Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson answers questions during a press conference on Friday at Offutt Air Force Base.

With another round of military base closings looking more and more likely in the next decade, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson is bullish on Offutt Air Force Base’s chances of keeping its gates open.

That’s in large part because of two construction projects at the base, one in progress and one about to start. The Pentagon has sunk about $1.2 billion into the construction of a massive new headquarters for the U.S. Strategic Command. And design work has begun on a runway improvement project that is expected to cost between $50 million and $100 million.

“Now StratCom will have a new home, a tremendous capability right here in the center of the country,” Wilson said Saturday during an interview with The World-Herald at Offutt. “And right on the edge of what will be a newly refurbished wide, long runway — that will certainly be an advantage.”

The interview followed Wilson’s first visit to the suburban Omaha base since she was sworn in as Air Force secretary on May 16. A former Air Force officer and Rhodes scholar, Wilson served on the National Security Council under President George H.W. Bush and later represented New Mexico in Congress for more than 10 years. She also spent nearly four years as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

During her overnight stop she met with U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, U.S. Reps. Don Bacon and Jeff Fortenberry, StratCom Commander Gen. John Hyten and leaders of the University of Nebraska’s National Strategic Research Institute. She also toured Offutt’s flight line and spoke at StratCom’s annual Birthday Ball on Friday night.

Wilson told The World-Herald that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seems to have righted the StratCom headquarters project, which has weathered a series of problems she blamed on poor early management of the project as well as Mother Nature.

She questioned a decision to begin construction on the 80-acre site in 2012, before the design was fully complete. A high water table also led to construction problems in the beginning stages.

“There were some really very questionable decisions about how to do the contracting and how to do design,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t just construction problems; it was a couple of floods and a tornado and a fire. The government had to force the contractor to take out piping and mold.”

She credited Col. John Henderson, who until retiring this summer commanded the Corps’ Omaha District, with negotiating a deal that will allow the new building’s extensive — and expensive — communications suite to be installed while the building’s construction continues.

“So they have really managed it to make sure that we’re getting a good building for StratCom,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the Air Force is committed to improving Offutt’s single runway, which has been frequently patched but never completely rebuilt since it was constructed in 1941.

The runway is now in worse shape than those at any of the 18 bases under the Air Force’s Air Combat Command. About one-fourth of the 11,700-foot runway is in “serious” or “very poor” condition, 55th Wing officials said.

Design work has begun on a project that would repair the most damaged parts of the runway during 2018 and 2019. Flight operations would temporarily move to the Lincoln Airport.

Wilson said that the project is necessary in part because the last big reconstruction project, about a decade ago, was poorly done and not properly supervised by the military. She said that was also supposed to be a 20-year repair.

“The result is the runway is not lasting as long as it should. There’s a message there about needing to constantly monitor the contracting,” Wilson said.

The plan this time is to hire an engineering contractor whose sole job is to monitor the work of the construction contractor and make sure, she said, “that best practices are being used with every load of concrete that is being put out there.”

State officials have rallied to get funding for the project to make it more likely the Offutt-based 55th Wing will stay through the next round of base closings, which the Pentagon has long wanted in the hope of reducing its overhead costs.

Congress has resisted for years. But the Senate included a provision to study more base closings beginning in 2019 in the defense authorization bill passed last month. If the House agrees to it, then closings could follow in the early 2020s.

Wilson said community support for the Air Force mission as well as for military families will play a big role in the service’s decision about which bases stay open. She cited training areas and open space around bases.

Also important, she said, are strong community schools and family-friendly policies that, for example, allow military spouses who have professional licenses — such as teachers, medical professionals, real estate agents or hair stylists — in one state to practice in another.

“Some states are really making an effort to be a state of choice for airmen to be assigned,” Wilson said. “It’s more than just putting bumper stickers on a truck.”

Earlier this year the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill that allows military spouses to obtain one-year state licenses to work in several health professions, including nursing, athletic training and dental hygiene.

A second bill gives military spouses certain hiring preferences for state government jobs.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue was a primary sponsor of the bills. She said she is planning to sponsor additional bills in the upcoming session that would extend state licensing to additional professions, as well as offer Medicaid waivers for families of children with disabilities — allowing them to qualify for some services not covered by the military’s TRICARE medical program.

“These bills are about comprehensively supporting military families,” Blood said.

steve.liewer@owh.com, 402-444-1186

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