Less than three months from now, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will put forward a list of military bases to be shuttered or shuffled around, and Southern Maryland officials are doing everything they can think of to keep their bases off the list.
The lobbying momentum to protect the Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head Division in Charles County and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's -- the largest employers in both jurisdictions -- has hit top speed.
A V-22 Osprey is shown in 2002 at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's, which officials said accounts for more than 20,000 jobs and drives about 80 percent of the local economy.
(Alex Dorgan-ross -- AP)
Members of the region's congressional delegation have been holding strategy sessions to keep on message: that their bases are of high military value and needed by their communities. Last week, St. Mary's commissioners pledged $75,000 -- three times more than the usual yearly allowance -- to the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, the group that advocates for Pax River. The money will fund, among other things, the work of Washington lobbying firm Hyjek & Fix, which is promoting the cause of both Southern Maryland bases.
"I'm going to stay paranoid and protective until this is done," said Todd Morgan, president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance. "I'd rather be paranoid and have jobs than be complacent and see them walk away."
In St. Mary's there is much to lose. Pax River accounts for more than 20,000 jobs and drives about 80 percent of the local economy, officials said. In the 10 years since the last round of base realignments and closures, known as "BRAC," the base has fared well, adding about 8,000 jobs and operations such as the headquarters of the Naval Air Systems Command, which moved from Crystal City in Arlington, Morgan said.
St. Mary's officials predict the entire base won't be closed, but they worry that a part, such as a jet flight school, could be transferred to another base.
At Indian Head, which supplies Charles with more than 3,500 jobs, there is perhaps less to lose but a greater chance to lose it.
"Indian Head is very, very vulnerable," said John Bloom, president of the Indian Head Defense Alliance. "In earlier BRACs, everything that's easy to close has been closed."
Because of Indian Head's smaller size and because other work on explosives is done at places such as Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey and China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in California, officials fear for Indian Head's future. In the 1995 BRAC, the base was initially put on the Navy's list for closure and then removed from the Defense Department's final recommendations, several officials said.
"Everybody was a little surprised that Indian Head was not closed in the 1990s," said Frederic Baron, senior policy adviser to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).
To add to the worry, the Defense Department is planning what military analyst Loren Thompson calls "the mother of all base closures." In the previous four BRAC rounds, starting in 1988, the Defense Department cut about 20 percent of the military's capacity, including closing 97 major military bases. This one is expected to be larger than all those combined: up to a 25 percent reduction to save $7 billion annually.
"What has happened over the years around Washington is various defense agencies have acquired properties without much coordination," said Thompson, who teaches military affairs at Georgetown University and works with the Lexington Institute think tank. "There is probably a long overdue need to consolidate the holdings in the metropolitan area across service branches."
Each military service branch makes recommendations to the Pentagon about what to close or realign. By May 16, Rumsfeld will present the list to the nine-member BRAC commission. At that point, changes to the list can be made only by a vote of the commission. President Bush has until late September to approve or reject the list in its entirety. If approved, it moves to Congress for the final go-ahead.
If Indian Head gets cut in the process, Charles County commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) said the impact would be devastating for the county's economy; he called it comparable to the loss of the Pentagon to Northern Virginia.
Others were more optimistic.
"We've got to be prepared to have solutions to worst-case scenarios," said Aris Melissaratos, Maryland secretary of business and economic development, and chairman of the state council that is planning the BRAC protection strategy. He said the Indian Head peninsula could be privatized and become a future location of high-tech commercial development if the base closes.
"Whatever happens in those southern counties, where unemployment is 2.8 percent, we have some room and capacity to handle short-term problems . . . we're going to turn it into a win."