FORT WORTH -- It has been seven years since the U.S. military last reduced the number of bases in its inventory, a painful process for many communities that ultimately resulted in the closure of three installations in Texas.
Last week's suggestion by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the military needs another round of base closures triggered a new wave of anxiety among state and local officials, including cities that surround Naval Air Station Fort Worth. Rarely do those civic leaders back down when it comes to defending their military turf.
"Our representative in Congress is on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which is an ace in our deck," said Fort Worth City Councilman Dennis Shingleton, speaking of Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth. "We intend to put those cards on the table too. You can bet the city isn't going to stand still on this."
Congress would have to authorize another round of base closures, and some politicians have already signaled their unwillingness to do so. But the briefing by Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey made clear that the government cannot cut spending on defense without looking at installations as well as personnel and acquisitions.
Granger has experience with numerous base closure rounds, all the way back to her time as mayor of Fort Worth in the early 1990s.
"The Joint Reserve Base has proven to be an excellent model for cooperation between service branches and our community," she said Tuesday. "The base will stand on its own merit, but I will continue to fight for this base and its people."
It is unknown what effect the spending cuts may have on the naval air station or its variety of reserve squadrons and units from the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Army and Air National Guard. Budget cuts this fiscal year have already resulted in the decommissioning of a Navy Reserve logistics squadron in Fort Worth, which will likely cease operations later this year.
Capt. Rob Bennett, commander of the installation, said he could not speak about President Barack Obama's proposed defense budget because it has not been submitted to Congress.
But no mention of base closures and realignments is ever welcome news among civic leaders. Ingleside, Texarkana and San Antonio all lost bases in 2005. But after four years of recession, high unemployment and a weak housing market, this year makes the suggestion more nerve-racking.
Naval Air Station Fort Worth, with 11,300 active-duty troops, full-time civilians and part-time reservists, has an annual economic impact in excess of $1 billion, according to studies. The base also shares its runway and air-traffic control tower with the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics plant next door.
Memories of the decision to close Carswell Air Force Base in 1991 have not faded, despite the fact that the base was resurrected in 1994 as a naval air station and joint reserve base, the first such installation in the Defense Department.
"My wife and daughter lost their jobs at Ridgmar mall," said Benbrook Councilman Ron Sauma. "That mall nearly went under. It was a terrible time in this area. So when I heard the news last week, I immediately called Paul."
Sauma was referring to Paul Paine, a former base commander at the naval air station who has become a point man in the state on defense issues. Paine serves as both the chairman of the Texas Military Preparedness Commission, which advises Gov. Rick Perry, and the local Regional Coordination Committee, composed of leaders from cities that surround the base.
Paine said it is far too early to know whether there will be a base closure round.
If there is, he said, no one knows what criteria will be examined and how the naval air station will stack up by those criteria. His advice is not to hit the panic button.
"The state's position is that we believe the 15 major installations in this state are central to our nation's national security and to this state," Paine said. "I want to stay focused on that message."
'We're not alone'
The city of Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and others stepped up before the last round to organize a committee, led by attorney Albon Head Jr., and pay a defense consultant in Washington, D.C., to make the case for the base. The city has no plans to re-create that committee yet, Shingleton said.
"If needed, we will gin it up pretty strong," Shingleton said.
The Regional Coordination Committee is also an outgrowth of the last round. Led by the late Fort Worth Councilman Chuck Silcox, a group of civic leaders formed the committee about five years ago to ensure that residential and commercial development did not endanger the military's training needs. Since then, the committee has worked to improve communication about zoning and development projects.
"What affects one city is going to affect us all," Sauma said. "But the beauty of the RCC is that we're not alone. Collectively, we may have an impact on the base and the process. I pray to God."
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547