As Air Force considers cuts at MacDill, base's future has not played a big role in race to replace Bill Young
Nearly 900 of the 3,800 military personnel at MacDill Air Force Base have been told they could lose their positions as the Air Force shrinks its ranks, according to a base spokesman.
The notice informed personnel that they were “vulnerable,” though base officials say it’s too early to know with certainty if the positions will be eliminated. The Air Force is cutting more than 22,000 positions this year as the war in Afghanistan winds down. The notice affects personnel in MacDill’s host unit, the 6th Air Mobility Wing.
As the Tampa Bay Times reported this week, this is the kind of cut MacDill could face in the future as the Pentagon downsizes — though few local leaders believe base faces a serious threat of closure, as it did in the 1990s.
One reason for that: MacDill is home to U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command, which played critical roles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both are expected to continue to have full workloads in coming years.
Another reason: the base has seen more than $1 billion in new construction since the 2001 terrorist attacks, much of it thanks to the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who died in October.
In the race to replace Young, MacDill's role in the Tampa Bay area hasn't been a prominent issue. It was not, for example, even mentioned during a televised Feb. 3 debate between Republican David Jolly, Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby.
Each candidate, however, acknowledges the base's importance to the region.
Overby said Libertarians are generally opposed to U.S. bases in other countries, but MacDill has both strategic value and a "massive impact" on the bay area. Filling the vacuum in the appropriations process left by Young's death will be "very difficult," he said.
"It's going to need to be a bipartisan effort and ... it’s going to go from being on the back of one man to needing to be a team effort of several men and women," Overby said. "Putting a giant hole in Tampa and in the bay area would be absolutely ludicrous."
Sink, who talks about the importance of the bay area's congressional delegation having a regional approach, likewise said she would be an advocate for MacDill.
"I have a 25-year history of working as a business leader in this region," she said. "The economic impact of MacDill and its contracting is huge ... (Her late husband) Bill (McBride) and I developed close relationships over the years with the people who were leaders of McDilll at the time, and they needed a champion. Our region needs a champion for MacDill and for all of the commands that are housed there and also for all the defense contractors. There are lots of small startup innovative businesses that are popping up that are defense-related, and their technologies that they’re developing might start off being defense-related, then they become applicable to a commercial market.”
Jolly's campaign released two written statements on MacDill and how he would work to support the base.
"I am committed to continuing to protect MacDill Air Force Base and carry on Congressman Young's legacy," Jolly said in one statement. "I know all that Mr. Young did for MacDill because I was there. I was there when he fought to relocate tankers to MacDill, and I was there when he fought to improve and expand SOCOM and CENTCOM. I would be honored to carry on his legacy and commitment."
Asked how he would do that, Jolly's campaign said in an email: “As a former counsel to the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I know protecting MacDill means a lot more than just attending to the BRAC (base realignment and closure) process. Protecting MacDill requires ensuring current operations on base remain fully funded and opportunities for expanded operations are captured. I would work with my friend Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, to protect and expand funding for CENTCOM, SOCOM, and air wing programs of record that provide critical support to our national security and to our warfighters. I also would fight to extend pilot programs that focus on new rapid acquisition models to get tools and technology in the hands of our Special Operators. MacDill provides the perfect opportunity to improve the rapid acquisition model and demonstrate how industry can quickly address immediate needs of our warfighter community.”
In a recent interview, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said whoever is elected to replace Young “is going to have to step in and help fill that void,” but "in the bubble of a campaign, MacDill is not going to move the needle for a lot of voters.”
That, he added, “is unfortunate, because that is the kind of substantive issue that ought to be talked about during the course of this campaign and not the mud-throwing and the independent expenditures and the politics of personal destruction. MacDill Air Force Base ought to be front and center during the course of that debate because it is vitally important.”
Buckhorn said the bay area has an estimated 2,400 defense contractors, largely here because of MacDill, that create a huge employment base of high-tech jobs.
“The payroll at MacDill Air Force Base is important, but all of this other stuff around it that feeds off of it are just as important, and most of them are housed in Pinellas County, partially because of Bill Young,” Buckhorn said. “That’s an issue that’s as important for any issue for us locally that a congress person could care about, should care about.”
One good thing, Buckhorn said, is that the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Tampa Bay Defense Alliance have started to take on more significant roles, and the state of Florida is “far more active” in recognizing potential vulnerabilities than it was during the 1990s. Moreover, he said, the governor’s office has spent more money on studies identifying strengths and weaknesses of Florida’s military communities.
Another edge: the large number of retired flag officers who retired to the bay area after military careers that included a stint at MacDill.
“There’s a lot of three- and four-stars that are around here that still have relationships in Washington D.C. that I think could be called upon if necessary,” Buckhorn said. “They are respected and treated with respect and Washington keeps them briefed. They can be very very valuable to us. … They know the importance of (MacDill) and by virtue of becoming Tampanians are very protective of it. Every one that we’ve ever asked (for help) — and fortunately we haven’t had to do it recently — has said ‘Sure, absolutely, count me in.’ “
Times staff writers William R. Levesque and Curtis Krueger contributed to this post.