By Ben Pershing
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; B06
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and most of the state's congressional delegation held a long-awaited meeting with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Tuesday, seeking to deflect what they see as the Pentagon's proposed double-barreled assault on Virginia's economy.
State officials have been in crisis mode since August, when Gates announced his intention to close the Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command, potentially costing the Hampton Roads region thousands of jobs. At the same time, Gates vowed to significantly cut the Pentagon's use of private contractors, which could have a major impact on Northern Virginia.
McDonnell (R) and the state's lawmakers have complained repeatedly that those proposals lacked transparency and empirical data to support them and for months had been seeking to meet with Gates to make their case. Their opportunity came Tuesday morning at the Pentagon, and Virginia officials emerged from the session mildly encouraged that the blow to the state could be softened.
"It will not be nearly as bad as has been predicted," Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said of the impact on Hampton Roads, while Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said that "a fair portion" of the jobs at JFCOM would remain intact.
McDonnell, at various times, called the meeting "frank but respectful," "cordial" and "civil" and said he received a series of modest pledges from Gates. They included a promise that Virginia's Commission on Military and National Security Facilities will begin a "dialogue" with Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of JFCOM, over the installation's future.
More important, the Virginia officials received positive signals that some JFCOM functions could remain where they are, particularly the modeling and simulation programs run in partnership with Old Dominion University.
"The jewel in the crown is modeling and simulation," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), adding that he also hoped that U.S. allies could continue to use JFCOM as "a one-stop shop for their interface with the American military."
McDonnell acknowledged that the transformed installation may no longer be called JFCOM and that a range of outcomes is possible. "It could be from a name change â¦ to a significant pare-back," he said, later adding: "Until the ink is dry, this is still a moving target."
The group also asked Gates to consider moving other commands to Virginia to compensate for the potential loss of JFCOM. McDonnell did not specify the suggestions made at the meeting, but Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) proposed last week that the Africa Command be moved from Germany to Hampton Roads.
McDonnell said the delegation asked Gates to give "some consideration for economic remuneration" to the state, as would occur if JFCOM were closed under the regular Base Realignment and Closure process.
As for the Pentagon's workforce of federal contractors, McDonnell said Gates could not explain why "an arbitrary reduction of 30 percent over three years" was warranted.
Warner said the idea could not be evaluated unless it was clear how and where the functions now performed by contractors could be done by government employees. "The idea that a reduction in contractors in and of itself is going to save money doesn't make sense to us," Warner said.
Despite some reassurances from Gates, some of the Pentagon chief's statements at the meeting gave the Virginia group cause for concern.
"The secretary said that his goal with these actions was to be 'ruthless.' That was his word," said Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), saying that the term is defined as "merciless, cruel and without pity."
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said Cabinet officials sometimes saw Congress as a "pesky constitutional impediment" to their work.
"At one point, [Gates] referred to Congress and said that all too often analysis leads to paralysis, in a way of justifying why there was no analysis" to justify the moves, Connolly said.