"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, and 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's 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.
"This isn't easy, but it's necessary," Ryan said.
In the aftermath of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996 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.
The general lauded the Navy and the Marine Corps for consolidating support units at a few bases, moves made in base-closure rounds in 1993 and 1995.
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.
The post-Cold War drawdown is responsible for some of the manpower problem. Over the past 10 years, the service has plummeted from 607,000 members to 371,000 men and women this year - a cut of about 40 percent. But since the base closure process began in 1988, only 17 Air Force bases have been closed and 16 realigned, a cut estimated by the Air Force of about 21 percent.
The general's "superbase" proposal dovetails that of Defense Secretary William Cohen, who has been pressing a reluctant Congress for wo additional rounds of base closures.
By Susanne M. Schafer