On May 13, the Pentagon’s announced its much-anticipated plan for military base closings and realignment. The plan would close or substantially reduce 62 major military installations and targets another 775 for “minor closures and realignments,” which together the Department of Defense says will save about $48 billion over the next two decades.
But while the national news is of gloom and doom, with communities gearing up to fight for hometown bases on which they have come to depend, the story for the South is one of increasing its share of military bases and heightening its stake in the military economy.
The South has historically been home to a disproportionate share of military installations. While the region holds under a third of the nation’s population, the Institute for Southern Studies found in 2002 that 56% of troops nationally were stationed in the South. Anchored in base-rich states like Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, the region has developed a network of “military towns” like Fayetteville, N.C. — described expertly in Dr. Catherine Lutz’s book “Homefront” — which exert powerful political, economic and cultural influence in the region.
Given the South’s disproportionate share of military-dominated towns, the Pentagon’s announcement of proposed closings was highly anticipated in the region. But while the South holds 62 of the installations slated for closure, the region as a whole stands to gain from the Pentagon’s first major base realignment in a decade:
* While the Pentagon calls for net cut of 26,000 military and civilian personnel at U.S. bases, 13 Southern states would add 15,500 net positions at over 50 bases that will grow in stature. Five of the top 10 states whose base operations would grow under the plan are located in the South.
* Big gainers in the South include Georgia, where military and civilian base jobs will expand by 7,423; Texas (+6,150); Arkansas (+3,585); Florida (+2,757); and Alabama (+2,664).
* The three biggest individual base expansions in the country would be in Virginia (Fort Belvoir, which would add 11,858 military and civilian jobs), Texas (Fort Bliss, 11,501), and Georgia (Fort Benning, 9,839).
* Four Southern states would lose under the plan, most notably Kentucky, with five proposed closures amounting to a net loss of over 5,500 personnel. Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia each have over 1,000 jobs at stake. The three Mississippi closures are a blow to Sen. Trent Lott (R), who had successfully used his clout to fend off closures in the Magnolia State in 1995.
* States that are slated to see a wash in net base jobs may still see big changes. North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, for example, is being tapped to grow by 4,325 personnel — 4,078 active military — a dramatic expansion that will be offset by a net cut of 4,145 at Pope Air Force Base just down the road.
As with past base closings, the Pentagon’s announcement has opened a new round of debate about the political motivations behind the decisions, as well as provoke community discussion about the pros and cons of fighting to keep military bases.
As Dr. Lutz notes, while installations generate economic activity — including on-base jobs with good pay and equal opportunity — bases also undercut revenues through their tax-exempt status, exert often unwelcome control over community affairs, and are prone to volatile economic swings as troops come and go.
CHRIS KROMM is Executive Director of the Institute for Southern Studies and Publisher of Southern Exposure magazine. An earlier version of this report appeared on the Institute’s blog: www.southernstudies.org/facingsouth in May 2005.