Officials across military-friendly northwest Florida are watching the Pentagon closely once again, now that there’s renewed talk about another round of base closures and mission realignments.
Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee last month, several top military officials supported another round of BRAC: Base Realignment and Closure. Among them was General Stephen Wilson, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
“We think we have about 25 percent excess capacity at our bases,” said Wilson. “BRAC would help us to do smart investment of the bases preparing for the future. And we can take the money we’re spending on the excess infrastructure and put that back into solving some of our fiscal problems.”
BRAC has reared its head six times since 1988, and Naval Air Station Pensacola has been impacted by two of them. The base lost its Aviation Depot in 1993; and in 2003 the Naval Air Basic Training Command moved to NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. It was replaced in Pensacola by NET-C, the Naval Education and Training Command.
“I expect a BRAC to occur during Donald Trump’s presidency,” said Congressman Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Fort Walton Beach who is a member of House Armed Services Committee.
“I don’t think that it’s all that productive to wring our hands about the fears of BRAC,” Gaetz said. “I think we should be preparing right now to win BRAC and to attract mission to northwest Florida. And to have even more military activity contributing to our economy and to the nation’s defense.”
Gaetz says with the military's needs to operate more efficiently very evident, Northwest Florida must not let the impending round of base closings hinder the region's preparation for it.
Another example of a possible BRAC-proof operation locally is the cybersecurity mission at Corry Station, thanks to their work on IT infrastructure with the University of West Florida and Pensacola State College.
“That’s where warfare is moving, to cyberspace,” said Gaetz. “It’s where the resources will move, so by preparing for that now with our advocacy and incremental funding, we put ourselves in the best position not only to maintain what we have, but in a potential BRACE, but to get even more.”
In Santa Rosa County, NAS Whiting Field, according County Commissioner Don Salter, is the county’s largest economic engine, generating roughly $1.2 billion per year both directly and indirectly.
“The military’s about 34% of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton [Counties’] economy,” Salter says. “So it’s extremely important that we do whatever it takes to not only protect, but grow those military bases as well.”
Santa Rosa has been taking steps over the years to “BRAC-proof” Whiting, with Salter, an Army veteran, at the tip of the spear for the past quarter-century. Among lessons learned from previous bases closing he says, is where communities didn’t partner with the military to protect the bases’ “fence line”
“They allowed incompatible development around those fence lines,” said Salter. “Incompatible development most of the time is residential development; and that impairs the mission of that base, especially if you’re in the aviation business.”
Santa Rosa’s strategy is to purchase land within a one-mile radius of Whiting Field, and develop it for uses that can go hand-in-glove with the military. Salter says one good choice for a tenant most of the time is industrial, such as an aviation maintenance firm.
But Salter concedes that the unpredictability of the Trump administration could throw them some BRAC curveballs. The cure for that, he believes, is conducting the next round in public.
“That way, we know what the rules are,” said Salter. “We just don’t want to see military leadership on their own start to move missions around without having public input. And that’s what’s going to happen if we don’t have another public BRAC.”
Whether a BRAC is good or bad depends on how you fare under it. Case in point: Eglin Air Force Base benefitted in the 2005 round by getting the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group. Good for Eglin, but bad for Fort Bragg, North Carolina.