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Mississippi on defensive again with push towards more base closure hearings

Shutdown: Business interests hope for best

Mississippi’s congressional delegation and military base supporters in Columbus, Meridian and on the Coast are once again on the defensive guarding against Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) hearings that have been recommended by U.S. Department of Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Cohen has warned that if the government fails to close military bases it no longer needs, the armed forces will have to cut back on high-technology weapons for the future. Congressional leaders including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) oppose another round of BRAC hearings.

Cohen recommends using $21 billion in savings from closing bases to pay for 450 new Joint Strike Fighters, two new aircraft carriers, 12 new surface ships and about 600 RAH-66 Comanche helicopters.

Thousands of military and civilian employees work at military installations in Mississippi. One base alone, Keesler Air Force Base (AFB) in Biloxi, has an estimated annual economic impact of close to $1 billion per year. Other military installations include the Naval Air Station Meridian, Columbus AFB, the Seabee Base in Gulfport and the Navy Homeport at Pascagoula.

Lott said it is irresponsible for the Pentagon to be considering closing domestic military bases while increasing funding for oversees installations.

“Our first military priority should be the security of the continental United States,” Lott said. “This is a constitutional requirement of government. We owe it to the American people and our men and women in uniform to be ready at home. We have an obligation to first consider the security and economic implications of closing stateside military bases before considering the economic vitality and security our bases bring to foreign soil.”

Recent reports indicate domestic military installations are suffering equipment shortages at the expense of keeping up overseas installations. Lott said that the military has already been cut to the core.

“I will continue to strongly oppose any more cuts that are unnecessary, especially domestic ones,” Lott said. “Dangers still lurk in the post-Cold War world. We cannot afford to be caught unprepared.”

Pickering opposes cuts

Third District Congressman Chip Pickering said each time defense has been cut, another trouble spot has emerged.

“Recent instability in Iraq, North Korea, and the former Soviet Union are evidence that we can never let down our guard,” Pickering said. “Since 1989 we have reduced our military by 40%, cutting our force and capability to the bone and raising fears over our ability to meet emerging threats. The Defense Department’s recommendation jeopardizes our readiness and is a classic example of ‘penny wise and pound foolish.’”

Pickering said the primary mission of the Meridian Naval Air Station and the Columbus Air Force Base is pilot training. He said it would be foolish to close those pilot training facilities when the military is having difficulty retaining pilots because of demand for pilots in the airline industry.

“During the last BRAC round in 1995, the Meridian base was on the list of bases being considered for closing,” Pickering said. “Meridian is one of only five training centers for Navy pilots. If the Meridian base closed and our military maintained the necessary level of readiness, the other four pilot training bases would have had to operate at full capacity, with perfect flying weather, zero aircraft shortage, perfect mechanical operations and every instructor job filled. Our national security should not rest on this type of unrealistic and unattainable scenario.”

Pickering said he agrees there is a need to modernize the military so troops have the best planes, ships and technology. But he believes that should be done by eliminating military bureaucracy and non-essential missions instead of bases.

“Peace-keeping missions such as Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia where U.S. troops have become the babysitter for countries with civil unrest have drained 20 billion defense dollars,” Pickering said. “This amount would be enough to modernize our force.”

Pickering said it also hasn’t been proven that earlier base closings have indeed saved money. In 1997 the U.S. Senate rejected a request for two more rounds of BRAC hearings because the Department of Defense did not have a system to measure the impact of previously mandated closures.

Businesses turn wary eyes to Washington

Mississippi base supporters aren’t greatly alarmed at this point, partly because Lott and other state congressional leaders have so much influence in Congress. But the supporters are keeping a wary eye on the developing situation.

“It is a concern. There is always a concern when it kicks up again,” said Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway. “We thought they were through with the base realignment and closures last go around. Fortunately, Keesler’s missions are vital to the Air Force. I think we should be in pretty good shape.”

Charleigh Ford, executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes Economic Development Administration, said there is hope that the BRAC hearings can be avoided.

“We certainly don’t want to go through that again,” Ford said. “It goes without saying that the Columbus Air Force Base is a major part of our economy here. But we should be in good shape even if they do have more BRAC hearings. The Air Force, from all I can gather, is having a difficult time getting enough pilots. Undergraduate pilot training bases like ours are going to have to operate at capacity for the foreseeable future just to meet the needs of the Air Force. Having said that, we can never relent. We want to watch everything very carefully.”

Col. Jack Catton, 14th Wing Flying Wing commander at Columbus AFB, said he is not concerned about the potential impact to Columbus AFB from another round of BRAC hearings.

“In support of Secretary Cohen’s initiative for additional base closures, BRAC rounds will free money needed to take care of people, and modernize our equipment and weapons,” Catton said. “We still base our combat forces according to a ‘Cold War’ paradigm. As a result, we’re wasting taxpayers dollars on infrastructure we don’t need, struggling to find funds to modernize our force, and spreading out people across too many facilities.

“That said, it is very important to know that there is currently no BRAC legislation, and no installations are currently targeted for BRAC as a result of the Secretary of Defense’s report.”

The Naval Air Station (NAS) Meridian has the distinction of being the only facility in the country to survive three rounds of BRAC hearings.

“We were considered for closure 1991, 1993 and 1995, so we are very familiar with the process,” said Maureen Lofton, assistant for governmental affairs, City of Meridian. “To the best of our knowledge, Meridian NAS is the only military installation to have survived three rounds. We constantly keep up on the very latest developments in the process, and have for the past seven years. I doubt there is a community in the country more in touch with day-to-day workings of base realignment and closure than we are. We really do stay on top of it.”

The Naval Meridian Team made up of military, local government and business leaders meets regularly, and members travel to Washington to meet with the state’s Congressional Delegation and with BRAC officials. At times Washington consultants are hired to lobby for NAS Meridian.

“The existence of the Naval Meridian Team and expertise they bring to this very complex subject has really made a difference,” Lofton said. “It is one thing for a community to rally around its base as an emotional issu
e or economic issue, which are both very important. But when i
t really gets down to bottom line, what matters is the military value of your installation. We have been able to show in minute detail the value of the pilot trainin


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