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Military Base Backers Range from Confident to 'Paranoid'

CNS Photo by Sarah Abruzzese

Military aircraft at Patuxent River Naval Air Museum. (CNS photo by Sarah Abruzzese)

By Kathleen Cullinan
Capital News Service
Friday, April 29, 2005

WASHINGTON - Todd Morgan says he won't be able to rest until Christmas.

As president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, Morgan spends half his time these days meeting with public officials and lobbyists as he fights to protect the Patuxent River Naval Air Station from the next round of Pentagon base closings and consolidations.

"This year is one big, huge headache," he said, of the work leading up to the scheduled May 16 release of the Base Realignment and Closure list -- and the fight that is likely to follow over listed bases.






And Morgan is not the only one. Across the state, government officials, businesses, community leaders and volunteer alliances like Morgan's have spent at least a year making the case for why their particular base should be spared or expanded in the next BRAC.

Some have more cause for concern than others: While Fort Meade is being cast as a possible winner in this round of BRAC, the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head is repeatedly mentioned as a likely target.

No one will officially predict what will happen in Maryland -- military officials because they are not allowed to, business and government leaders because they do not know for certain.

It has led to some unusual alliances -- bringing Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, together with Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, for example.

"Steny Hoyer and I agree on nothing," Ehrlich said recently with a laugh. "We never agree on one thing -- except BRAC."

Hoyer -- just one politician who has met with the governor, Pentagon officials and county leaders to promote the Patuxent River and Indian Head bases in his district -- said it is part of the job.

"Yes, we're concerned, and yes, we're working hard," Hoyer said of the pending BRAC. "Anybody that's not concerned that has bases . . . is not doing their job."

It is precisely that type of protectiveness that led Congress to authorize an independent commission in 1990 to root out unneeded military facilities and consolidate underused facilities, independent of political influence.

The presidentially appointed commission will review the list of targeted bases from the Defense Department in May, refine it and pass its own list on to the president by this fall. The president can accept the list as is or send it back to the commission. Then it goes on to Congress, which has to accept or reject the list, without tinkering, by the end of the year.

This is the fifth and final scheduled BRAC round. The Pentagon estimates that about 20 percent of the military's 1988 base capacity has been trimmed under BRAC, saving about $16.7 billion through 2001.

But while the process is supposed to be immune from politics, it is not immune from advocacy, Hoyer said. And advocates have become more sophisticated and more dogged in this round, which has the potential to be the largest yet.

From small installations with top-secret missions, to facilities like Patuxent River where nearly 20,000 people work, most community leaders and base advocates are cautiously optimistic that Maryland's bases will escape the worst of the hit list.

But the various Maryland alliances are tacking in different directions, depending on how vulnerable they think their base is or how well it matches the Pentagon's criteria.

Some supporters have keyed their pitches to the fact that the Pentagon said it would focus more than ever in this round on the military value of a base, and less on environmental and community factors.

The work done at Naval Surface Warfare Center at Carderock, for example, is not "publicized every day to the newspapers, so it's kind of difficult to get people in the surrounding area to get too excited about it," said Richard Metrey, president of the Maritime Technology Alliance, which advocates for Carderock.

So his group is focusing on Carderock's "uniqueness to the government and the country and the product line," since it is the only government ships research lab in the country.

At Fort Meade, which already employs 36,000 people and houses the National Security Agency, among other tenants, there is a strong feeling that the base will not only escape unscathed, but could grow substantially after this round.

"Fort Meade's really been in a kind of expansion mode," said Jay Weiner, a land developer who has worked in the area for more than 30 years. The amount of money poured into the base is "so substantial that I guess, to be honest, most people would not think that it would be possible that it would be cut in any way," he said.

Indian Head supporters, too, are pitching the unique attributes of their base, despite rumors that the Pentagon is looking hard at closing their base or moving parts of its operations to other facilities.

"Our information may be faulty and our sources inaccurate, but that's the sense we have of what's going on right now," said John Bloom, president of the Indian Head Defense Alliance.

If any facility in Maryland seems safe, backers of Andrews Air Force Base say theirs is it.

Besides being the president's personal airport, the base has tenants from other branches of the military -- integration cooperation between branches is another of the Pentagon's criteria for this round.

"It's a very, very important part of our national security and certainly our national prestige," said Jim Estepp of the Andrews Alliance. "There's no indication that BRAC will affect [Andrews] in an adverse way."

All the same, Estepp said, "you never want to say you're too confident or over confident."

Which underscores the bottom line about BRAC: No one knows what will happen until the list is finalized. Even then, about 15 to 20 percent of the bases nominated may eventually be spared, if history is any guide -- and if their boosters can make a strong enough case.

At first blush, Patuxent seems safe. It gained thousands of jobs in a previous round of base closures, and it now drives the St. Mary's County economy. But Morgan and others worry that Pax River could end up losing part of its work anyway, possibly to a California installation.

"I hear lots of rumors. . . . How credible they become, I really can't say," Morgan said. "From the alliance's point of view, we're paranoid and concerned."

Package produced for the Web by Maryland Newsline's Mike Santa Rita. Banner graphic by Santa Rita. Stories reported by staffs from the Capital News Service Annapolis and Washington bureaus, and by Maryland Newsline's Kaukab Jhumra Smith and Kendra Nichols. Interactive quiz by Nichols. Stories edited for print by CNS bureau directors Steve Crane and Adrianne Flynn.

Published Spring 2005

Copyright 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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