If Dobbins were to become a casualty of BRAC, or “base realignment and closure,” it could also place another 6,300 jobs at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in jeopardy because the defense contractor considers the Air Force tower and runway at Dobbins to be critical testing grounds for its aircraft.
This is not a picture most Cobb leaders want to look at, let alone have to fix.
So, they are preparing to make sure it never happens.
“What you want to prohibit is a BRAC closing Dobbins. You can’t prohibit a BRAC,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia). “They’re eventually going to do one.”
The last BRAC took place in 2005, resulting in the closures of Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem on the south side of Atlanta, leaving Dobbins as the last remaining military installation in the region. There has been no indication that a new BRAC is coming down the pike anytime soon.
It would be 2017 at the earliest, said Isakson.
“It may not be until 2017, but I’m sure they’ll do one,” he said. “There will be a BRAC but to predict what year is hard to do, but I don’t think it would happen before 2017.”
Still, even the vague prospect of Congress creating a BRAC commission and holding hearings on the issue looms heavy on the minds of people like David Connell, president of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, and retired Maj. Gen. Jim Bankers, who are heading up the Atlanta Regional Military Affairs Council.
ARMAC, an offshoot of a similar group called together to defend military bases statewide, consists of about 20 Cobb business leaders, Lockheed staff and former military officers. About a dozen core members of the group have been meeting monthly at Dobbins for nearly two years to get prepared for the possibility of a BRAC commission being formed by Congress. Once a commission is called into being, it would be charged with coming up with a list of bases to consider for closure.
See BRAC, Page 4A
“And of course you don’t want to put your base on that list because then you really are put in a defensive position,” said Brian Johnston, government relations director for Lockheed and a member of ARMAC.
Johnston said the continued sluggish economy in many areas of the country has worked as a sort of backdoor protection against BRAC.
“Right now there’s not much enthusiasm in Congress for a BRAC, because of the economic impact it would have on so many communities. You’re not going to have a BRAC until Congress votes to create a BRAC commission,” he said. “If you have a proper BRAC commission they work independently of the Pentagon. They do their own thing and are not beholden to the Department of Defense.”
While no BRAC commission has been called for in Congress, talk continues to come out of the Pentagon about the possibility of cuts to the military defense complex. This could happen independent of BRAC.
Rallying the troops
Despite the uncertainty, local leaders are doubling down on the task of justifying Dobbins’ existence.
“There is no BRAC. That’s a good thing. We’re not under any pressure,” Johnston said. “It’s just a good thing to get everyone sitting around a table together.”
One of those at the head of the table is Connell.
“The military looks at the various missions, like there’s a reserve flying mission, they look at where that’s being done around the country and they can decide to centralize it in one place,” Connell said. “So some of the decisions are based also on just the mechanics of how you run the Air Force. We really can’t control that. What we can influence is showing to everybody what this military base means to us and how it’s all tied together, the community, Lockheed, the National Guard and other entities that are out there.”
The strategy is three-fold, Johnston said.
First, the group wants to be able to justify and clearly explain what the mission of Dobbins is now, including the multiple tenants and multiple missions, from the Air Force and the Georgia National Guard to the Marines and Lockheed Martin.
Secondly, the group is studying what missions could be done more efficiently in the future. Both the Air Force and Lockheed, for instance, have surplus property on the Dobbins campus that could be put to use by new tenants. But whoever is brought in to fill those buildings must “complement the mission” of the existing Dobbins tenants, Johnston said.
The more entities that use the base, the greater its value and the less chance it would ever be considered for closure.
Lastly, saving Dobbins will involve showing a healthy serving of good old-fashioned flag-waving support from the local community exists.
That’s where the local chapter of the Honorary Commanders plays a key role.
The Chamber of Commerce runs this program to help “bridge the gap” between the military and the local business community, Johnston said.
“They have an idea of what the mission is out here and will help support it. They foster understanding,” he said of the commanders. “A business person is paired with one of the military or unit commanders here on the Dobbins reservation. They spend a year going on trips to various military bases and learning what it takes to make this whole place operate.”
Essentially, what the business members of Honorary Commanders do is help create a narrative that will support the base and its mission out in the community.
Last week, the base played host to a Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours event that attracted about 800 people and on Wednesday a new batch of honorary commanders were initiated into the program at the Clay National Guard Center.
ARMAC has also produced a 6-minute video touting the importance of Dobbins to the community.
“We’re working to produce a video to help us tell the story of the Dobbins’ mission,” Johnston said.
An early version of the video was shown for the first time to the 800 guests last week under one of the hangars on the National Guard side of the base.
“It’s about six minutes now and will be further refined,” Johnston said, and may include footage of the business leaders mingling at the Business After Hours event.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jim Bankers is chairman of ARMAC and he is taking nothing for granted.
“To ignore the possibility of a BRAC-related closure would be foolish, I think. So we go on the assumption that it’s probably going to happen and we’ve got a tremendous story to tell.”
He said the challenge is to simplify the narrative and make it understandable. He, like Johnston, points to the Honorary Commanders as key players.
“Those folks are very supportive, we’ve got a lot of them in the community and they are willing to help tell our story,” he said. “Our main focus is to describe the value of what we have out there, the Dobbins Air Base, the National Guard and Lockheed, and the synergy that exists and the value added to our country, and next to that would be the partnership we have with the community.”
BRAC not the only threat
Micky Blackwell, a retired former Lockheed president and Marietta resident who managed the last BRAC process in 2005 and is also a member of ARMAC, said Georgia ended up with a net increase of 8,000 military jobs as result of the last BRAC.
“We closed three small bases and all had found new uses,” he said. “None of the major bases like Fort Benning or Warner Robbins were touched.”
But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s comments in late February renewed concerns and sparked fears that closures could be in the offing.
“We’re seeing the current administration advocating major cuts, and we’re going to have the same problem we did in the Clinton years — we’re going to have more real estate and overhead than you have men under arms.”
When military personnel gets cut, that leaves real estate and other infrastructure under used.
“This time around, it may be a little different in that there’s not as much of a formal process where it gets so much political grease, because BRAC was very politically charged the first time,” Blackwell said. “I called David (Connell) and volunteered my services to make sure everything we learned on the last one we build on and we’re not reinventing the wheel. So my role is to make sure we are as well prepared for the next BRAC as we were the last time. But I’m not on the front lines like David Connell and General Bankers.
“Last time we survived with just three little nicks and in the end it turned out good for the state of Georgia.
“This time you’re going to have to really cut into some bone. Whenever you slice into meat you’re going to hit bone.”
Bankers urges residents to write members of Congress as well as support the various events at Dobbins.
He hopes area residents will want to learn more about the mission of the base. Those who show an interest will meet with staff and volunteers eager to share information.
“I think the base is doing that now, getting the word out, and we’ll keep at that,” he said. “I think it’s incredibly important. The partnership with Lockheed but also the C-130 tactical airlift and the mission they have with the base, and the national guard as well is incredibly valuable.”
Lockheed’s piece in the puzzle
Johnston said Lockheed’s response to any possible closure or significant downsizing of Dobbins is unknown.
“That’s purely speculation, I don’t know what we would do. We have a close working relationship with the Dobbins air base personnel,” he said. “It’s the Air Force that runs flight operations here and they run the control tower, and to us it’s very important to our operations because we need that facility for testing and delivering our aircraft to various customers. So if for some reason the base were to close down it would give pause for some serious reflection on the part of the company. What would we do? What is the business case? It would be hard to speculate what we would do because we need more information on the table.”
More than 350 closures since Cold War’s end
The BRAC process has been in place since the end of the Cold War and fall of the Soviet empire.
More than 350 installations have been closed in five BRAC rounds: 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005.
Isakson said a BRAC commission looking to close unnecessary bases would look at a host of criteria, from the strategic importance of the base to the level of commitment from local school systems.
“They look at how does the community support the base, how do the schools treat the children of the dependents who are there on the base, the whole gamut, and of course Cobb ranks fairly high on all those categories because we’ve got great schools and we’ve got honorary commanders and that sort of thing,” Isakson said.
Isakson believes BRAC is ultimately a good thing, as long as the community is prepared.
“BRAC is a healthy process,” he said. “It was established to force government and the military to do what voluntarily people don’t like to do and that’s reassess the cost benefit of every asset they’ve got, so BRAC is a healthy thing and what we want to do is be prepared to show the benefit of Dobbins Air Force base, what it contributes to the national defense system, what it contributes to the active duty and reserve guard units, and sell the asset for what it is.”
“It increases value for the American people and for the base, even if we don’t have a BRAC,” he said. “For the people of the military, which is pretty small number of people, it also creates a link to the people and the military. They’re very special, they’ve done amazing things for us over the years. They do things that most people don’t think about doing but things that are very necessary for our country. They keep us safe and secure and guard our freedoms.”
‘Politics plays a role’
As long as logic prevails over politics, Dobbins should be safe, Blackwell said.
“They usually want to have a BRAC right after the midterm elections after a president has been in office two years and Congress has just been elected,” he said. “If it’s done as part of an informal process, without BRAC, they can do it anytime. One day you’ll just get a press release that we’re going to close 50 percent of Dobbins.
“A lot of these things unfortunately are not logical,” he said. “Politics plays a role and you never know if it’s going to be consistent with logic or not consistent with logic.”
— Jon Gillooly contributed to this article.