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Facing uncertainty, officials try to protect Calif. bases

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — BRAC.

The sound of the acronym for base realignment and closure is harsh enough. The reality is often harsher. And with the aftermath of the 1988 BRAC that closed San Bernardino’s Norton Air Force Base and two others in Southern California and shrunk March Air Force Base to half its size, it’s no wonder the word sets officials in the Inland Empire on edge.

Twenty years after Norton was finally shut, the city of San Bernardino and its surrounding economies still have not fully recovered.

March, now an Air Reserve base, remains a key element in the Riverside area economy. Its loss could pull more than $400 million out of the local economy, based on a 2013 Air Force analysis.

So in February, when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel unveiled his proposed budget for fiscal 2015 and beyond and called for a new round of BRAC, a public relations campaign to promote March ARB kicked into a higher gear. The Riverside County Board of Supervisors created the Office of Military and Defense Services. The mission of the office is to try to protect the county’s two bases — March and the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Norco — and encourage cooperative contracts between the military and local businesses.

A contingent of local officials recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. Part of the agenda was to make sure Congress knows how important the county bases are. The two-county region also hosts the Marine base in Twentynine Palms; Fort Irwin, north of Barstow; and the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow.

The biggest worry is that what happened with Norton could happen again.

Experts say that if and when a BRAC is approved by Congress, the process likely will be significantly different than in the past. They expect more attention to be paid to how a base closure would affect surrounding communities. With an unemployment rate still above 9 percent in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the region would be particularly vulnerable to job losses.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in defense budget and strategy. He said getting Congress to approve another BRAC is going to mean “raising sensitivity about some of these bases and raising consideration on how local economic factors might play into the decision (to close them).”

Targeted for closure

Former Rep. Jerry Lewis remembers how hard Norton’s closure hit the Inland region.

“It was very painful, and you could feel that pain through every community on the San Bernardino side of this region,” said Lewis, a Republican from Redlands. “It was a huge loss.”

While some leaders at the time were surprised when Norton was put on the list of bases to close, Lewis said the move didn’t come without warning.

Without the support of citizen groups, such as Inland Action, Lewis said, “there were those who would have closed Norton a lot earlier. Once we got to the point where all the bases were considered for closure at that time, we rose to the top. There were other uses that could be made of the Norton facility, which is what we see now.”

Part of Norton’s problem was that it was run down, said retired Col. Gary Underwood, the last commander at Norton. He arrived in 1988, just months before the closure announcement.

“When I got to the base, it was apparent to me that the base hadn’t been well cared for,” Underwood said, “but a lot of it was cosmetic. We had a lot of aging buildings, things like that.”

The base infrastructure was in bad shape as well. That, along with problems with groundwater pollution and the feeling that Norton’s missions — including the 63d Military Airlift Wing, the 4th Air Force (now at March) and the Space and Missile Systems Organization — could be relocated are among the reasons often cited for closing the base. But no one knows for sure, said Underwood. The BRAC committee never issued a criteria list.

“We didn’t get any feedback at all,” Underwood said. “It was a commission formed by Congress, and those decisions were very private. It’s hard to know what they were looking at. We were never told why.”

Redlands attorney John Mirau was a member of Inland Action at the time and later its chairman. He said the closed nature of the BRAC process was necessary.

That process involves congressional authorization of a BRAC commission. The independent commission is appointed by the president to act in a non-partisan fashion to determine what cuts to make. Congress then votes yes or no on each of the panel’s recommendations.

“The whole idea was to isolate it from the politics,” Mirau said. “We had very powerful congressmen, and it didn’t make any difference. If it depended on that, you’d never close any bases.”

He, too, feels that the base’s shabby state was a factor.

“The base was in terrible condition,” Mirau said. “It was surrounded by blighted areas. We were very concerned that (the closure) could happen. But there was shock when it was announced.”

Unavoidable BRAC?

In the aftermath of the 1994 closure, San Bernardino, already struggling from a recession amplified by the closing of large employers such as Kaiser Steel and the Santa Fe Railway, tumbled into an economic hole. Redevelopment of the base was hurt by political infighting and false starts.

Two decades later, much of the base has been rebuilt with warehouse operations, dominated by the headquarters of Stater Bros. markets. An international passenger terminal was recently completed at the airport, but no regular commercial flights operate there yet.

Experts say the scenario of Norton’s closure and aftermath is unlikely to repeat itself. In 1988, the economic factors of closing a large base — Norton hosted an estimated 23,000 jobs at its peak — did not weigh heavily in the decision-making process.

“The first four rounds of the BRAC process were designed to save the Department of Defense money,” O’Hanlon said. “They looked at the bases that were the most efficient and were good for war fighting. What they did not worry about was what communities might benefit or which communities might be left high and dry by a base closure.”

In addition, there seems to be little appetite among Congress for a BRAC right now.

Michaela Dodge is a policy analyst for defense and strategic issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. She says a BRAC is one of the few issues congressional leaders agree on these days.

“There is very large bipartisan support for no BRAC,” Dodge said.

Still, she said, it may be necessary if Secretary Hagel’s plan to reduce military personnel is realized.

“If the Pentagon will really do drawdowns as planned, you will have excess infrastructure and you will have to shut some things down,” she said.

But, when that happens, she said, she thinks the criteria will be different.

“I think the Pentagon is trying to find a way to cooperate more closely with local communities and governments,” she said.

Hagel’s proposal calls for a BRAC commission in 2017. O’Hanlon said that between now and then, the Department of Defense will have to work hard to persuade Congress to approve a commission, especially since few people are convinced that the most recent BRAC in 2005 actually saved any money. The economics issue will be a key factor.

“You can’t make these decisions based on some Washington pundit’s assessment,” O’Hanlon said. “You have to have a team of economists go out and look at each community.”

Tom Freeman, Riverside County’s commissioner of military and defense services, said a BRAC might even help Inland Empire bases. Freeman was one of three local officials who met with representatives in Washington, D.C., recently. One of those meeting was with retired Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association. Hargett reportedly told the group that a new BRAC would likely focus, at least initially, on reductions or reassignments of military units currently based overseas.

“There may be a possibility to pick up (some of those units),” Freeman said. “If we work hard we can attract other missions.”

He said there should be an effort by California politicians to ensure that any BRAC commission includes a representative from the state.

Becoming indispensable

Local bases have also been working for the past two decades to make themselves less susceptible to a BRAC closure. The theory seems to be that a more diversified mission, particularly one that involves multiple branches of the military, helps insulate an installation from becoming a closure target.

The Naval center in Norco also has branched out. The complex was on the list of possible BRAC closures in 2005. Since then, said Capt. Eric Ver Hage, current commander, it has diversified the analytic and design work it does on surface weapons by taking on the testing of submarine systems and the joint strike fighter program. It also has engaged in more cooperative work with private industry.

The center is largely made up of civilian personnel — only 28 of its 2,000 employees are active military — and it receives no direct money from the Pentagon. It’s funding comes from the contract work it does for military agencies and the private sector, Ver Hage said. He doesn’t see any logic in eliminating or moving the base.

“We’re a nonprofit business,” he said. “Our customers pay us for our services, and we use that to paint the buildings, cut the grass and send our people to school. Despite sequestration, demand for our services is up.”

While force reductions are anticipated at Fort Irwin and the Twentynine Palms Marine base, few expect the Pentagon to abandon these major training centers.

March Commander Col. Russell Muncy said the Air Reserve base is one of the most diversified bases in the Air Force, with elements of every military branch and Homeland Security. Its major missions include the airlift and refueling operations of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, an Air National Guard Predator drone program and the nerve center for monitoring nationwide air traffic by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Strong community support also helps the base, he added, along with its strategic position on the edge of the Pacific Theater.

“We can rapidly deploy people to a hot spot wherever it may be,” Muncy said.

Lewis, the former congressman, said he also thinks March is in a good position strategically.

“I frankly think that the strongest argument on behalf of the ongoing activity at March is that you need to have rapid deployment of materials and personnel and equipment close to the heart of the Los Angeles metro area.”

One thing most officials agree on is that they cannot become complacent about protecting the area’s military assets.

“We’re organizing the county team,” commissioner Freeman said. “We’ll be forming a defense alliance … for both March and Corona. We cannot sit idly by and wait and at the last minute try to rally.”
 

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