By Ted Carter/Mississippi Business Journal
JACKSON — Mississippi’s state and local officials can tell you that defending the state’s military bases from closures can get expensive. The state spent a reported $60 million to $65 million in the 2005 round of base closings, an effort that helped to save such Mississippi military mainstays as Keesler Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Meridian, Camp Shelby and Columbus Air Force Base. The state, however, lost a Navy installation in Pascagoula and Air National Guard Air Wing in Meridian.
Now state and local officials are gearing up again for what could be an expensive campaign to ensure survival of the air bases, naval stations and National Guard training centers around the state.
This year’s state bond issue included $2 million to ready Mississippi’s military communities for the likelihood of a return of 2015 of the Base Realignment & Closure Commission, or BRAC. Under BRAC, a panel appointed by the President and approved by Congress selects bases for closing and submits a list to Congress for an up-or-down vote. No changes can be made to the list after submission.
The state’s $2-million allocation is likely to be a mere down payment as the intentions of the President, Congress and the Pentagon become clearer.
Even without a formally appointed BRAC panel, key members of Congress from both parties have acknowledged that significant cuts in defense spending, especially in the military’s domestic infrastructure, are ahead. The hundreds of billions in federal cuts over the next 10 years through the federal budget sequester guarantee across-the-board pain, officials say. “If the cuts already passed come to be, they are going to have to do something,” especially with infrastructure, said Bill Crawford, a Meridian resident who was involved in the state’s 2005 BRAC as deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority.
For instance, Crawford said, a reduced Navy carrier force could put at risk one of Navy air training stations in either Meridian or Kingsville, Texas.
Reductions in military shipbuilding and unmanned drone aircraft could also occur, as could cuts in defense research at Stennis Space Center.
As Crawford sees it, the nation’s fiscal reality says a BRAC is needed. But “politics says ‘no,’” he added.
Regardless of whether the draw down in the military’s domestic infrastructure occurs through
BRAC or through congressional politics, “now is the time for the communities to gear up and get ready,” said Crawford, who now tracks government and politics in the state as a columnist syndicated in the Mississippi Business Journal and other newspapers.
The best approach, he said, is to make sure the bases stay in prime shape, as shown by Kessler’s recent selection as the top Air Force’s installation.
“Sometimes that is getting military construction done and making sure the quality of life for folks stationed there is good,” Crawford said.
Particular focus must be put on preventing civilian encroachment that would diminish the effectiveness of the installation’s mission, he added.
A key bit of advice Crawford has for state and local officials going into a new BRAC round is to expect the unexpected. “We had things pop up in 2005 we never thought would come up,” he said, including BRAC panel consideration of closing Kessler Air Force Hospital and cut backs at the Army Engineer Research & Development Center in Vicksburg and the closing of Army National Guard Camp McCain training center in Grenada.
“We learned some lessons early on that we applied later,” Crawford said. Specifically, he added, state and local officials learned to keep the installations off the list “and when they get on the list get them off.”
The state continues to keep its pipeline to Washington open through lobbyist Barry Rhoads, managing partner of the Cassidy Group. Rhoads has worked with the state on base defense since the early 1990s. “He’s been through thick and thin with us,” Crawford said.
Meanwhile, top officials of the Navy and Marine Corps say they do not expect to cut much spare capacity if a new base closing round goes ahead in 2015, according to a bloc posted by the national Association of Military Defense Communities.
Ray Mabus, former Mississippi governor and current secretary of the Navy, told Congress this month the Navy has already shed “most of our duplicative and overlapping bases and services.”
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said the Corps is preparing to trim its end strength by 20,000 troops to 182,1000 Marines over the next several years, even though there is “not a lot of fluff” in the corps.
Army leaders say they plan to accomplish their strength reductions by eliminating six brigade combat teams in the United States, or about 80,000 troops by 2017. The Army is spending millions of dollars on installations that are “simply unusable” as the cost of upkeep for antiquated facilities climbs exorbitantly, Secretary John McHugh said in media interview this week.
The Association of Military Defense Communities reports that Air Force Secretary Michael Donley put an official estimate of excess Air Force base capacity at roughly 20 percent. The closures carried out following the 2005 round of base closures were relatively small, he said in a report by the American Forces Press Service.
Funding constraints already are causing the Air Force to curtail training for 13 fighter and bomber squadrons through the end of the fiscal year, the Association of Military Defense Communities reports.
Manning McPhillips, chief administrative officer of the Mississippi Development Authority, is coordinating the state’s military current installation defense efforts. Though he declined to discuss anything that touches on the state’s strategy, including lessons learned from previous BRAC rounds in 1995 and 2005, McPhillips said the state’s main focus will be to help localities with military bases enhance the mission of the bases. This could be infrastructure projects such as an access road getting built for Navy Air Station Meridian or a firearms range in Columbus for use by Air Force personnel and the general public.
Paying for those projects included matching shares from the communities. Allocation of the $2 million from this year’s Legislature and future allocations will also require community matching shares, McPhillips noted. The match ensures “local communities have some skin in the game,” he added.
Each part of the state that is home to a military installation has a military communities council. Each council sends a representative to a state council chaired by Army National Guard Maj. Gen. William “Bill’ Freeman Jr., who is chairman of the state council.
Freeman, former Mississippi adjutant general and a longtime executive at Newton County Bank, declined to discuss the work of the council without MDA authorization. The MDA is considering whether to let Freeman speak with the media, McPhillips said, emphasizing the competitiveness of the BRAC process and the state’s desire not to tip its hand.
The state, he said, is “sensitive about what can be said,” especially this early in the process.
The local councils will participate in developing overall strategy as well as strategies specific to their installations. In requesting infrastructure help, the councils will send their proposals to the state councils to be vetted by a process that includes members of the state body as well as the MDA.
“The MDA scores it based on asset criteria,” McPhillips said. “Then we make our recommendations to the council.”