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Not giving up

Published 9:20pm Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Things might seem bleak right now for the future of the military in Suffolk, but officials appear unwilling to let it go without a fight.

Even as the leadership at U.S. Joint Forces Command begins working out how to shut down the military agency in light of a directive from the Secretary of Defense, congressional leaders and lobbyists are questioning the legality of that directive.

“At this point, the big concern we have is whether or not this action by the Secretary of Defense is legal,” Frank Roberts, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, said Wednesday. “Does it potentially violate U.S. code as it relates to base closure? That’s something our congressional delegation needs to jump on.”

Indeed, within two hours of Monday’s announcement by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that he would ask President Barack Obama to approve the closing of USJFCOM, Hampton Roads’ congressional delegation was crying foul over the fact that Gates had made the decision outside of the Base Realignment and Closure process and without input from or warning to the area’s political representatives.

“The decision-making behind this, the thought process, is not logical in any way, shape or form,” U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-01st) said in a press conference on Monday. “This decision is so puzzling, so antithetical to where we need to go.”

Congressman J. Randy Forbes was even stronger in his criticism. “The American people will see this decision for what it is: a first step in a long string of national defense cuts that will systematically and intentionally gut the institutions that protect and defend the freedoms and liberties upon which our nation was founded — and they will not stand for it.”

Two days after the announcement and the elected officials’ ensuing press conference, there was little more solid information about Gates’ budget-cutting proposal to close the Norfolk-based command whose branch offices include a satellite facility in Suffolk that employs more than 2,000 workers.

Craig Quigley, director of communications for JFCOM, speaking at the Joint Systems Integration Center in Suffolk on Wednesday, said the command had been directed to build a plan to close down JFCOM and relocate its necessary activities, while continuing normal operations in the meantime.

“We do have a job to do,” he said. “It’s to support the joint warfighter. We have that vision until we no longer have it. It’s just that simple.”

Meanwhile, congressional leaders and the lobbyists and attorneys affiliated with the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance have begun working together to find a way to save the command, which Roberts said accounts for about $1 billion worth of the area’s economy and fully 10 percent of its military presence.

“It’s a huge deal,” Roberts said. Closing JFCOM completely, he added, “would have a very serious, major impact” on the area’s economy.

But he and congressional leaders both said their opposition is not just about the potential blow to the economy; they’re also worried about how the closure would affect military readiness.

“At a time when we are still fighting two wars, joint interoperability is critical and requires a considerable degree of coordination,” Senator Jim Webb said in a statement Tuesday evening. “JFCOM has the expertise for orchestrating the provision of forces to meet combat contingencies.”

Webb vowed to confront the Obama administration on the issue and to pursue with others the legal aspects of the secretary’s recommendation.

“Any decision of this magnitude should have followed the Base Realignment and Closure process, which would have enabled appropriate participation by stakeholders as well as consideration of the impact on the local community,” his statement noted. “The Secretary of Defense claims JFCOM is not subject to the base realignment statutes, because it is a work-force reduction rather than a base closure. However, I believe a strong legal case can be made that the base closure statutes are applicable because this involves a reduction of more than 1,000 civilian personnel.”

For now, at least, the fight must take place in Washington, D.C., Roberts added.

“There obviously has got to be a legislative response to this,” he said. “I’m not sure that a real hue and cry by the business community would have much effect. What can be done outside of political channels has yet to be determined.”

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