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Preparing for another BRAC, before it's a done deal

The last time the military consolidated, Maryland's installations grew. But the base realignment and closure process usually goes the other way — and now the Army is calling for another round.

Officials in the state aren't waiting to see what happens. They're already preparing.

It's not certain yet, but the potential for a new round of BRAC in the coming years was the main topic last week for the Maryland Military Installation Council, which brings dozens of military, state, local and business leaders together for regular meetings.

The state Department of Business and Economic Development is talking to locally based military commanders about their needs, coordinating with the congressional delegation and quantifying the installations' economic impact.

Meanwhile, groups that support Aberdeen Proving Ground and two other sizable Maryland installations are working on studies that could help them identify and fix problems before any become BRAC black marks.

"The results of that study would be critically important for helping us understand how the Department of Defense might assess APG," said Jill M. McClune, president of the Army Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates for the installation in Harford County. "We want to position ourselves so we're viewed positively."

The logic of preparing now is that defense spending reductions will happen, BRAC or no BRAC.

"There are going to be cuts," said Mike Hayes, the former Marine Corps brigadier general who heads the state's Office of Military Affairs. "Those cuts are inevitable, and those cuts are almost certainly going to touch all around the nation, to include Maryland."

The Army, for instance, is working to get its number of active-duty soldiers down from a peak of 570,000 several years ago to 490,000, with the possibility of continuing to reduce to 440,000.

Gary Martin, deputy to the commanding general at the Army Communications-Electronics Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, also expects cuts in civilian jobs and government contracting. The installation has a substantial civilian employment base and is a major coordinator of contracting dollars.

Ripple effects would come with fewer people on Army posts.

"That's going to create excess capacity," said Dave Foster, a spokesman for the Army.

And that's why Army officials are among the loudest voices asking Congress for a BRAC in 2017. They don't want to spend money operating and maintaining the increasing number of buildings that are only partly full.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, expects that BRAC will happen. What's less clear is when, he said.

"I think we are well positioned whenever BRAC comes," he said. "The missions that are done by Maryland military installations are critically important to our country."

The last BRAC round, which was ordered in 2005 and completed in 2011, led to the closure of some bases and reductions at others. But that effort wasn't just about slimming down. The Army spent billions of dollars constructing new buildings, including at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County for the thousands of workers relocated there.

That investment makes businesses and others counting on those two bases feel better about BRAC than they would otherwise. Why would the Army shut down installations it just bulked up?

But reductions could hit everywhere. Anthony J. Principi, the former secretary of veterans affairs who chaired the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, gave the military installation council a warning three years ago: "Don't assume you are untouchable or immune to closures in the future. You're not."

His recommendation: Take a hard look at community strengths and weaknesses. Some groups are doing just that.

The Havre de Grace-based Chesapeake Science & Security Corridor, a group formed to help the region accommodate growth from the last BRAC process, is overseeing a study to assess everything from infrastructure and housing availability to how well the area coordinates with Aberdeen Proving Ground. The study is funded with a grant from the Defense Department.

One challenge caused by the last BRAC was traffic congestion. The Chesapeake Science & Security Corridor has worked to increase the use of trains, vans and carpools, said Karen Holt, the group's BRAC manager.

Similar studies are underway for Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland, and for Joint Base Andrews, the installation in Prince George's County.

The burning concern at Pax River — raised at the council meeting — is the possibility that a wind turbine project planned for the Eastern Shore could interfere with the installation's radar tests.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, urged state lawmakers to pass a 15-month moratorium on land-based wind energy efforts in much of the state, and they did. Gov. Martin O'Malley vetoed the legislation last month, calling fears of an impact on the Navy test range unfounded and saying that the bigger threat to Pax River is rising sea levels from climate change.

Before the bill was passed, the Navy and the wind project developer reached a tentative agreement that the turbines would be shut off when the base conducted radar tests on the stealth qualities of aircraft. But a Navy spokesman said earlier this year that the deal needed to be altered.

Officials with the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, the local group that advocates for Pax River, said they are working with various players to come up with a plan to deal with that situation.

"This is BRAC 101," said Christopher J. Goode, a retired Navy officer who is managing partner of the Roosevelt Group, a government relations firm that counts the alliance as a client.

"We can't be frivolous when we talk about wind turbines. It's an important issue. Nobody up here is against wind turbines, nobody. But, man, there's only one Atlantic test range. We can't get this wrong."

Officials at Fort Meade, meanwhile, think their installation is, if not BRAC-immune, in a different category. It continued to expand after the 2005 realignment concluded, fueled in part by the Cyber Command established there to focus on cybersecurity issues.

"The truth is, we're not doing anything in preparation for a quote-unquote BRAC," said Mary Doyle, a spokeswoman at Fort Meade. "We're one of the few installations in the country, I think, that are still growing. ... During the last BRAC, we built some very strong community relationships, not just with elected officials but with our neighbors. We know how to get that kind of support."

Deon W. Viergutz, president of the Fort Meade Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the base, said the expectation of more growth means that transportation improvements are key. That's the sort of preparation he's focused on.

"We need to continue to be in front of that," he said.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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