By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 8:32 PM
President Obama has accepted the Pentagon's plan to close the Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command, an economic blow to Virginia that was softened by the announcement that half of the installation's functions would remain in the Hampton Roads region.
In a memo issued by the White House Thursday, Obama said he accepted Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's recommendation and approved "the disestablishment of United States Joint Forces Command, effective on a date to be determined" by Gates.
The plan to close JFCOM has been controversial since Gates announced it in August. Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and members of the state's congressional delegation said that the Pentagon did not release enough evidence or analysis to justify its decision, and they said that JFCOM performs valuable functions for the military that need to continue.
McDonnell said in a statement Thursday that he was "strongly opposed" to Obama's decision and would "continue to work diligently with local officials to try and minimize the effects on all those who work at JFCOM or are connected to its operation."
But the news wasn't all bad for Virginia officials.
As Gates announced the details Thursday of a plan to cut $78 billion in defense spending over the next five years, he said that "we have identified a number of missions since the August announcement that should be retained in the Norfolk/Suffolk, Virginia, area. We are still refining the details, but expect that roughly 50 percent of the capabilities under JFCOM will be kept and assigned to other organizations."
JFCOM was established in 1999 and designed to help the military services operate together more effectively. Virginia lawmakers and Pentagon officials have lauded JFCOM's modeling and simulation programs, run in partnership with Old Dominion University. Sen. Mark Warner's (D-Va.) office said in a statement Thursday that he was hopeful that Hampton Roads could "maintain and perhaps even build upon" those functions.
Rep. Scott Rigell (R) - whose 2nd district includes JFCOM and who has been in office since Wednesday - said he was "somewhat encouraged" by Thursday's developments.
"From the very beginning, I've made clear that the essential mission of JFCOM needed to continue," Rigell said. "I'm pleased to see that, to some extent, the secretary of defense and the president agree that it should continue."
Because the Pentagon has yet to determine which JFCOM functions will be preserved and when the closure will take place, it's impossible to assess what the impact on the Hampton Roads region will be. JFCOM employs about 6,000 people, including contractors, and had a budget of $838 million in the last fiscal year.
The Hampton Roads region hosts several major military installations in addition to JFCOM, and Virginia lawmakers hope to lure more to the area. Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) has suggested that the Pentagon move the U.S. Africa Command to Norfolk from Stuttgart, Germany, and a Pentagon spokesman said in November that Gates would consider the idea.
After months of unsuccessfully requesting a face-to-face meeting with Gates, McDonnell and most of the congressional delegation sat down with the defense secretary in person in November. The meeting came after Webb blocked all pending Defense Department nominations in the Senate for three weeks, and he has complained that the Pentagon was "stiff-arming" the Virginia delegation by not providing more information about the JFCOM proposal.
Webb and Rep. Glenn Nye (D), whom Rigell defeated in November, introduced legislation in the last Congress that would prevent the closure of JFCOM unless the Pentagon provides "full justification" for the decision.
Webb spokeswoman Allison Jaslow said Friday that the senator "intends to carefully review all the data and cost-savings analysis regarding the latest efficiency initiatives when that information is provided by the Department of Defense."
The Hampton Roads region took another hit Thursday when Gates announced plans to "disestablish the headquarters of Second Fleet in Norfolk" as part of his proposed budget cuts. That move would cost the area approximately 160 jobs, though no ships currently based in Norfolk would leave as a result.
Separately, Virginia officials have been battling the Pentagon over a plan to move one of Norfolk's five aircraft carriers to Mayport, Fla. That could cost the region 10,000 jobs.
Ben.Pershing@wpost.com Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.