It has been seven years since the region’s elected leaders created the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, better known as “HRMFFA.” Its creation was in response to the near-death experience of Naval Air Station Oceana being initially listed among the facilities to be drastically realigned in the 2005 round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). HRMFFA’s mission has not changed since inception — to attract, retain and grow federal facilities for the economic betterment of all citizens in Hampton Roads. Over the years the organization has been deeply involved in a variety of issues affecting the federal presence in the region, as these facilities are so central to our economic health. These issues have included blocking the movement of an aircraft carrier to Florida, mitigating the effects of the disestablishment of U.S. Joint Forces Command, supporting efforts to create a national monument at Fort Monroe, and in general attempting to make our region as attractive as possible for federal facilities to locate here, stay here and grow.
The region saw rapid and substantial growth in federal spending after 9/11 as the nation began more than a decade of war against terror with major efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. While we certainly didn’t escape the economic downturn that began in 2008, neither did we see the dramatic plunge in economic activity that so devastated other parts of the country. Federal spending provided a considerable “buffer” from the contraction felt elsewhere and provided Hampton Roads a tremendous advantage.
So where are we today? Given the state of the world and the nation’s economy, what does the future look like? Three strategic shifts are taking place simultaneously that will have a powerful effect on the federal presence in Hampton Roads. I will discuss each in turn.
First is the winding down of our two major land wars, with U.S. forces having been completely withdrawn from Iraq and large ground combat forces scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Despite the fact that we do not host large numbers of either Army or Marine Corps ground combat troops in Hampton Roads, the extent of our nation’s involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been so vast that Hampton Roads has been deeply involved during this entire period. Whether it has been the provision of rotational naval forces, the processing of incredible amounts of sensor and intelligence data from aerial systems at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, or the intricate planning and policy efforts put forth by NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, Hampton Roads military assets have played a key role for over a decade. With that national effort now winding down, the role played by military forces locally will wind down as well, and the frenetic pace of many of our uniformed citizens will ease a bit.
Second, we are at the front end of a period of several years of reduced overall federal spending. Our growing national debt and continued slow recovery from the recession will combine to make this inevitable. Lower federal spending will become the “new normal,” and we will feel that in our regional economy. The attributes of Hampton Roads — proximity to Washington, DC; moderate cost of living; temperate climate; educated, patriotic work force; immediate access to military training ranges right off the coast — will endure, however, and a robust federal presence and the economic benefits that come with it will remain a strong part of our regional economy for the indefinite future.
Finally, the nation has made a strategic decision to shift its national security focus to the Asia-Pacific region, recognizing the growing economic power of that part of the world. Over time, military units will be postured with 60 percent in the Pacific theater and 40 percent in the Atlantic, rather than being evenly split as they have been for several decades. This shift will be gradual, and could be delayed for a while by the costs involved. But eventually, newer and more sophisticated ships and aircraft will call the Pacific home, and Hampton Roads will see fewer and older versions of this equipment.
These three forces will combine to shape the federal presence in Hampton Roads for many years to come. The elected and business leaders who govern HRMFFA will remain vigilant to take whatever actions are needed to ensure a substantial federal sector remains a mainstay of our economic health. And that won’t change!