The Air Force's top general wants to create a handful of "superbases" in the United States by bolstering some and paring down or closing others.
"This is an urgent issue," Gen. Michael Ryan said in an interview. "We need to reorganize ourselves. We need to get rid of excess infrastructure."
The pressure in recent years of establishing bases at overseas crisis points _ Bosnia, the Middle East, Africa _ has resulted in domestic bases being "stretched too thin," Ryan said.
And while Air Force combat units are designed to deploy at a moment's notice, the cooks, engineers, medical personnel, military police and other units that keep bases humming aren't organized for immediate assignment abroad.
So the general is looking at consolidating such support units at four to six bases in the United States. He would not specify them, saying he has asked his staff for a "template" of which bases should grow and which should be slimmed or closed. He also is considering organizing combat units into "expeditionary" forces to rotate responsibility for overseas deployments, allowing personnel to count on time at home with their families, he said.
But he stressed the Air Force needs to close bases, and that is a suggestion that sends chills through communities across the nation and has been rejected by many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The service has 67 major bases in the United States and 14 abroad.
In the aftermath of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that claimed 19 airmen, bases at home and abroad are creating special security teams to counter possible terrorist threats. Bigger bases would make that process easier to absorb.
"We are spread so thin across our bases that when you take a 44-man security force team off the base, it's a big whack out of the security force on the base, and everybody starts working twice as hard," Ryan said. Such Air Force units both at home and abroad work 12-hour shifts. "We have to fix that," he said.
In the past, the Air Force was designed to be much bigger and structured to "surge" its forces forward into battle against the enemy _ relying to a great extent on allied bases with supplies ready to offer arriving combat units.
Since the base closure process began in 1988, only 17 Air Force bases have been closed and 16 realigned.