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As military realigns bases, the South wins

By , / May 16, 2005



RALEIGH, N.C.

During the past four base-closure rounds, success was a simple equation for military towns: Don't lose the base. With the release of the Pentagon's new list last Friday, however, it has become obvious that this year, for the first time, there will be actual winners - and that overwhelmingly, the core of American military might is shifting southward.

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Unlike past rounds, when the Defense Department cut through its bases with broad strokes, seeking to maximize cost savings after the cold war, this year's list is about aligning America's network of bases for the needs of the next century. In the South, the Pentagon has apparently found its ideal environment: proximity to the coasts for rapid deployment, cheap and plentiful land, and a culture more tied to martial traditions.

For Starr Whitmore of Goldsboro, N.C., it means an influx of jobs that will allow her to open two more cafes. And for the rest of the nation, it marks a new sort of military retrenchment, as the armed forces contract their national footprint somewhat and concentrate on fewer, larger bases increasingly clustered in the southern quarter of the country.

"Virginia and Texas have bigger militaries that just about anybody on the planet," says John Pike, a defense analyst at GlobalSecurity.org. With this realignment, he adds, "It's accentuated."

The list delivered to Congress Friday was merely the first step in a long process. During the next few months, a commission appointed by President Bush will listen to the arguments of communities who feel their bases were unfairly targeted, and submit a new list by Sept. 7. The president and Congress then have until November to approve or reject the list without making changes.

History suggests, however, that the commission makes few changes to the Pentagon's suggestions. If that trend continues, the South will be the biggest winner. In fact, it would be the only region to actually gain jobs though the realignment. Half of the states set to gain at least 1,000 jobs are in Dixie. Three more - Maryland, Kansas, and Oklahoma - are on the fringe.

In some respects, the shift is only one part of a bigger change in basing strategy. In all, some 800 installations were tabbed for closure, most of them small outposts of Defense Department accountants or far-flung reserve centers. Consolidating more functions at larger bases means that the military doesn't have to pay for leased space or defend as many sites.

"A lot of this is force protection," says Jeremiah Gertler of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But it also signals a slow withdrawal from the Northeast, with four of the biggest base closings in Maine, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Clearly, the threat has changed, meaning that America no longer needs a sub base as close to Russia as possible. Moreover, the spread of Northeastern cities has boosted land prices and contracted open space for training.

But there are perhaps other, more subtle reasons, as well. "In growing stretches of the Northeast, the military is just outside common experience," says Mr. Pike.

Troy Pate of Goldsboro puts it this way: "We support them all the way. After all, they fill up our choirs."

As the chairman of the committee to save Seymour Johnson Air Force Base - which will gain 362 jobs, according to the Pentagon's plan - such sentiment might be expected. But even cafe owner Whitmore acknowledges that she takes a certain delight in the roar of the mighty C-130s and F-16s, and she expresses no great annoyance at thumps of explosions from war games that wake her up in the middle of the night.

To her, the square-jawed airmen across the street from the cafe - and their jets - are a part of the feel, the very smell, of home. "I like to hear the jet engines starting and watch the planes flying around in bombing formations," she says. "This town embraces the military so strongly, we're very supportive."

They need to be. Here in North Carolina, bases are laid out across the landscape like golf courses for giants, with bombing strips full of craters and woods shot full of rifle shells. While many know of North Carolina as Tobacco Road, Bomber Run might be more appropriate. Tobacco employs some 10,000 people in the state; the military employs 135,000.

Mr. Pate says the Pentagon even paid attention to issues going on in the community. "They looked at schools issues, how students are received," he says.

To him, the military is going where it is wanted and valued most. But the news has not been all good for the South. Even within states set to enjoy significant increases in military jobs, bad news has been mixed with the good. For instance, while North Carolina's Fort Bragg is set to receive 4,300 jobs, Pope Air Force Base could lose nearly the same amount.

Similarly, massive increases in Texas and Georgia have been somewhat offset by major closures.

As a result, Friday provided communities like Goldsboro not only with the excitement of more jobs, but the relief of avoiding the worst. Says Whitmore: "That would be a really sad sight to wake up and not see the planes."

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