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Texas could gain in wake of troop cuts, BRAC

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's proposal last week for deep cuts in the military has sparked an intense debate, but experts are confident that Texas not only could weather the postwar drawdown, but perhaps land more troops and missions.

Texas, where the military has an estimated $150 billion annual impact on the state economy, enjoyed a windfall in the last base closure round, and no city did better than San Antonio.

The 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission ordered $3.3 billion in construction and sent thousands of additional troops to three installations here. Two critical Pentagon needs, medical care and cybersecurity, already are big in San Antonio and are expected to grow.

The 2005 BRAC transformed Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston into the home of tri-service enlisted medical training. It pumped about $2 billion in new construction into a post that in the mid-1990s seemed a likely target for closure because of its many old and vacant buildings.

The post's hospital, San Antonio Military Medical Center, underwent a $777.5 million expansion. And the Air Force is well into a $380 million expansion of the Wilford Hall medical facility on the South Side.

“That's huge,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a veteran of all five previous closure rounds. “I would think we've got some pretty good facilities that could be adapted to whatever (the military's) needs might be.”

Last year, the federal sequestration trimmed $37 billion from the Pentagon's budget, which is about $500 billion this year. Those cuts put civilian workers on weekly furloughs and reduced training. The Defense Department also has to deal with $487 billion in reductions to be phased in over the next decade.

“The reality of reduced resources and a challenging and changing strategic environment requires us to prioritize and make difficult choices,” Hagel said in a briefing last week. “Some of those choices we must make now.”

Hagel proposes cutting 70,000 soldiers from the Army, the largest of the armed services, with 490,000 troops. He also wants to scrap the A-10 Warthog tank-busting jet and a new troop carrier.

Hagel also called for a 2017 base-closure round, which followed similar pleas from two previous defense secretaries.

In unveiling his budget, Hagel said troop and force structure would be reduced to sustain readiness, technological superiority, and cyber and special operations forces. He said some weapons system development would be scuttled or delayed and that military compensation pay would be targeted to free up money for training, readiness and modernization.

The future of ground forces and heavy armor is a concern for big installations such as Fort Hood in Killeen and El Paso's Fort Bliss and to a lesser extent for Fort Sam Houston, where combat medics have been trained for decades.

The Army's two biggest job fields are infantry and combat medics, and a cut of 70,000 soldiers and perhaps even more will drain troops in both fields.

Fort Sam Houston already has planned for a decline in the number of combat medics trained on the post, from a projected 5,542 during this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, to 4,809 in 2015.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Davis, a longtime senior adviser to retired U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, was one of several experts who doubted that Hagel's budget plan would survive its first contact with Congress. He said there are nowhere near enough votes to support the Pentagon plan or a closure round.

“It's called a budget proposal because that's what it is, a proposal, a place to start. There's already a sense emerging in Congress that it's too far, too deep, and there will be pushback, just as there will be pushback on the proposal for a BRAC round,” said Davis, a BRAC lobbyist for some Texas cities.

Two previous defense secretaries fruitlessly pushed for BRACs. But a measure of just how serious Hagel is about the matter was his hint he could seek “warm basing” if a BRAC isn't approved. Warm basing takes troops out of a base and puts it into a dormant state, denying communities the chance to redevelop the bases with federal money.

Recognizing the threat, and concerned about BRAC's destructive potential on military communities, the Texas Military Preparedness Commission recently took action. It nominated seven people to serve on the Military Base Realignment and Closure Task Force.

The group will study the strengths and weaknesses of the state's 15 major bases, work with local leaders and develop strategies for countering the next BRAC round. In the meantime, anxiety is rising in some parts of the state.

“I wake up worried in the morning,” said Jerry Sparks, who led a Texarkana Chamber of Commerce committee that prepared for the 2005 BRAC.

Red River Army Depot is the No. 1 employer in Texarkana, with close to 4,800 workers there, almost all of them civilians. It packs a $1.9 billion economic impact in Texas and Arkansas.

Overall, the military employs 200,000 troops and civilian workers in Texas, investing billions into cities in every corner of the state.

Military communities include Del Rio, home to Laughlin AFB; San Angelo, which has Goodfellow AFB; and Abilene, home of Dyess AFB.

Laughlin, a pilot training hub with a $211 million annual economic impact on Del Rio, is expected to grow because a commercial airline pilot shortage will draw new crews from an Air Force whose pilots have been overworked by two wars.

At Dyess, a B-1 bomber fleet upgraded in the past decade is thought to be safe. At Goodfellow, which has a $307.8 million economic impact on San Angelo, environmental issues associated with firefighter training make relocation of its facilities unlikely.

Retired Air Force Col. William Ehrie, a former Texas Military Preparedness Commission chairman, said issues considered critical to the military have been largely resolved.

One of them, development that threatens training in places such as the Camp Bullis training range in northwestern Bexar County and at Fort Hood, has been checked. Texas has a low cost of living, giving the military a break on housing allowances while offering a high quality of life.

“We have good airspace, good ranges, we have good communities. The issue may not be a DoD issue, it may be more a political issue,” said Ehrie, a former commander at Dyess. “When you have this many bases, other people look at you.”

In El Paso, Fort Bliss has struck partnerships with the city to build a desalinization plant, built a highway to help troops commute to the post and is developing a solar energy facility.

“I would be very disappointed if it did not help us in a BRAC,” said Richard Dayoub, president and CEO of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce.

“There's a whole laundry list of things that they consider important priorities in terms of not just what the community is going (to do) to support them, but what that actually means in terms of their ability within the installation to provide support for their soldiers and families,” he added.

Closure rounds also have scarred San Antonio. The closure of Kelly AFB, which helped create a Hispanic middle class here, cost the city 10,000 jobs. Brooks City-Base, formerly Brooks AFB and linked to the start of the space race and NASA, was one of 23 installations to shutter in the 2005 BRAC, resulting in the loss of its scientists and researchers.

Kelly's demise transformed the way San Antonio approached closure rounds. Local leaders created City-Base, a first-of-its-kind installation that was owned and operated by San Antonio, with buildings leased to the Air Force. It was hoped that the Air Force would stay at Brooks, keeping its highly valued research staff, but the deal also bought valuable time for the base's redevelopment.

When dozens of states competed for the 24th Air Force several years ago, San Antonio created a cybereducation consortium that included the University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, St. Mary's University, Northwest Vista College and Texas State University in San Marcos.

The city won the contest, scoring far above its competitors, said Mark Frye, chairman of the city's Military Transformation Task Force's legislative and public relations committee.

“San Antonio is fast becoming Cyber City, U.S.A., because of the partnerships among the military, industry, academia and government, and we have room to grow,” he said.

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