Saturday, January 13, 2007

Lackland battle lab may close by fall

The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Jan 12, 2007 8:44:01 EST
The Air Force Times

SAN ANTONIO — A Lackland Air Force Base lab that works to improve the safety of troops may close by fall.

Air Force budget plans outline closing the Force Protection Battlelab at Lackland and doing away with its 23 jobs in fiscal 2008. It’s one of seven similar labs targeted by the Air Force as it tries to reduce costs.

The lab at Lackland and its staff were still awaiting a final decision Thursday, said Force Protection Battlelab commander, Col. Bob Tirevold.

“It is a proposal to close battle labs, but until the budget’s approved, it’s not final,” he added.

The former commander of the Air Force Security Forces Center at Lackland, retired Brig. Gen. Ronald Coleman, said the lab is needed more than ever and called the possible closure “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

“I will tell you it is inconceivable to me that the Air Force would shut the Force Protection Battlelab at this point in our history when we’re trying to do everything we can in the world to make our deployed forces safer,” Coleman said.

The Force Protection Battlelab opened after the 1996 Khobar Towers blast in Saudi Arabia and has been touted as helping “the Air Force stay one step ahead of the terrorist threat.”

Since its creation, the lab has studied nearly 200 products. Later this month, the lab plans to test “Arctic Fire,” a flame-retardant gel that appears promising in preventing burns.

It’s also working to improve a Joint Improvised Explosive Device Neutralizer that uses a long, metal arm to sweep the ground for roadside bombs, squeezing the high-voltage impulses that detonate them. So far, the device has been too slow to keep up with convoys, but Tirevold said he hopes it can be improved.

Andrew Krepinevich Jr., a former aide to three defense secretaries, said he wonders if the lab has outlived its usefulness.

“I guess the question becomes, what role does this Air Force lab play?” said Krepinevich. “Is it a success story, or is it one of those places that is full of promise but never provides the results just around the corner?”

Battle labs have been considered for cuts “to pay some bills” for “higher-priority” missions in the Air Force, Tirevold said.

Former Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters and analyst Loren Thompson said Air Force leaders don’t have much choice because neither President Bush nor Congress has provided money to fund manpower needs and recapitalize equipment. Air Force’s chief of staff Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley has said his service funding is falling short by $20 billion a year through 2013.

“Their air fleet is the oldest it’s ever been and they haven’t found the money needed to modernize it,” said Thompson, an expert with the Lexington Institute. “Their tankers are over 40 years old, their fighters are under flight restriction and they can’t even afford to buy new cargo planes.”