The current debate on U.S. national security is focused on the declining defense budget, reductions in the size of the U.S. military and the erosion of U.S. technological preeminence. All these issues are important. Equally important, but virtually ignored, is the issue of the current state of and future prospects for the survival of the unique defense infrastructure that is needed to support a modern military.
During the Cold War this country built an array of military bases and installations, land and sea ranges, national laboratories, test facilities and industrial facilities second to none. But over time, the number of facilities, bases and ranges was reduced as the size of the U.S. military shrank. After the Cold War a series of base closure and realignment commissions further reduced this complex. Entire sections of the country, particularly New England, have been largely denuded of military facilities.
Today, the core of the residual defense infrastructure on which the U.S. military depends resides in six southwestern states: Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas. This Southwest Defense Complex (SDC) contains some of this nation’s most sophisticated laboratories, defense industrial facilities and military bases. This complex allowed for the development and testing of many of the systems, like the F-117 stealth fighter and precision weapons, that won the Cold War.
The SDC is a true national treasure on a scale equal to that of the National Park system. The southwest offers over 335 million acres of federally owned land. Some 490 thousand square miles of air space and 484 thousand square miles of sea are available for training activities. The land, sea and dedicated air space it provides is a unique training environment unparalleled in the Free World. The SDC provides the only open instrumented land and air spaces in the United States of sufficient size to permit large-scale joint experiments and training activities. Many allied nations do virtually all their pilot training in the SDC because they lack similar open spaces in their own countries. The SDC’s contribution to the U.S. military’s warfighting capabilities, military readiness, test and evaluation and R&D is unparalleled.
Yet, given the fragmented way the Pentagon, Congress and the public tend to think about defense assets, they lack an adequate appreciation of the importance of this complex to U.S. national security. As pressure grows to address looming defense budget shortfalls through cuts to forces, readiness and infrastructure, the value of the Southwest Defense Complex as a whole is in danger of being underestimated. Pressure is growing for another round of base closures and realignments of facilities. Consequently, over time, the SDC could be weakened and even dismantled.
It is a core principle of the U.S. military that you must train as you fight. One of the enduring advantages the U.S. military possesses is the quality of its personnel and their training. Maintaining this advantage will depend heavily on access to the facilities that are part of the SDC. Preserving the array of unique facilities in the SDC and expanse of air and land critical to realistic testing and training will be of vital importance to U.S. security in the 21st Century.
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