TAMPA — MacDill Air Force Base's longtime budgetary patron, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, is gone. The U.S. war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan will wind down this year. The military is downsizing.
Tampa Bay area leaders, having fended off two serious threats to close MacDill in the past 20 years, might be forgiven a sense of insecurity as the nation moves toward a military belt-tightening.
"I'm not saying the sky is falling," said Evelio "E.J." Otero, a retired Air Force colonel who worked at MacDill for 14 years and lost a 2012 congressional bid to Kathy Castor. "But it's a critical time in MacDill's history. We can't take the base for granted."
How the base will weather spending cutbacks is a question that especially resonates with the passing in October of the influential Young. His loss is seen by some as creating a leadership vacuum on the issue of military funding.
Still, few believe MacDill faces any serious threat of closure after more than $1 billion in new construction on the base since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
MacDill is home to U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command, both of which have spearheaded the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The tinderbox that is the Middle East ensures both commands will maintain brisk activity for many years.
Retired Navy Adm. William Fallon, CentCom chief for a year ending in March 2008, bluntly calls talk of MacDill closing "stupid."
"The reality is you now have two basically brand new headquarters in SoCom and CentCom," Fallon said. "That investment is already done. You don't need a whole lot of Bill Youngs" to ensure the base's long-term survival.
Even so, cuts are coming to MacDill as certainly as Florida's summer rains:
• Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last year that the nation's major commands would face a 20 percent budget cut over the next five years, a plan that would cut more than 1,000 MacDill jobs.
• The value of defense contracts for Hillsborough firms fell nearly $300 million from 2009 to 2012, the last year figures are available, down to a still-respectable $1.05 billion, according to the Florida Defense Contractors Association. Pinellas contracts have fallen about $75 million to $935 million.
• The Air Force plans to cut 22,000 positions servicewide in 2014, though the potential impact at MacDill won't be clear until later this year.
• A $500 million cut in cost-of-living increases for younger military retirees is under consideration, as is a proposed $1 billion cut in the Pentagon's commissary budget. Political blowback may have staved off commissary closures, but military customers could face higher costs, according to a Navy Times report.
Military commands typically stay out of the politically charged budget debate and do not comment on proposed cuts, so the expectations of MacDill's leaders remain unclear. None of them would speculate last week about expected cuts.
MacDill's host unit, the 6th Air Mobility Wing, said the base has about a $5 billion economic impact in Tampa Bay. Approximately 14,500 people, including both contractors and military personnel, work at the base, according to MacDill's website.
Fallon said some military commands, including CentCom, became "bloated" with personnel in the days of seemingly unlimited spending after the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2007, he cut a third of CentCom headquarters personnel, about 1,100 positions, without losing efficiency, Fallon said.
Cuts, he said, are sometimes healthy and some military commands can stand trimming regardless of what politicians think. Of the reaction to his 2008 cuts, Fallon said: "There was weeping and gnashing of teeth all over the place … a lot of whining."
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Most agree the loss of Young, who died in October at age 82, is a significant one for the base. Voters will choose his successor for the Pinellas County-based seat on March 11, and all three candidates say they would work to protect MacDill.
It will be a tall order. Young, former chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee whose district did not include the base, steered tens of millions of dollars to MacDill and Tampa Bay during 43 years in Washington.
Perhaps more importantly, Young's influence with military leadership was a formidable weapon in Tampa's political arsenal when MacDill faced any threat of cuts or closure.
For "a lot of reasons — his passion for the military, his affection for MacDill specifically, his seniority, his key committee assignments that affected MacDill — Bill Young is irreplaceable," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
As a special assistant to then-Mayor Sandy Freedman, Buckhorn was City Hall's lead staffer on a local effort to keep MacDill from closing in the early and mid 1990s. Today, he said, the region needs its congressional delegation to be champions for MacDill.
"We have to help them at the local level," he said. "I think more of the burden's going to fall on us at the local level than it has historically, because we knew we always had Bill Young in our corner."
If there were a threat to MacDill, Buckhorn said, he expects local business and political leaders "would go on full" alert, calling on the local congressional delegation, Florida's senators, the governor's office, and Buckhorn's own Washington connections — "anybody we could access."
"As a result of our near-death experiences in the '90s, this community is keenly aware of the importance of MacDill Air Force Base and the importance to be prepared and to ramp up quickly if a threat emerges," he said.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said the Air Force chief of staff assured her last year that MacDill will be a vital base for years because it is home to 16 KC-135 aerial refueling tankers. MacDill lost a bid to be among the first to get the next-generation tanker, the KC-46. The Air Force will rely on the Eisenhower-era KC-135s during the next two decades as the new aircraft are phased in, said Castor, whose district includes MacDill.
Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said that in the wake of Young's death, the group has had some informal talks about its advocacy for MacDill.
The chamber increased its budget in December to create a new position to work on military and other policy issues, and a support staffer to help that new hire. Both jobs have been filled and Rohrlack expected the new staffers to start work in mid February.
"Always, you've got to pay attention and you've got to act like something's at risk," Rohrlack said.
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Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Chip Diehl, who was MacDill's commander in 2001, said something beside military utility protects the base — its location.
From the days of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, Tampa has been a jumping-off point for missions south, whether humanitarian or military. "MacDill is always looked to as the geographical focal point for those operations," Diehl said.
Another overlooked factor in MacDill's continued survival, he said, is the thousands of military retirees who settle here and use its facilities. The base pharmacy is one of the nation's busiest.
That makes any threatened closure a political grenade whose pin the Pentagon might be unwilling to pull, military officials say.
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.