MacDill Air Force Base plays a huge role in the regional economy, worth about $14 billion a year according to one study. But with a move to close military installations around the country gaining momentum, explaining MacDill’s value to Congressional and military leaders is the key to preventing MacDill from either being shut down all together or stripped of its flying missions.
That concern is amplified in the absence of C.W. “Bill” Young, the late Pinellas Congressman whose position atop the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee was instrumental in steering defense funds to the region.
That’s the bottom line up front from “Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) and the Tampa Bay Community,” a breakfast put on Thursday morning by the Tampa Bay Partnership and Deloitte LLP, featuring two retired Air Force general officers and a retired U.S. representative who all now work for financial consulting firm.
“We have a great story in Tampa about the importance of MacDill Air Force Base,” said Jim Soligan, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who served as MacDill’s base commander in 1998 and 1999. But that story, said Soligan, now Deloitte’s defense sector director, “is poorly understood” by decision makers in Congress and the Pentagon.
The efforts to improve the story and pave the way for a better future are outlined in a report called MacDill 2025, developed by the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance, according to Rich McClain, a member of its board of directors.
“MacDill is more than just Centcom and Socom,” Soligan said, referring to U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, both headquartered at MacDill, the only place in the U.S. with two major military commands. While the two Tampa commands will be leading U.S. military efforts for years to come, “when the time comes to either make investments in infrastructure for flying operations and or assign future aircraft to MacDill, it is not an intuitive discussion or answer for many people in Washington, whether the Air Force or (Defense Department) or Congress.”
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who served as a point person during three previous BRAC rounds, in 1991, 1993 and 1995, is among those who agree, saying whoever is Tampa mayor should take the lead because that’s where the base is located,
Soligan, who was MacDill’s commander in the wake of the decision to take F-16 fighters away from MacDill, said that move was a “near-death experience in many cases for thecommunity.”
That’s because it is one thing to have headquarters doing the things headquarters do, but without flying operations, MacDill would lose personnel. Currently, the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the base host unit, and the 927th Air Refueling Wing, the Air Force Reserve partner unit, have about 4,500 personnel combined. There are about another 9,000 personnel between Centcom, Socom, Special Operations Command Central, the Joint Communications Support Element and the other 32 mission partners at the base.
Ratchetting up the pressure is the looming issue of the creation of a new BRAC commission, said Charles Wald, a retired Air Force general now serving as Deloitte’s vice chairman and federal practice senior advisor.
BRAC commissions are hugely unpopular in Congress. A 2013 study by the Haas Center, showing that MacDill pumps about $14 billion into the regional economy and creates more than 140,000 defense sector jobs, highlights the reason why elected officials are so reluctant to roll the dice and have their money-making bases disappear.
But the Pentagon, faced with the double whammy of spending cuts forced by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and additional cuts should the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration return next year, has been calling for another BRAC commission, which would be the first since 2005.
The services, facing budget squeezes, are also looking at cuts. The Air Force, for instance, has 30 percent more bases than it needs, Wald pointed out.
For there to be a BRAC commission created for 2017, the vote would almost certainly have to take place during this current budget cycle, said Tim Ford, a spokesman for the Association of Defense Communities, a lobbying group representing about 200 communities with military installations. And that, said Ford, is still an uphill battle, even if one key Senator, Jack Reed, Democrat from Rhode Island and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is in favor of a new BRAC.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has no concerns. “Sen. Nelson believes MacDill has been key to every operation in the last two decades. He sees no threat to a base that’s been that important, thriving and vital,” said Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown.
If it is created, a BRAC commission would leave three options for MacDill, said Soligan.
Close the base, keep it as a headquarters-only location or sustain and increase the flying mission.
The third option, he said, is clearly the best.
So with communities like San Antonio, Texas, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Huntsville, Alabama and elsewhere around the country organizing to protect their military assets, Wald and Soligan urged the Tampa area to do the same, through a unified voice and emphasizing MacDill’s refueling mission.
MacDill currently has 16 KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets, with another eight expected to start arriving in 2017 from bases that will receive the new KC-46 Pegasus, the Boeing-made jet created to replace the aging, Eisenhower-era Stratotankers.
A step toward increasing the mission at MacDill is the expected move of 23 Black Hawk helicopters from A and F Companies of the 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, now based at Clearwater International Airport, which will bring the aircraft and upward of 200 people to MacDill, U.S. Rep. David Jolly told the Tribune last year. That move would also mean about $55 million in military construction to create a new aviation support facility at MacDill to handle the helicopters, said Jolly. In addition, he said about eight fixed-wing aircraft will likely come to Clearwater to replace the Black Hawks, making it a win-win for the region.
Another positive, from a BRAC perspective, is that last year, the State Legislature allocated money to purchase Florida Tank and Rock, adjacent to MacDill, in an effort to preserve it from future development, which would be a negative when a BRAC committee looks for reasons to shut a base. Those negotiations are still ongoing,
But the base has had its defeats. It was passed over last year as one of the sites to house the new Pegasus refueling jets. That decision, however, was based in part on inaccurate information, said John R. Schueler, the Tampa Bay Partnership’s CEO, and Soligan. That included information about conflicts in airspace between MacDill and Tampa International Airport.
Scheuler, formerly president of the company that used to own the Tribune and now also president of the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance, said that he was told by Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano that there are no airspace conflicts between the civilian and military airports.
But the misinformation, said Soligan, is another reason why the community has to come together and speak as one voice.
Soligan declined to say who should take the lead in the area.
Buckhorn had no such reticence.
“I do think at the appropriate time, the city needs to speak with one voice, as it was in early 90s,” said Buckhorn, adding that not having Bill Young around adds to the challenge of fighting off a BRAC.
“Even before hearing rumblings of a BRAC, we need to make the case in DC on a regular basis,” said Buckhorn, “and not have disparate groups running around, all well-intentioned, saying different things. We do have that now.”
Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., also agreed that there needs to be more of a unified voice in the face of BRAC.
“I don’t think we have that in place,” said Homans. “We are, not as formally prepared as we need to be, but I think we have the right leadership in place to make that happen.”
Homans said Buckhorn should take the lead.
But not everyone agrees that there is a lack of a unified vision and voice,
Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday morning that not only has his organization acknowledged the importance of MacDill and the military by increasing the role of its military committee, but there is close cooperation with other groups on these issues.
“We work very closely with other chambers on coordination so we are not duplicating efforts,” he said.
Like others, U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the loss of Young requires a greater level of cooperation among the region’s Congressional delegation, across both aisles. But Nugent said regardless, there is a keen awareness of the issues.
“The tanker mission was on my radar screen immediately,” said Nugent. (Democratic U.S. Rep.) Kathy Castor and I have done press conferences, we’ve visited with the Air Force, I’ve had the Air Force in my office on this and we fought hard to get the new tankers. And when the new tankers weren’t in the cards, we made sure that MacDill got the additional tankers that were being replaced. The tanker mission is looking strong for the foreseeable future and as a member of (the House Armed Services Committee), I know I’ll keep pushing for it.”
Though a leader in the efforts to protect MacDill, Castor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Stacey Swank, business development manger for Pinellas County Economic Development, was at the breakfast and said her organization is on board with the Tampa Bay Partnership’s effort.
Jolly is among those who believe it is time to consider closing bases.
“We as a nation are paying for unused concrete instead of investing in our national security and our service members,” said Jolly, a member of the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, “I believe a new BRAC study will ultimately result in a stronger and more cost effective Armed Forces, and in the Tampa Bay area likely additional resources and DoD elements, not less.”
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