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February 9, 2015 – military.com, By Tim Lockette

Anniston Star (AL) – When Anniston Army Depot announced the layoff of 190 workers last week, it was a reminder of the local economy's decades-long dependence on defense spending.

But it wasn’t the only disquieting news local military and business leaders got this week.

Buried in President Barack Obama’s proposed 2016 budget, released Monday, is a call for a new round of Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, the Pentagon restructuring process that can lead to the shuttering of entire military bases.

The Department of Defense has been calling for a new BRAC for years, with no success. In a Republican-run House and Senate, many of the president’s budget proposals may be dead on arrival -- but with 10 years passed since the last BRAC, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars now giving way to smaller conflicts, some say a near-future BRAC is becoming a real possibility.

“The chances are better than they’ve been for most of the Obama presidency,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst for the Brookings Institution.

Feared acronym

The acronym BRAC gives leaders in military towns a sick feeling, and Anniston knows full well why.

For 70 years, the city was home to Fort McClellan, a military training base that dominated the city’s economy. The base grew and shrank, subject to the decisions of BRACs, commissions that were convened periodically to clear the deadwood out of the defense budget. In the 1990s, a post-Cold-War BRAC closed the base entirely, and the city has yet to fully recover. With roughly 23,000 residents, Anniston is about two-thirds its size in Fort McClellan’s 1960s heyday.

Anniston Army Depot, which refurbishes armored vehicles and small arms for the Army and Marine Corps, is still Calhoun County’s largest single employer, with 2,900 civilian government employees and another 660 people working for contractors on the base.

The depot emerged largely unscathed from a BRAC in 2005, when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brought a constant stream of battle-scarred vehicles to the bases.

The drawdown following those wars wasn’t kind to the depot. Five hundred workers lost their jobs in 2012, and the base cut another 190 temporary workers last week when it became clear that work expected in 2015 simply wouldn’t materialize.

Still, local leaders say they’re confident the depot would fare well in a BRAC if one did happen.

“The work is scaling down, but we offer a capability that’s not available anywhere else in the world,” said Nathan Hill, the military liaison for the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, who spoke on the depot’s behalf at the 2005 BRAC hearings.

Hill and other depot advocates said that even in the absence of a major ground war, the depot still fills a vital role. Weapons get wear and tear even in peacetime, and the Army has to maintain the capacity to do a large volume of work in case a new war does break out.

That’s exactly why the recent cuts are a cause of concern for Charles Barclay, vice president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1945, which represents depot workers. Barclay said that if work hours at the depot fall and the government decides to send work to other plants -- such as the General Dynamics facility in Lima, Ohio -- the depot will be in a bad position come the next round of BRAC.

“We’re going to have to start fighting back to prevent a BRAC from happening to Anniston Army Depot,” he said.

In a press conference last week, depot commander Col. Brent Bolander declined to speculate about the installation’s future.

“Those kinds of decisions we’ll leave to the people who do that work,” he said.

‘Too broke to close’

Anniston’s congressman doesn’t see BRAC happening in the near future.

“The reason we’re not authorizing a BRAC is that we’re too broke to close anything,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks.

While the goal of a realignment is to save the Pentagon money long-term, experts agree that closing bases actually costs money in the short term. Rogers said the government has yet to see significant savings from the 2005 round, something that left lawmakers unwilling to try again for some time.

O’Hanlon, the Brookings Institution expert, said a BRAC is far from certain, though the probability is growing. The president’s budget proposal would begin BRAC in 2017, after Obama’s term expires, something that would ease the worries of Republican lawmakers. Powerful committees in both houses now have new leadership, something that could open the door to a BRAC proposal.

There’s also pressure from the Department of Defense, which claims it can reduce up to 20 percent of its headquarters staff if given the chance.

“We’re really saying ‘I can’t afford to save money right now,’” O’Hanlon said. “It’s like a family driving an old jalopy, even though it needs repairs, because they can’t afford a new car.”

Defense officials have already announced a BRAC-like round of closures in Europe, shuttering an air base in England and several commissaries and barracks facilities in Germany.

When a BRAC does come to the U.S., it may be a matter of big fish eating the small ones. O’Hanlon said BRAC tends to favor large bases, where the Pentagon can cut costs by consolidating many functions under one roof.

Hill, the Calhoun County military liaison, said size was what killed McClellan. Though the 19,000-acre base took up a sizable chunk of Calhoun County, he said, it wasn’t large in Army terms.

“The Army wanted big, large-acreage installations,” Hill said. “If you compare McClellan to installations like Fort Hood or Eglin Air Force Base, McClellan was small.”

Asked what has been done to make the depot safer from a BRAC, Hill, Rogers and other advocates for the base often cite recent expansions of facilities there, including a new small arms repair facility and a new engine facility.

“We’ve got a lot of skills and capabilities and we’ve shown that we’re able to take on more,” Rogers said.

So far, the post-Afghanistan era hasn’t yielded much peace for the world or prosperity for Anniston. America’s ongoing battle with the terrorist group ISIS is largely being conducted from the air. Congress is talking seriously about sending more aid to embattled Ukraine, but Rogers, who visited the country late last year, doesn’t think Anniston’s arms and vehicles will be part of that package.

Still, Hill thinks Congress would be reluctant to close bases any time soon.

“A lot of our congressional people see us as still in a state of war,” he said. “The threat still increases every day.”

This article is originally from the Anniston Star (AL) and was posted to military.com, February 9, 2015.

 

The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.