The Pentagon warned of dire outcomes unless Congress paid for urgently needed military construction projects nationwide — the same projects that have now been canceled to fund President Trump’s border wall.
The warnings are contained in Defense Department budget requests sent to lawmakers in recent years. They include potentially hazardous living conditions for troops and their families, as well as unsafe schools that would impede learning. In numerous cases, the Defense Department warned that lives would be put at risk if buildings don’t meet the military’s standards for fire safety or management of explosives.
Even before $3.6 billion in construction funding was pulled to support a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, military buildings across the country often had been neglected in favor of other priorities. The defense spending limits that took effect after a 2013 budget deal designed to end a government shutdown starved the military’s construction budget for years, officials and analysts say, meaning many construction projects are long overdue.
The details in the budget documents — annual requests the Pentagon sends to Capitol Hill that are mostly public — underscore the risky trade-offs Trump made in declaring a national emergency that allowed him to divert funding for the wall.
A Pentagon spokesman did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
In requests to Congress over the past three years, military officials describe dilapidated World War II-era warehouses with “leaking asbestos panel roof systems,” a drone pilot training facility with sinkholes and a bat infestation, explosives being stored in buildings that didn’t meet safety standards and a mold-infested middle school. In numerous instances, Defense Department officials wrote that the infrastructure problems were hurting the military’s readiness and impeding the department’s national security mission.
Democrats and some Republicans strongly oppose the emergency declaration. The Senate is expected to vote for a second time in the coming weeks to overturn it, but Congress does not appear to have enough votes to overcome Trump’s veto of such a disapproval resolution.
A list of the military construction projects being defunded to pay for the wall was released in early September. But it did not contain details of the Pentagon’s explanations to Congress about why the projects were needed — and what would happen if they were not completed. The Washington Post’s review of the budget documents is the first attempt to detail those Pentagon warnings.
The Post uncovered budget documents pertaining to 29 of the 43 military construction projects in the mainland United States — not including those in territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam — that are being canceled to pay for the wall. The review excluded two projects that had been canceled before the emergency authorization. Many of these documents are publicly available but have not been previously reported.
The Pentagon insists that the projects are merely being delayed, not canceled, and Republicans say they will try to “backfill” the money in question, but Democrats oppose that strategy. In recent days, the fight over the border wall money has caused angry divisions among lawmakers trying to write annual spending bills to keep the government running, raising the specter of another shutdown this year. Last winter’s record-long 35-day partial government shutdown ended only after Trump declared a national emergency because Congress wouldn’t give him all the money he wanted for his wall. (During his campaign, Trump repeatedly vowed that Mexico would pay for the construction.)
Congressional Democrats have rallied around the issue, decrying unsafe conditions in their home districts and nationwide.
“We see across the country — communities, military bases and people in the military — saying, ‘Taking away this money hurts us,’ ” Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said on the Senate floor this week. “All the Democrats are asking for is to protect the troops from having their resources robbed for a border wall — resources that Congress said should go to the military.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said “it shocks me that, as commander in chief, [Trump] now insists that it’s got to be our troops, our military families and our nation’s security that have to be sacrificed for his foolishness,” noting that $77 million had been “raided” from projects in his state.
This month, the Pentagon announced that 127 military construction projects stood to lose funding to pay for Trump’s wall. Although Pentagon officials have expressed confidence that the projects ultimately will go forward, there is no guarantee that they will.
In many cases, the Pentagon has been ominous in describing the potential outcomes should the projects not happen.
The Air Force has been seeking a new training facility for drone pilots at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico because the current training facility had sinkholes and a bat infestation.
It also prevents pilot trainees from operating in a classified environment, the Air Force wrote in its publicly accessible budget request. This means trainees could not use a safety system designed to alert drone pilots to the location of ground-based personnel, as well as a separate system designed to prevent aircraft from crashing into one another.
The Air Force has been seeking a new control center at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, designed to replace a pair of “dilapidated WWII-era warehouses” used for air traffic control and mission control operations even though they have been labeled “structurally deficient” and don’t meet regulations. The Air Force noted in its budget request that air traffic control equipment is at risk of being destroyed by “roof leaks from failing asbestos panel roof systems.”
If the $28 million project is not finished, the Air Force warned in 2017, service members will continue to operate in “aging dilapidated buildings that were never intended for the purpose they are now serving.”
The Air National Guard has been seeking to replace the aircraft parking ramp at a New Orleans facility, which abuts a public roadway. This means munitions-loaded aircraft — which are kept on alert so they can be scrambled quickly in the event of a terrorist attack — expose the public to the “unacceptable risk” of being affected by an explosive accident, the Air Force wrote in 2018. An Air Force analysis calculated that members of the public are inside the jets’ “explosive arc” for about 3,800 hours per year as they pass by the base.
In addition, the shelters that hold the aircraft when they aren’t parked on the runway are on concrete slabs that are sinking, causing pipes and electrical connections to pull loose. The shelters also did not have fire protections, the Defense Department wrote in 2018.
Unless $15 million is allocated to revamp the base, military officials wrote, U.S. service members working there “are at risk from explosions and fires.”
Several of the defunded projects were supposed to replace unsafe buildings used to hold heavy munitions and military vehicles, the Defense Department said.
Service members at an ammunition plant in Indiana often have worked in violation of the Army’s safety standards for the handling of explosives because the storage facilities don’t meet the military’s needs, the Army wrote last year. The $16 million project would give the base more room to store munitions at its rail holding area.
Vehicle maintenance buildings at Fort Huachuca in Arizona date to the 1930s and 1940s and do not meet the Army’s standards for vehicle testing and maintenance, forcing service members to work in “unsafe” facilities that “jeopardize personnel health, security and safety,” the Army wrote in 2017.
The Defense Department also warned that overly decentralized weapons maintenance buildings in Anniston, Ala., would continue to increase the risk of accidents because of the “unnecessary movement of artillery pieces.”
The Air Force has been seeking $41 million to repair a central heat power plant boiler at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. The Air Force warned in its budget justification to Congress that the boiler, installed in 1951, is expected to fail within the next several years at a base where winter temperatures can plunge as low as 65 degrees below zero. That outcome “would be devastating to facilities and the missions housed in those facilities,” the Air Force said. The base could be forced to evacuate, and the facilities would then freeze and require “many millions of dollars” to make them usable again.
The system in question is one of two 1950s-era boilers that require urgent replacement at Eielson. The failure of the other one is described as “imminent” and also could force an evacuation, followed by a deep freeze that would cost millions of dollars to recover from, according to the Air Force’s description from 2017.
A different issue looms at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where medical and dental care is provided in “substandard, inefficient, decentralized and uncontrolled facilities,” according to the military, which has sought congressional approval to build a new ambulatory care center on the base. Not doing so “will result in compromised readiness, uncoordinated care delivery, and inappropriate use of medical resources,” the Pentagon said.
At Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina, the military sought funding to build a satellite fire station, without which “personnel . . . will continue to work from a significantly undersized and unsafe facility.”
In another example, the military is seeking to repair a middle school at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, a project that has been championed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and that he has vowed to protect even after its appearance on the list of installations at risk of being canceled to pay for Trump’s wall.
The Pentagon described conditions at the middle school as “substandard” and told lawmakers in requesting $62.6 million to repair it that “the continued use of deficient, inadequate, and undersized facilities that do not accommodate the current student population will continue to impair the overall education program for students.”
At Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, meanwhile, construction of a much-needed new child-care center has been put on hold in favor of Trump’s wall. The Pentagon notes that the facility “has suffered from sewage backups, heating, ventilation and air conditioning failures and mold and pest management issues.” The upgraded facility is supposed to accommodate 165 children and staff members. As of February 2018, 115 children were on a waiting list to get in.
Joint Base Andrews is also home to the hangar that holds Air Force One. That hangar is being relocated at a cost of $154 million to accommodate a larger Boeing model now being used for Trump. But the new hangar displaces a specialized area designed for unloading hazardous cargo and a separate disposal range where Air Force officials could be trained to defuse bombs. The Air Force requested $37 million for a new hazardous-cargo pad and explosive-ordnance center, but that project has been included on the list of those being canceled to pay for the barrier along the border. The Air Force One hangar project was left untouched.
As a result, a temporary facility will be provided. But not replacing the hazardous-cargo pad would cause “enduring systemic weaknesses” at the base, while the lack of an explosive-ordinance range would “adversely impact” training, which would have to happen somewhere off the base at greater cost, the military said.
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