The late and former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Boorda, sat next to his boss, Secretary of the Navy John Dalton. Under oath, they were testifying at the final hearing of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission in 1995. The Navy had recommended closing Naval Air Station Meridian. Dalton had testified in support of that recommendation.
Commission Chairman Alan Dixon asked, “Admiral Boorda, how do you feel about closing NAS Meridian?”
Federal law provides that uniform military leaders may disagree in congressional hearings with their civilian leaders. However, that rarely happens.
“I would be uncomfortable,” replied Boorda.
Boorda’s extraordinary testimony persuaded the Commission to save the Meridian base. The remarkable story behind this event may never be told, but the terrific team effort and complex strategies that led to it are instructive.
In 2005 another BRAC commission voted to save Keesler AFB Medical Center and the Naval Human Resource Center at Stennis Space Center. The team efforts and strategies behind these results are also instructive.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has called for two new base closure rounds. So, as Congress prepares to make massive cuts to military spending, lessons learned before and during the BRAC rounds of 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005 should be dusted off, resourced, and re-invigorated.
Already “experts” are picking losers. A recent Kiplinger Letter calls Mississippi one of 14 “more vulnerable” states. The Huntington Ingalls Shipyard at Pascagoula and the Army Corps of Engineers facilities at Vicksburg were cited.
And, yes, the Pentagon is moving all out to identify cuts, having initiated a number of force structure studies. Such studies tend to be the basis for future base closure and realignment recommendations.
Just last week the Air Force unveiled proposals for major cuts and realignments. The Air Force said it has developed plans to retire, cancel procurement of, and reassign numerous aircraft. Included were elimination of C27J short-haul cargo aircraft and reassignment of C130J transport aircraft. Cancelling the C27J would impact the mission of the 186th Air National Guard unit in Meridian. Reassignment of C130Js would impact Keesler AFB. None of the revealed aircraft changes would impact the 172nd Air National Guard unit in Rankin County, the Combat Readiness Training Center in Gulfport, or Columbus AFG.
However, the Air Force has not revealed its plans to reduce manpower or close/realign bases. The Navy and Army have yet to reveal anything. And Congress has yet to act. But leaders should anticipate more recommended impacts on Mississippi.
Other military units with potential risk are those at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, the Navy Seabee base in Gulfport, Camp Shelby in Forrest County, Camp McCain in Grenada County, Meridian Naval Air Station, and the Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg.
As Mississippi learned from past BRACS, pre-BRAC periods can be troubling, but can also times of opportunity for aggressive states. You see for every BRAC loser there is at least one BRAC winner. And as the Pentagon rebalances units and missions, it is susceptible to influence.
Strong leadership made a difference for Mississippi in past BRACs. It’s time for our newest leaders to suit up.