By John Conger, Director, The Center for Climate and Security
As the Florida communities devastated by Hurricane Michael begin their long recovery, much attention has been focused on Tyndall Air Force Base and the incredible amount of damage the base took from the storm.
First and foremost, it’s important to highlight the wise decision to evacuate the base as the storm approached. No lives were lost on Tyndall and many of its F-22 aircraft were relocated elsewhere – out of harms way. Missions have been moved and critical functions have continued to operate. A decision to ride out the storm could have gone much, much worse.
Second, while the damage assessment is still ongoing, it is very clear that the bill will be quite high – not only to the infrastructure of the base, but also to the very expensive F-22 aircraft that remained at the installation. Official numbers have not been released, but it is clear that many F-22s remained at the base because they were in various states of maintenance and unable to fly. Fortunately, initial indications from the Air Force are that damage to the aircraft is less than it could have been.
Using the DoD’s Base Structure Report for FY17, we see that the entire infrastructure at Tyndall has a plant replacement value of $1.7 billion, implying a ceiling on infrastructure recovery costs. In addition, the F-22s at the base weren’t cheap – depending on whether you consider their value to be the marginal cost of the last aircraft to roll off the line or you amortize the R&D that preceded production, the cost ranges from roughly $100-300 million each. The real answer is that dollars don’t mean much when the line has closed down and we don’t have the option of buying any more. We don’t yet know what the DoD’s cost to recover from Hurricane Michael will be, but don’t be surprised if it exceeds the entire $1.2 billion cost to DoD of the entire 2017 hurricane season.
Third, the Air Force has some serious questions to answer about how it positions itself in hurricane prone areas. Given the expense of the assets stationed in these locations and which may not be able to evacuate, they need to seriously consider investing in hurricane-resilient hangars in which unflyable but expensive assets can ride out severe storms. They also need to think about where they will station such assets in the first place and determine if they will amend their basing process to include risk mitigation for climate – protecting certain missions by including a preference to position them outside of hurricane-prone areas.
The more gut-wrenching question the Air Force faces is whether to rebuild Tyndall AFB at all, or to make the decision it made with Homestead AFB after Hurricane Andrew and relocate its missions elsewhere. This is not an easy call, and will further undermine the ability of the local economy to recover. Lawmakers are already vowing to rebuild the base. However, the Air Force has excess space in its enterprise, and has been reporting to Congress for multiple years that it needs a BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) round to consolidate its operations on fewer bases. Even a rebuilt Tyndall AFB could look substantially different. That’s a process the Air Force will be wrestling with in the weeks and months to come.
Beyond that, the Air Force, as well as all the other service branches, will need to make climate resilience a higher priority in their planning. As the climate changes and extreme weather patterns evolve, as sea level rises and operational impacts from flooding become more frequent, the risk calculus changes as well. The Department of Defense a responsibility to prepare their installations for the climate challenges ahead.