Threaten a military base realignment and see the looks of panic and dread on the faces of the Hampton Roads leaders who were here in 2005.
That year, the region and state were caught unaware as Florida and the Pentagon conspired to move the East Coast master jet base from Oceana Naval Air Station south. Such a move would have upended neighborhoods from one end of the region to another, cost Hampton Roads tens of thousands of Navy and defense-related jobs and sent the then-thriving economy into turmoil.
The realignment commission, called BRAC, voted to close Fort Monroe. It shifted some operations from leased space to government-owned properties. But the commission gave Virginia’s leaders and the cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake a last chance to reduce density, move incompatible businesses and protect Oceana and its training field, Fentress, from development. The decision saved Oceana and the jobs, at least for a decade.
Now President Barack Obama says he will ask for another BRAC round in 2015. In his $526.6 billion defense budget, presented this month, he set aside $2.4 billion over the next five years to pay BRAC’s upfront costs.
Only Congress can authorize the BRAC process, and members have shown no inclination to do so. But it could happen. Substantial cuts in military spending have resulted in excess infrastructure. And with the Army and Marine Corps set to reduce troops by about 100,000 by 2017, base closures are inevitable.
The state and the region, which owes 47 percent of its economy to defense spending, already are better prepared than eight years ago. The region formed a coalition to preserve federal facilities and advocate for Hampton Roads’ military installations.
In February, Gov. Bob McDonnell hired an independent consulting firm to study Virginia’s military assets and assess the risks. Spectrum Group will report its findings to the state’s Commission on Military Installations and Defense Activities, a group McDonnell formed, ably led by a former Fleet Forces commander, retired Adm. John Harvey.
Virginia has significant military strengths, including maintenance and training areas at Dam Neck and modeling and simulation facilities in Suffolk and Norfolk. But it has significant vulnerabilities, as well.
Chief among them:
- Encroachment on Fentress and Oceana, where pilots train. They need complete darkness to simulate carrier landings. The Navy and Virginia Beach have worked together in the past six years to reduce density around Oceana. But the Chesapeake City Council recently came perilously close to approving a small development around Fentress, over the strong objections of the Navy. Joint Base Langley-Eustis, too, is threatened by encroachment and only in the past year has obtained the state’s help in addressing the problem.
- Traffic bottlenecks. State lawmakers just this year approved a comprehensive plan to improve transportation deficiencies they had ignored for decades despite repeated complaints from Navy brass. Clogged tunnels and poorly maintained roads will hurt Virginia’s ability to attract or keep our bases. In prior BRAC rounds, facilities have been closed and operations moved because service members and equipment couldn’t move through the traffic.
- Attitude toward offshore drilling. Florida has gone to extremes to oppose drilling in military training areas, which has also helped the state’s tourism. Virginia has done the opposite. McDonnell, members of the General Assembly and even the Virginia Beach City Council support exploration of offshore oil, even though the Navy has warned that if the federal government allows drilling off Virginia’s coast, a carrier or two will move to Florida.
Virginia has wisely begun the process of preparing for base realignment, but the state and cities have much work to do in the next two years. Identifying strengths and weaknesses is a start. But to be a partner with the military, the region and state must improve transportation and make neighborhoods surrounding the bases more compatible. Regardless of what happens with BRAC, the threat and the region’s reaction to it stand as yet another reminder of the risks of relying on one sector for half our economy.