Efforts Persist To Keep Joint Base Cape Cod Off Pentagon's Closure List

Aug 7, 2017
Originally published on August 7, 2017 7:36 am
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Let's visit a military base that's working to stay relevant. That matters now because the Pentagon wants to save money by closing bases over the next few years. It says it can save up to $2 billion a year that way. Joint Base Cape Cod was almost shut down a decade ago during another cost-saving measure by the Pentagon. Back then, it was called Otis Air Force Base. Jonathan Cain of member station WBUR takes us on a little driving tour.

JONATHAN CAIN, BYLINE: I'm inside a van. But the only jets I see are old, parked airplanes along the side of the road.

CARTER HUNT: Those are just some of the examples of the airplanes that used to be here - F-86. Then there's a F-100 here. In Vietnam, we called that the Thud.

CAIN: Carter Hunt's my guide. He's with a Massachusetts economic development agency.

HUNT: Every air base has lots of old aircraft hanging around, (laughter) waiting to fall apart.

CAIN: Air Force fighter jets no longer fly here. But the place has a history. On September 11, 2001, back when it was called Otis Air Force Base, F-15s scrambled from here to patrol the skies over New York City. Four years after that, the Pentagon decided the base should close.

VIRGINIA DOONAN: We were still in the middle of doing combat air patrols over cities of the United States. So it was shocking to be told that we were not going to be doing that mission anymore.

CAIN: That's Col. Virginia Doonan, commander of the Air National Guard's 102nd intelligence wing. And she's here at Joint Base Cape Cod because it stayed open but with a new name. How it stayed open? That's a story of changing military missions and savvy politicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED KENNEDY: That base is absolutely indispensable in terms of our national security and in terms of homeland security.

CAIN: It was in 2005 when the late Senator Ted Kennedy, one of Cape Cod's most famous residents, fought to save the base. Other state political leaders did the same. A committee, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, listened and decided to keep it open but with conditions. All the jets were sent elsewhere. The 102nd had to take on a new role, analyzing surveillance images from drones and aircraft around the world.

DOONAN: We accepted the idea of transitioning from a fighter wing to an intelligence wing at that time. And that was a pretty emotional event.

CAIN: Wing Commander Virginia Doonan knows change. She joined this wing in the 1980s as a mechanic. She worked her way up the ranks. And now she has another new mission. The National Guard put her in charge of launching a cyber intelligence team on Cape Cod. Two hundred members of the 1,300-person wing will work to identify overseas threats to U.S. government cyber networks.

DOONAN: We fight war not only on land, air and sea but also in space now and in cyberspace. And that takes a unique skill set.

CAIN: So cyber is the mission today. But the community is still looking to make the base run more efficiently, which also happens to help safeguard Joint Base Cape Cod against closure in the future.

HUNT: How are you doing?

CAIN: Good. How are you?

HUNT: Good.

CAIN: That's Carter Hunt again, the economic development official driving me around the base.

HUNT: Everything to my left here is the air base. Those blue-door buildings over there were part of the 9/11 timeframe. They were standby hangars for your - the F-15s to be ready to fly.

CAIN: Those blue-door buildings don't make much sense for a wing that doesn't fly and does most of its work in front of computer screens and video monitors. And that's not all that doesn't fit the mission. The wing also runs the utilities for the entire base - electricity, wastewater treatment. But to avoid landing on a base-closure list, you have to be efficient.

HUNT: We need to figure out ways of reducing the cost of operations here.

CAIN: Like cutting the water bill, transferring the airfield to the Coast Guard and handing off extra land and buildings to other federal or state agencies - all steps that could protect the base from closure because, after all, it's still there, even though not everyone in the area realizes it.

DOONAN: I wish that people understood that Otis is not closed.

CAIN: That's Wing Commander Virginia Doonan again, who's finding it can be harder to rally the community around the cyber and intelligence missions. After all, they're a lot quieter than flying.

DOONAN: I still get that from people in the Cape Cod community - that they think that Otis is closed because they can't hear the airplanes.

CAIN: For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Cain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.