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With Uncertainty at Anniston Army Depot, a New State Board Will Try to Stir Support

The Anniston Star - November 4, 2011, By Cameron Steele

These are unpredictable times for the Anniston Army Depot. As proof, local and state officials point to the diminishing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, looming defense cuts and the probability of a future round of base closures.

Workers install an engine and transmission on an M113 armored personnel
carrier Tuesday at the depot. (Anniston Star photos by Trent Penny)

Each circumstance by itself would create some concern for the installation, which Chamber of Commerce officials call Calhoun County’s economic engine. Together, the war wind-down, $450 billion in defense cuts and the threat of base closings have local and state leaders searching for ways to ensure the depot’s stability.

A new state policy board, the Military Stability Commission, hopes to do just that for the depot and Alabama’s other military bases in Huntsville, Montgomery and the Wiregrass region.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now that we’re facing over the next few years as the defense cuts come down and there’s the possibility of BRAC,” said Nathan Hill, Anniston’s representative on the commission and the Chamber of Commerce’s military liaison for the depot, referring to the Base Realignment and Closure process that shuttered Fort McClellan in 1999. “And unfortunately not anyone could give you a definite answer right now about the future.”

Decreased workload

Neither Hill, chamber president Sherri Sumners nor depot officials think the depot risks closure if — or when, most officials say — a new round of base closings happens in the future. But since the tapering-off of the foreign wars, the workload at the depot has steadily decreased from its peak of 6.8 million direct labor hours in 2008, said Phillip Dean, the depot’s manager of integrated logistics support. Depot officials have approved a total of 750 early retirement and separation buyouts to mitigate falling workloads.

“And we’ve stopped hiring externally for about six months,” Dean said.

Amidst the decreased production at the depot — which specializes in repairing and refurbishing Strykers and other armored land vehicles — Sumners said the loss of Fort McClellan serves as a constant reminder to local leaders about the importance of proactive evaluation of the installation’s strengths and weaknesses.

“You can be victimized by a stealth BRAC,” she said, referring to how falling production and loss of work orders can affect a base’s perceived value to the Army.

That’s why chamber and depot leaders are constantly looking at new ways to keep the depot relevant to the Department of Defense.

Sumners and Hill said they work year-in, year-out to promote the depot’s value to state and U.S. legislators who can help convey that value to Pentagon leaders.

That’s why, Dean said, depot leaders have begun to expand its foreign military sales and have built new facilities to increase opportunities to win defense bids for items not as affected by the war wind-down, such as engines and transmissions.

And that’s part of the reason Hill and Sumners are eager about the new Military Stability Commission.

“It provides an impetus for everyone to do what they can if there is another BRAC to make sure the Anniston Army Depot is properly portrayed and measured in terms of military value,” Hill said. “And they want to provide stability particularly in light of the budget and what’s happening now with cuts.”

Bringing stability to state installations

Alabama legislators during last year’s session approved the commission to study the strengths and weaknesses of each of the state’s installations, come up with plans to improve services and to aggressively promote Alabama’s value to the Department of Defense, commission secretary Chuck Carver said.

“We’re getting ready early for BRAC; each of the four locations are getting ready for BRAC because they all know they’re at risk,” Carver said. “And we know there are things that are going to happen now, even when there isn’t a BRAC, because the military is getting ready for those budget reductions.”

Although the commission has met just once and is still in its early planning stages, Carver said, the 18 board members will focus on organizing intensive studies about each base’s services, production levels and workforce capabilities. The members also plan to go on a statewide tour of the four installations, Hill said.

Sumners serves on the Military Stability Foundation, the commission’s non-profit arm. The foundation’s job will be to raise money for and carry out the economic studies. Then, the commission will work to bend the ears of leaders at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill about the existing values and future opportunities at each of Alabama’s military bases.

“That way, we have the ability to offer the big picture, to protect our resources by offering a rationale to keep those military resources where they are,” Carver said. “I think we’ll make the difference for the state of Alabama by getting organized early, by setting up the proper defense mechanisms to defend our resources.”

Playing the game

But Alabama isn’t the only state with early plans in place to head off future base closures and negative effects from defense cuts, said a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor who specializes in political science and public policy administration.

Other states with strong military industries — such as Georgia, Missouri and Mississippi — also are aware of and working to prevent base closings and cuts to their services, professor Andrew Glassberg said.

“There are many states who try to play the game,” said Glassberg, who has spent years studying BRAC and its effects on communities that are economically reliant on military bases. “The states that are most engaged in early advanced planning, they are more effective in staying off the BRAC list.”

Proactive planning and boards like Alabama’s new Military Stability Commission are not foolproof plans for preventing base closings and cutbacks, Glassberg said. But they do help, especially if that planning can come up with ways to show the Department of Defense how an installation can be used to provide cross-services work.

“If it’s an Army base, and it can provide services to the Marines, too, then there’s this jointness,” Glassberg said. “That has clearly been a successful and plausible strategy.”

Carver said analyzing opportunities for what Glassberg calls “jointness” will be one of the Military Stability Commission’s main goals.

“We’d like to speak with one voice for Alabama to bring military resources from out of state back into the state, and combining military forces at the different state regions, like at the Anniston Army Depot,” Carver said.

The depot already does some of that cross-services work: It provides repaired engines for the Marine Corps, Sumners said.

“There is military value at the Anniston Army Depot,” agreed Dean, who was one of the BRAC officers for the installation in 2005. “We can continue to use past BRAC criteria to see where we are and how we can continue to improve.”

Hill said the new state commission will assist in finding those areas for improvement, implementing them and promoting them to the Pentagon.

“A lot of the future depends on evaluation, how the depot is evaluated … could you consolidate Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force at the Anniston Army Depot and not have duplicate services?” he asked. “I think so.

“We just have to use our crystal ball wisely.”

Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.


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