JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi’s 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.
This year, lawmakers provided $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, key members of Congress from both parties have said 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.
ìIf the cuts already passed come to be, they are going to have to do something,î 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 ìpolitics says no, he said.
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
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 said.
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.
Those included BRAC 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.
ìWe learned some lessons early on that we applied later,î Crawford said.
Specifically, he said, state and local officials learned to keep the installations off the list ìand when they get on the list get them off.î
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.
ìHe’s been through thick and thin with us,î Crawford said.
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 said, The match ensures ìlocal communities have some skin in the game,î he said.
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 led by Army National Guard Maj. Gen. William ìBillî Freeman Jr.
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 state, McPhillips said, is ìsensitive about what can be said,î especially this early in the process, emphasizing the competitiveness of the BRACC process and the state’s desire not to tip its hand.
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,î McPhillips said. ìThen we make our recommendations to the council.
Congress rejected the Pentagon’s request last year for two more rounds of base closings, as lawmakers objected not only to the prospect of taking jobs and dollars out of a region’s economy, but also questioned whether closing the facilities actually achieves the promised savings.
Pentagon budget chief Robert Hale acknowledged earlier this month that the department spent $35 billion on the base closure round in 2005, and while it saves $4 billion a year, officials won’t break even until 2018. The expense is largely because a number of new facilities were built even as some were merged and closed.
Currently, the Pentagon saves about $8 billion a year on the four rounds that were carried out before 2005. The Pentagon has proposed another round in 2014 that Hale said would save $1 billion to $2 billion a year. Pentagon leaders insist that the military still has nearly 20 percent too many bases and facilities.