With overseas wars winding down and the government increasingly focused on deficit reduction, it is inevitable that many military sites in the U.S. will see their workforces shrink. That’s especially true of the public-sector depots and shipyards that provide repair services for weapon systems, because current maintenance capacity far exceeds likely future demand. Defense sequestration, across-the-board cuts to military spending mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, could prove to be the tipping point that renders some of these sites uneconomical to continue operating. Ironically, President Obama’s efforts to insulate uniformed military personnel from sequestration would result in bigger cuts to maintenance budgets, with negative implications for the many thousands of civilians employed at depots. Here are a few well-known locations that would be especially vulnerable to drastic cuts or outright closure.
1. Letterkenny Army Depot near Chambersburg, PA is one of the top employers in Franklin County with about 2,900 federal and contract employees on site and an additional 1,200 personnel at tenant activities. However, successive base-closure rounds in the 1990s reduced the facility workforce by 4,000 and its major command moved away, so the Army may try to shift its missile and combat-vehicle work to other sites as a way of saving money. The biggest programs currently supported by Letterkenny are the Paladin self-propelled howitzer and the Patriot air-defense system.
2. Marine Corps Logistics Bases at Albany, GA and Barstow, CA provide vital repair and sustainment of combat systems, but they are relatively small (about 2,000 civilian employees at Albany) and their locations are not optimal for support of Marine equipment. As budgets tighten up, the Marines may seek to rationalize support of combat systems by combining their own, relatively small operations with the more extensive capabilities of the Army. For instance, economies of scale might be achieved by shifting the work at Albany to the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama, which performs similar functions on a larger scale.
3. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, ME has been mainly engaged in building and refueling nuclear-powered submarines since World War Two. However, the last sub the yard built was delivered in 1969, and its subsequent work in refueling and overhauling Los Angeles-class attack subs is coming to an end as the class retires. New submarines such as the Virginia-class attack sub and successor to Ohio-class ballistic missile subs will not require mid-life refuelings. Moreover, undersea operations are shifting from the North Atlantic to the Western Pacific, putting Portsmouth at a geographical disadvantage. The Navy has already tried to close the yard once, and will try again.
4. Red River Army Depot near Texarkana, TX is a huge (18,000 acres) facility but it won’t have much to do once U.S. troops depart Afghanistan. The base has been engaged mainly in repairing and sustaining combat vehicles such as the “mine-resistant, ambush-protected” trucks acquired for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army had a plan to rationalize support of ground vehicles by closing Red River in the 2005 base-closure round and shifting its functions to Anniston, but the site got a reprieve due to surging demand from overseas contingencies. It probably won’t be so lucky the next time around.
5. Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois is the biggest public-sector facility in the nation for manufacturing weapons. The artillery tubes, gun mounts and other items it produces are difficult to obtain from the private sector due to sporadic demand and environmental regulations. However, demand for the services of the 6,000 civilian workers at the site has been driven mainly by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the facility’s future is a question mark. The Army may seek to outsource manufacture of needed items or move it elsewhere, thereby avoiding the expense of maintaining the costly facility.
Obviously, these thumbnail descriptions of military industrial sites don’t do them justice, and there are many details bearing upon the future disposition of each facility. However, employment at all five sites has been trending downward, and if defense sequestration were to occur that trend would accelerate. The biggest reductions will come in the South because that is where the largest concentration of military facilities is located. But there are many other places across the nation that could see heavy blows to the local economy as a result of defense sequestration, and maintenance depots are just the beginning.