FORT WALTON BEACH — The Air Force-wide consolidation of Materiel Command centers took an important official step on Monday, with the activation of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Eglin’s own Air Armament Center is set to be disestablished July 18. Eglin’s development missions and command will then report to the new management center at Wright-Patterson. Eglin’s test missions will report to the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In addition, Eglin’s 46th Test Wing and 96th Air Base Wing will be consolidated into a single 96th Test Wing.
Despite widespread fears, these changes are not actually moving the missions themselves from Northwest Florida. All Eglin missions are staying at Eglin.
However, politicians and economists continue to warn that the changing command structure is merely the first step toward the eventual removal of Eglin’s most economically vital missions to another Air Force base.
These include the oft-cited research, development, testing and evaluation procedures, which bring in highly paid scientists and engineers, who in turn contribute billions of dollars to the economy of Northwest Florida.
“The fear is that old adage in the military,” said David Goetsch, an economist with the Okaloosa County Defense Support Initiative. “The closer you are to the flagpole the better, when decisions are made. We’re not going to be close to the flagpole now (with the restructuring) when any future cuts are made. And there will be cuts.”
The Air Force is continuing with its consolidation plans despite pending legislation that would outlaw any restructuring of the Air Armament Center at Eglin unless another BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure Act) were passed. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller added this language to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Bill, which has already passed the House of Representatives and is currently on the floor of the Senate.
Should it pass the Senate, the Air Force would technically be required by law to retract the reorganization that will imminently affect Eglin.
Though the reorganization has Northwest Florida brass worried, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said that his successful effort to convince four-star Gen. Janet C. Wolfenberger to keep Maj. Gen. Kenneth Merchant at Eglin ensured that the missions of the Air Armament Center will remain at the base.
“It will be the same mission, just a different name,” Nelson said.
Nelson, a Democrat, echoed what Miller and other Republican lawmakers in Northwest Florida have been saying: The Air Force undoubtedly had plans to move Eglin’s research, development, testing and evaluation components to Edwards.
With Wolfenberger in turn convincing the secretary of the Air Force to keep Merchant, “we were able to reverse that,” Nelson told a group at the Fort Walton Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
Goetsch concurred that keeping Merchant as a program executive officer for weapons at Eglin was a positive. Merchant’s knowledge and experience bode well for retaining all of Eglin’s missions, despite the fact that the reorganization leaves him with “half of his former title,” as Miller wrote in a letter to the Daily News.
“The worst case scenario would have been if the Air Armament Center was disestablished and Merchant left,” Goetsch said. “A better scenario is that he’s staying. It’s not the best. On a scale of one to ten, this is a five.
“He (Merchant) is by far the most committed, articulate advocate for weapons in the Air Force,” Goetsch added. “By virtue of his knowledge, experience and commitment, we’ll be fine while he’s here.”
Goetsch expressed concern that upon Merchant’s retirement, the Air Force would not retain a two-star general position at Eglin. Without a higher-ranking voice in the weapons program at Eglin, it would hypothetically be easier for the missions to be eased away to another location, such as Edwards.
“The fact that the Air Force is silent on that is worrisome,” Goetsch said. “And Miller is worried because he’s not getting the right answers on those kinds of questions.”