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NM lawmakers weren’t crying wolf about defense projects

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation weren’t crying wolf earlier this year when they voiced concerns the state could lose millions of dollars in defense project funding to pay for a wall on the border with Mexico.

The state took quite a hit when considering what projects could have been affected. Of the six state projects the Department of Defense put on a list in March that funding could be diverted from to build the wall, two were put on hold.

And the two put on hold were the largest and third-largest in the works, expected to cost $125 million of the $187 million in funding New Mexico had at stake.

The largest hit was the diversion of $85 million from a project to construct an unmanned aerial training facility at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo.

Both U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small expressed concerns about the safety of airmen if the project is not allowed to proceed.

All Air Force active-duty and reserve MQ-9 (drone) aircrews are trained at the facility. Heinrich’s office said the building is nothing short of a health and safety risk to service members. This training facility is the only combat airframe forced to operate completely in an unclassified environment, degrading pilots’ ability to train effectively, Heinrich spokesman Aaron Morales told the Journal.

Heinrich and Torres Small both toured the facility. And Torres Small described the facility in similar terms.

“The current facility these young airmen train in is home to one of the largest sinkholes on base and many other issues, such as plumbing and electrical complications,” she said. “I have heard time and time again during my visits to the base that the Air Force faces a pilot shortage. The new MQ-9 FTU facility would help address this gap in military readiness by allowing pilots to train on the modern and secure equipment they’ll encounter as part of their actual missions.”

The other project put on hold – a $40 million project for an information systems facility at White Sands Missile Range – is also in Torres Small’s 2nd Congressional District.

“By putting the construction of a new Information Systems Facility at WSMR at risk, our military readiness will inevitably suffer,” she said. “The base will have to make use of a severely damaged facility and could fall behind on its testing requirements. That is simply unacceptable. The new facility is meant to improve the military’s capacity for new missiles and the corresponding weapons testing. Now, all that construction could be put on hold,”

Heinrich said the facility – built in 1962 – was recently damaged by fire. Torres Small and Morales said construction on the facility is the first major military construction project in direct support of testing and evaluation at White Sands Missile Range in nearly 20 years.

“Without this facility, the security of the Range’s information systems will be compromised,” Morales said.

The Department of Defense said funding for the projects is only temporarily being diverted. Earlier this year, the DoD said funding would be restored in President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget. But Heinrich said in a past interview on a different issue that the president’s budget is merely a suggestion.

It’s up to Congress to appropriate the money, which it had done in this case.

Both Heinrich and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, as well as the Air Force and the Army, fought for the funding, Morales said.

“Now, these projects are faced with uncertainty and could potentially have to wait until another NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) request before this funding is seen again,” he said.

Not all of the news was bad for the state. Four projects are still in the works.

Projects surviving the cut?

⋄ A $42 million project for a cargo pad relocation at Cannon Air Force Base;

⋄ A $7 million project upgrading the Wyoming Gate and a $9.3 million project replacing Fire Station 3 at Kirtland Air Force Base; and

⋄ A $4.2 million project for a unmanned aerial vehicle control station facility at Holloman Air Force Base.


Scott Turner: sturner@abqjournal.com

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