design criteria. We’ll do smart building techniques for the facilities that we end up touching.
Q. There was discussion of maybe moving some of the Tyndall amenities—the base exchange, bowling alley, etc.—outside the gate, and relying on the local economy for those things. Where does that stand?
A. All that community support infrastructure was significantly damaged at Tyndall and it has given us an opportunity to re-look at how we address some of the quality of life and community support infrastructure on the base.
We’re generally looking at how some of those services could be provided better through a public-private partnership. We haven’t made any decisions yet. But our intent is to rebuild Tyndall with all the mission and community support infrastructure it needs to sustain airmen and families there. Because the quality of life of our airmen and families and having access to that stuff inside the base is absolutely essential for retention, recruitment, and just taking care of our people. So, we’ll build all that back, in some form or another.
Q. How much does the local retiree population influence planning on those issues?
A. Oh, it’s significant. And it’s not just retirees, there’s joint service aspects. For instance, we were pretty quick to get the commissary and the BX back up and running because there is a huge retiree community there, Reserve and National Guard folks there. There are people from other services that rely on the community support services provided by Tyndall, and that is germane to the conversation.
Q. What are your plans for power generation/resiliency, both at these two facilities and around the Air Force?
A. At each facility, we’re doing installation energy plans. We’ve got to have a primary source of energy and then backup sources for all of our critical facilities.
Specifically at Tyndall and Offutt, we have commercial providers doing the generation. To make sure it’s more resilient, we’re looking at maybe burying the power or putting another substation in to have another source of power.
Where it makes sense, we’re working with the power providers to have maybe a complete alternate source of energy, combined with a micro grid, so if the grid goes down externally, we have another, wind or solar or a peaking plant, built on base.
Q. What are the big lessons that you’re learning from ‘pull- the-plug’ exercises?
A. We’ve done two of these exercises in this fiscal year; at Hanscom [AFB, Mass.,] and at Vandenberg [AFB, Calif.,] We’re looking over those findings now. These exercises were planned, specifically, to identify gaps. The primary lesson learned is, while we have backups for critical facilities, there are second- and third-order effects around the base when the power goes out.
For instance, with an operations center, you need a backup generator for cooling, because if you don’t, the server room that feeds the ops center will overheat in only about an hour, and then you lose your communications and your ability to do [command and control]. The server may be two blocks away, so even though the lights in the ops building are on, and maybe even the computers are running, they get knocked off the network.
So you can miss the fact that something is a critical facility. What we’ve learned is where we need to put projects together to ensure bases can run and be fully operational in the event of a long-term power outage.
And, it’s one thing to be able to run on emergency power for two hours. Being able to do it long term—for 24 hours, for 72 hours or having to go two weeks—is a whole ’nother thing that we’re also looking at.
Q. Talk about your Infrastructure Investment Strategy. You’ve said repair is no longer going to be simply ‘worst first.’
A. We’ve put a strategy in place to address the $33 billion backlog of facility maintenance and repair that’s built up over the last six to eight years. Funding just the absolute worst facilities was only building more backlog and was not a good plan for the future. The IIS really represents a feasible way forward to address some of this backlog.
It clearly has to be a long-term strategy. You can’t buy down $33 billion inside of the [Future Years Defense Program]. But Congress and [the Office of the Secretary of Defense], to date, have been very supportive of us asking for more money, toward two percent of our plant replacement value each year.
And the data analytics of understanding the condition of what you have, that will help us target the investments. That’ll save billions of dollars for the Air Force in facility work over the next 30 years.
Q. The Air Force has long asked Congress for another round of Base Realignment and Closure. When you plan, how much do you expect to keep open?
A. Assessments have been done saying that we’ve had overcapacity in our infrastructure. But those measurements were, essentially, quick looks to determine whether a BRAC was needed or not.
At some point, I expect the discussion about BRAC will come up again, and we’ll work with Congress for the authority to study what’s required and when.
Q. That 30 percent overcapacity estimate was done before the National Defense Strategy and the Air Force’s “The Air Force We Need” paper saying the service should be bigger. Does USAF still have too many bases?
A. That’s a great point. The Air Force had drawn down for a number of years, but our infrastructure hadn’t drawn down commensurately. We have more ramp space than we have airplanes.
But when I go out to bases, I see that those facilities are being used for something. Maybe it’s not an Air Force mission; maybe it’s a [Federal Emergency Management Agency] mission. Maybe we’ve pulled National Guard or a sister service into those buildings. Maybe we repurposed hangars to be gyms. So the 30 percent is kind of hard to see out there.
Having said that, in “The Air Force We Need,” we talked about growing to 386 squadrons. That puts a whole new capacity crunch on the infrastructure. Just because there’s a number of 30 percent out there doesn’t mean we could automatically add another 60 or 80 squadrons at our bases, because we’ve repurposed a lot of that infrastructure. We probably have the runways and the ramp space, it’s all the supporting facilities that have either been demoed or repurposed that would put us in a tight position.
Q. Would you have to evict some of the activities that have taken root in those dormant areas?
A. That would be very hard to do. Some of those are other government entities or other services that have moved onto the bases because of heightened security requirements, for force protection. We’ve taken on a lot of missions over the years that way. What we could do is make better utilization of the space we have. Tell them, ‘Hey, we’re going to consolidate some of these missions. Your offices and classrooms won’t be as big, but we’ll get more use out of the facility.’
Q. Has the Air Force wound up paying a lot of the housekeeping bills for the other services because of joint basing?
A. There are 12 joint bases. The Air Force serves as the lead service on seven of those bases, and we’re working with the Navy right now to potentially take over an eighth base, and that would be JB Anacostia-Bolling, D.C. We would just switch executive agency there because the bulk of forces there are actually Air Force.
When we get a joint base, we take on other services and facilities onto our real property books, and there’s a commensurate transfer of funding authority to the Air Force from DOD. So, it’s not necessarily an increased bill to pay, but it is organizational infrastructure we’ve got responsibility for running.
Q. Privatized housing on bases is getting a lot of attention. What’s changing?
A. We acknowledge that we still have a long way to go on several things, but as all good organizations do, we’re holding ourselves accountable through an [Inspector General] assessment, through commander-directed inquiries.
It’s a strategic imperative for the Air Force to continue to recruit and retain the best and brightest people. We owe it to them to have good facilities. The Secretary and Chief have taken a personal interest in this and said we need to handle this such that we don’t lose the trust of the nation that supports us.