May 20, 2005
Mississippi dodged some big bullets last week when the Pentagon identified those military installations it recommends be closed or realigned. Mississippi's Congressional delegation will work to preserve Naval Station Pascagoula and Meridian's 186th Air National Guard unit as well as the other Mississippi military assets threatened.
I've long predicted this Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) round will be as much about military base realignment as about closure, and this is the case. I didn't believe the military could afford to close valuable training bases like Naval Air Station Meridian or Columbus Air Force Base. In fact, when the Pentagon proposals came out on May 13, we learned that Columbus AFB actually will pick up personnel and missions, while Meridian NAS will continue training naval aviators. These are first class, multi-mission bases vital to the War on Terror, and I'm pleased the Pentagon reaffirmed their value.
Naval Station Pascagoula is a unique case. We know this base is vulnerable because it is not a multi-mission facility. Therefore, it was almost sure to be on the list recommended to the BRAC. But, this, too, is a facility the military may not want to lose. Its location, accessibility and quality of life give it outstanding advantages. The Coast Guard has a growing presence there which is significant as homeland security becomes increasingly important. Beyond that, I believe this facility would be a great location for commercial development, should the military leave. Though I'd like to see the military stay, it is clearly a facility with intrinsic value of its own.
Meridian's 186th Air Refueling Wing is targeted by the Pentagon, not for closure, but for realignment or a mission change. The Pentagon recommends dispersing this unit's refueling planes to other units, but the facility's other assets remain. That means another mission could be on deck for the 186th, and Congressman Chip Pickering, Senator Thad Cochran and I will work to ensure this facility is protected. The history of this unit is extraordinary. Air-to-air refueling was invented there by the Key Brothers in 1935. Their plane now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution. The unit in which the Keys served has seen service on several fronts until air-to-air refueling returned to Meridian as a mission not so long ago. No matter what the mission, the 186th has performed magnificently, and I'm confident that the 186th will continue as an honored and vital part ofAmerica's military aviation community.
There are some additional realignment recommendations from the Pentagon that impact Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, the Vicksburg Corps of Engineers station and Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. Of these, the proposed realignment for Keesler could be the most troubling. The Pentagon proposes basically to turn the hospital there into a "super clinic." I'll be studying this proposal very carefully. I want to make sure it doesn't impact the quality of care our military personnel and veterans obtain, and I'm prepared to vigorously oppose it, if necessary. I'm also considering the proposed changes at Vicksburg and Stennis. On the surface these are minimal proposals, but still they affect real jobs and real people.
Finally, I welcome the Pentagon's decision to close the old Army Ammunition Plant in Hancock County. This is nothing short of a paper shuffle since the facility has been mothballed for years but not released for other uses. Now I look forward to helping find additional private tenants for this facility which has a lot of potential considering the rapid economic growth throughout this area, particularly from aerospace and research companies now migrating to Stennis Space Center. Remember, while the Pentagon proposes to take away just over 100 jobs from Stennis, NASA is moving up to 500 jobs there with last week's announcement it will be moving its Shared Services Center to Stennis. This will consolidate a lot of NASA's administrative jobs currently scattered throughout the country to Stennis Space Center, increasing efficiency and decreasing costs.
The BRAC process is not over, but it's clear Mississippi will not face a massive economic exodus from base closure or realignment. Yet, a lot of our folks have spent a lot of time and money worrying. I hope that when the Pentagon wants to close bases again, we'll scrap the BRAC process and return to allowing Congress to close bases, based on military recommendations. It's a far better process than scaring thousands of loyal, patriotic American communities for no reason. (05/20/05)
Senator Lott welcomes any questions or comments about this column. Write to: U.S. Senator Trent Lott, 487 Russell Senate Office Building,Washington, D.C. 20510 (Attn: Press Office)