First Skirmishes in the Battle of the Bases

Dec. 1, 2002

Pentagon plans for sending troops overseas are not normally of much interest to state governors, but a recent decision to send about 600 military and civilian personnel from US Central Command in Florida to an air base in Qatar caught the attention of Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Fueling his concern was immediate media speculation that the deployment was the first step in a Pentagon plan to permanently move the CENTCOM headquarters from its MacDill AFB, Fla., location closer to the command’s area of operations.

Central Command officials tried to defuse the situation by issuing a statement in mid-September, saying flatly that the command was not moving and the deployment was merely to conduct a long-planned exercise.

However, a few days later, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld actually endorsed the possibility of moving the command when he told reporters, “The European Command is in Europe, the Pacific Command’s in the Pacific, and the Central Command is in Tampa.” He then asked rhetorically, “Why is that?”

Those words set off alarm bells in the state capital in Tallahassee.

The Florida governor quickly fired off a letter to Rumsfeld that said Central Command “personnel are an integral part of our community.” Bush said he understood the need for having military commanders in the region to oversee the war on terrorism but wanted to emphasize the importance of the command to the state. He added that about 84 percent of the 1,300 military and civilian personnel employed at Central Command live in the Tampa Bay area and generate $387 million annually for the state’s economy.

Florida’s rapid response put Rumsfeld on notice that it will not allow the uncontested removal of military facilities and employees from the state. Florida’s actions reflect a growing trend across the nation, as states and local communities become increasingly aggressive in fighting to keep jobs at their bases.

With another round of military base closings set for 2005, communities with military facilities are spending millions of dollars on upgrades to infrastructure surrounding military bases, hiring lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to determine if their bases are vulnerable, forming partnerships with the military, and touting the value of their installations every chance they get.

The Pentagon had a tough job convincing Congress to allow more base closures. An even harder job could be fighting states and local communities over what bases can be closed.

“The easiest decisions were made before, and now everyone understands the game so it will be tougher for [the Pentagon to close bases],” said William Jefferds, a retired Army general officer who directs California’s efforts to keep its bases open.

Starting Early

According to Paul McManus, chairman and chief executive officer of the Spectrum Group in Alexandria, Va., a consulting firm that represented 18 communities during the last round of closings, communities are being proactive about protecting their bases much earlier than they were in the previous rounds. Even before last fall’s Congressional approval of a new round of closings, the Spectrum Group was hired by Florida and Arizona to determine what bases might be most vulnerable, he added.

Ever since the last closure action, held in 1995, Pentagon officials had been arguing for additional closures, saying the facility cuts had not gone far enough. They maintained the military services had more bases than needed and money was being wasted on maintaining facilities that could be better spent on weapons or upgrading key installations.

Rumsfeld, who went before Congress last year to press for a new closure round in 2003, said, “Most people you talk to who are knowledgeable about it believe we are carrying something like 20 to 25 percent more base structure than we need for our force structure.”

Pentagon leaders stated that since 1990, military forces had been cut by 40 percent–but US bases had only been pared back by 21 percent (including overseas bases, 26 percent). Four previous rounds of military base closures held between 1988 and 1995 shuttered or realigned about 97 of the military’s nearly 500 major bases in the United States. Thus far, those closings have saved about $15 billion and will continue to save another $6 billion per year through reduced operating and maintenance costs, according to DOD.

The General Accounting Office confirmed those savings in an April 2002 independent report, “Military Base Closures: Progress in Completing Actions From Prior Realignments and Closures.” The GAO said the Defense Department “has generated substantial net savings from the prior four closure rounds and expects those savings to grow on an annual basis.”

According to Rumsfeld, additional base closings should generate another $3.5 billion in annual savings.

Despite the savings, closing bases is a politically sensitive topic for many lawmakers who fear losing thousands of federal jobs in their home states and districts. After the 1995 round, Congress repeatedly rejected requests from the Clinton Administration to consider any new closure efforts because lawmakers claimed the process had become politicized when, during the 1995 round of base closings, President Clinton ordered Air Force depots in voter-rich Texas and California to be privatized rather than shut down and their work sent to other states.

Last fall, with a new Administration in place, lawmakers no longer could make that argument. However, following a lengthy debate, Congress approved a single round, but delayed the action until 2005.

Like previous base closure rounds, an independent panel, appointed by the President and requiring Senate confirmation, will be responsible for deciding what bases should be closed or realigned. The panel will hold public hearings on a list of the Pentagon’s proposed closings and then come up with its own recommendations.

In previous rounds, similar commissions concurred with about 85 percent of DOD’s recommendations.

The commission list will then be sent to the President, who has 15 days to either reject or accept the list in its entirety. If the President approves the closings, Congress then has 45 days to reject or accept the list without any changes, as well. A significant change in this round over previous base closings is that DOD will have the option of mothballing bases on the list for possible future use rather than taking the properties off its books permanently.

The Pentagon and the individual military services have yet to begin formal planning. However, during the coming year, the Pentagon will issue criteria to the services that will outline how to judge what bases could be shuttered. The services would then spend most of 2004 determining which facilities they will recommend for closure. The Pentagon will review and finalize those recommendations before sending them to the commission in the spring of 2005.

Public hearings would be held in mid-2005, before the list goes to the President, then Congress.

Digging In

States, such as a California, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, with the greatest number of bases have been the most aggressive in trying to preserve their military facilities, which have become billion-dollar industries for them. These states have funded full-time offices dedicated to preventing closings and have not stopped promoting their bases since the 1995 closings. Even states with far fewer military bases have recognized a need to protect their facilities. Across the nation, nearly every local community with a military installation has an organization for promoting and protecting their role in national security.

In Florida, Dale Ketcham is director of space and defense programs for Enterprise Florida, a public-private office dedicated to improving and promoting military communities throughout the state. He said Florida, in recent years, has awarded nearly $10 million in grants to make upgrades to and around military bases and to come up with ways to keep bases open. In 2002, Florida will spend $4 million on infrastructure improvements and another $1 million on community defense grants. For example, a Miami-area economic development organization has been awarded a $135,000 community defense grant to improve coordination between the county, a local Coast Guard facility, and an Air National Guard base. Meanwhile, Florida will spend $770,000 to upgrade hangars at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla., for the Army National Guard’s 111th Aviation Regiment.

Ketcham said Florida’s effort does not focus just on the economic impact of bases but also on the state’s strong support for military communities and the fact that many retired military personnel live in the state. Success in fending off closures would be limited, said Ketcham, if the state only addressed parochial economic interests.

“There is heightened concern among our communities because the low-hanging fruit has already been picked [in previous closures],” he said. “But that will also make it harder to close more bases.”

California has 61 bases left to defend, after having 29 bases closed over the past decade. Jefferds said state budget woes prevented California from spending any additional money on defending bases in 2002 and even forced him to cut back hours for the eight full-time workers assigned to protecting bases. Still, he said, efforts that got under way last year, including award of $50,000 grants to help communities protect their bases and promote key weapon systems, will continue. For example, the city of Lancaster is using the money to study the cost and design of instrumentation and calibration systems that would be used in testing the Joint Strike Fighter at Edwards AFB, Calif.

Additionally, California and the Defense Department are sharing the cost of a $920,000 study that will examine civilian encroachment at the state’s military facilities and what state and local planners can do to help alleviate the problem. Encroachment refers to the impact increased public development around bases has on the ability of those facilities to conduct their missions. Increasingly, military bases, especially those conducting flying operations, find their ability to train has become more limited as civilian housing developments have sprung up near military facilities or under flight paths.

“Encroachment has become a part of the base closure debate,” says Jefferds.

In New Hampshire, the Seacoast Shipyard Association has been fending off closures at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard since the 1960s by emphasizing the yard’s unique repair capabilities. In a Kansas community adjacent to the Army’s 100,000-acre Ft. Riley, the Chamber of Commerce tracked the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review and watches ongoing transformation efforts because chamber officials realize Ft. Riley will be in jeopardy if the Army eliminates divisions.

Quick Action

In 1995, the Pentagon marked Kirtland AFB, N.M., for closure, but the base closure commission ended up removing the New Mexico base from the list after community activists pointed out DOD had underestimated the costs of shutting down the base by about $250 million.

Local community groups can have a major influence on decisions made by base closings commissions, said Charles Thomas, a former wing commander at Kirtland, who now serves as chairman of the Kirtland Partnership Committee. The local community group spends about $100,000 annually to promote the interests of the base that lies adjacent to Albuquerque and generates about $4 billion annually for the local economy.

Thomas said the group emphasizes the base’s multiple missions and more than 200 tenants from across the federal government. A glossy 50-page brochure, called “The Sky’s The Limit,” says the base could take on additional missions because land is available and there are no encroachment concerns.

Late last year, the Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratories, with its primary facilities at Kirtland, invited Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to the base to demonstrate technologies being developed there. They include sensors that can detect explosives and could be utilized for homeland security. The laboratory also highlighted its Cold War role in working with the Soviet Union to disarm nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

“Sandia wanted to make its case,” said Thomas, who predicts having Sandia’s unique homeland security assets at the base will help keep Kirtland open.

The communities surrounding Barksdale Air Force Base, in Bossier City, La., have created a nonprofit organization, known as Barksdale Forward, to ensure the base, which operates B-52 bombers, remains open. Last year, Barksdale Forward offered to build and refurbish more than 300 housing units on the base–at no cost to the Air Force–as a way to address concerns that inadequate housing could hurt the base as facilities are weighed on the potential closure scale.

Ultimately, the Air Force opted to compete the work among commercial contractors, but Murray Viser, president and chief executive officer for Barksdale Forward, said the offer underscored the community’s commitment to the base.

Viser said the community also was concerned that the Air Force might close the base because it was relying less on aging B-52 bombers, but those fears have faded with the onset of the war on terrorism. “We feel like the role of the B-52 has been validated during Operation Enduring Freedom,” he said. Air Force long-range bombers, including B-52s, were critical in routing the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.

No community has better positioned itself to keep a base open than San Antonio. The Texas city has formed with one of its Air Force bases a novel partnership that is being cited as the model for how base and local communities can work cooperatively.

During the last round of base closures, San Antonio fought a pitched political battle to protect thousands of jobs at two of its five military installations, Brooks and Kelly Air Force Bases. But those efforts came up short when the base closings commission decided to shut the doors at Kelly, one of USAF’s air logistics centers.

A New Approach

City officials decided after losing the battle in 1995 that they could not rely on save-the-base rallies and lobbying lawmakers to keep Brooks open in the future, so even before Kelly closed last year–and well before a new round of closings was approved, community activists began looking for a way to ensure Brooks would not share Kelly’s fate.

“Our choice was either to pick ourselves up or blame the whole world,” said Robert Sanchez, a San Antonio small business owner and community activist. City officials knew that Brooks, a relatively small base with an aerospace medicine technology mission, had been considered for closure because it had some of the highest operating costs in the Air Force. At the same time, the city wanted to attract more technology jobs to the region.

The city and the Air Force realized they had something they could offer each other. The city could assist the Air Force in reducing operating costs by providing city fire, police, and maintenance services, while the base had the land and high-technology facilities that could attract new businesses to the region. After several studies and with legislative approval from Congress, San Antonio and the Air Force formed an unprecedented public-private partnership, known as the Brooks City-Base. Under the agreement, the Air Force turned over ownership of the base last summer to the city under a long-term lease that guarantees USAF’s units land and space on the base at no cost. San Antonio is free to lease excess land and facilities to commercial tenants or develop it. In exchange, the city will provide all municipal and maintenance services at the base at no charge and share any profits it makes from leasing or development with the Air Force.

Ultimately, the deal should save the Air Force $10 million annually in reduced operating costs, while the city stands to generate millions of dollars for the local economy by attracting new businesses and developing Brooks.

Air Force officials have repeatedly stressed the Brooks City-Base concept does not guarantee the base will remain off the closure list in 2005. But, Sanchez said, the city likes its chances now that it has reduced the base’s operating costs. Moreover, he said, the city had few other options for fighting for Brooks’ future.

“The best way to help military bases [remain open] is for communities to help them solve their problems,” said Sanchez.

George Cahlink is a military correspondent with Government Executive Magazine in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Under the Rubble,” appeared in the November issue.