Eight years after a federal agency nearly called for the Stratton Air National Guard Base to downsize, no one really knows what’s in store for the future of the Glenville base.
If anything, there’s more uncertainty than ever for Stratton, and for military installations across the nation, as the threat of sequestration looms Friday. And that’s not to mention the regular, ongoing threat of cuts at the Department of Defense and discussions of an upcoming round of base closures in 2015.
The cloud of uncertainty has propelled some local officials into action, preparing a robust defense of the Capital Region’s $123 million economic engine with a state-funded economic impact study should anyone try to chip away at its edges. But others closer to the situation, those who have seen how intricately politics can weave their way into the picture, can only sit back and wait.
“We write to express our shared concern about potential action that would stand down Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams in New York and Florida,” reads a letter dated Jan. 31. “This action would needlessly jeopardize our ability to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.”
The letter was signed by New York and Florida congressional delegation members and addressed to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Frank Grass. The letter’s purpose was to ward off, once again, the federal government from eliminating the highly trained units responsible for responding to terrorist attacks.
Most states have only one of these units, but New York, Florida and California each have two because of their size and threat concerns. The Stratton Air National Guard Base is home to one of New York’s; Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton is home to the other.
The Stratton unit was formed in 2000, and helped respond to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Congressional leaders view it as crucial to assisting with terrorist threats in one of the country’s most threatened cities. Today, the civil support team consists of 22 trained full-time guard members.
The Department of Defense first tried to eliminate a unit in New York and Florida in December 2012, and the delegations were able to get the department to back down with the argument that the move would save very little money, said Eric Durr, spokesman for New York State’s Division of Military and Naval Affairs. But then in January, the DOD came back and said that language in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act allowed them to defund one CST in each state that had two.
“The delegations basically said, ‘No, you’re wrong. Back off,’ ” said Durr. “And it continues to be an ongoing issue, and really not one we can comment on because it’s so political. We believe that New York needs two. Stratton’s position is unique. It’s at the nexus of the state, and it’s in a unique location to respond to terrorist threats.”
It’s unclear just what will happen over the next few weeks and months if Democrats and Republicans cannot avoid sequester and come up with a deal by Friday to cut $1.5 trillion over the next decade. The automatic spending cuts are slated to slash defense spending by more than $40 billion, and could affect aircraft purchases, base operations, research and more.
“Stratton could lose its Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team,” a federal source familiar with the sequester’s potential local impact said in an email. “Stratton will see the same general impacts as all bases (civilian furloughs, decrease in maintenance activities, reduced base programs, etc.) There is no sign that the base would shut down altogether.”
Those signs could come in 2015 when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission is scheduled to hold its sixth round of nationwide base closures. The BRAC process began in 1989 as a way to eliminate excess military installations that receive millions in federal dollars each year. So far, more than 350 installations have closed through the process.
“It’s designed to make it hard for local congressmen to keep their base open,” said Durr. “It’s an up or down vote on a series of military installations across the country.”
The Secretary of Defense kicks off the process with a list of recommended base realignments and closures, and forwards them on to the BRAC commission, an independent nine-member panel appointed by the president. After evaluation, public hearings and base visits, the commission drafts a final list that is forwarded on to the president, who approves or disapproves of the entire list, and then passes it on to Congress for a similar vote.
When Stratton was included on an early 2005 list, then-Gov. George Pataki, U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, then-U.S. Rep. Mike McNulty and Empire State Development fought successfully to remove it from the list.
But local officials continue to worry that since Stratton was once on a list, it could very well be looked at again.
“Once you’re on a list, your head is above the ground,” said Chamber of Schenectady County President Chuck Steiner. “And you never want to let your guard down afterwards.”
So he and other county officials, elected officials and area residents with an interest in the military have been fine-tuning an action plan set to launch this summer that they hope will quash any potential upcoming debate that Stratton is unnecessary to Department of Defense objectives.
“When you look at the economics of the federal government, the Department of Defense budget is huge,” said Steiner. “They’re spending a lot of money, and we recognize that as the wars in the Middle East wind down they’re going to be looking at areas for cuts and efficiencies. But we’re going to put our best foot forward and say we believe this is the best place for this mission to operate.”
One of a kind
What he’s talking about, of course, is the base’s 109th Airlift Wing, a unit heralded as unique because it performs key military missions and provides airlift support to National Science Foundation missions in the Arctic and Antarctic.
As anyone who’s ever worried over job security knows, the best defense to being laid off is having a specialized set of skills that nobody else has. For local officials, that defense is the wing’s ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft, C-130H aircraft and the guards who know how to fly them. No other base in the country has them.
In the 2005 BRAC process, the Air Force recommended moving four of the wing’s C-130H planes and others around the state to a new Arkansas superbase. This idea was rejected, but it hasn’t stopped similar ideas from being floated every few years.
When local officials realized that even the base’s unique offerings didn’t make it immune from realignment proposals, they reworked their defense plan.
“Our focus is on the employees now,” said Steiner. “Because this is such a unique mission to fly to Antarctica, you have to have trained, skilled pilots who know how to maintain an airplane at 59 degrees below” zero.
Steiner heads the Schenectady Military Affairs Council, a community group formed in 2003 by county agencies to advocate for the area’s military installations, which at the time included only Stratton, but today also includes the Navy Operational Support Center across the runway and the Schenectady Army Reserve Center in Niskayuna.
SMAC was awarded a $125,000 state grant in November to advocate in support of local installations by improving existing facilities, promoting additional facilities or any other effort that would sustain or expand the installations. A dozen more organizations across the state were awarded a collective $2.9 million to do the same.
The state’s military installations account for 10,000 jobs and a $1.9 billion economic impact across New York state, according to a news release issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office at the time.
This summer, SMAC will use the funds to conduct an economic impact study of local bases, with a focus on how the nearly 2,000 men and women employed by the installations impact the region economically, culturally and socially.
“This study will recognize the strength that we have here in Schenectady, so that if and when we end up on a BRAC list down the road, we can say, ‘Look, you can pick this base up and move it elsewhere, but the manpower would not necessarily follow,’ ” said Steiner.
The last study was conducted several years ago by an internal military team. This one will be larger and more comprehensive, he added.
“We know that roughly $123 million in economic activity here comes from Stratton alone,” he said. “We know some of the components of that. We know $54 million of that are salaries, and that these employees live in not just Glenville, but Saratoga, Rensselaer, Albany and other counties. This will measure all of those dollars. I want to be able to go to Saratoga County and say there are 300 individuals employed at Stratton and their salaries alone coming into your county are X.”
Steiner feels the council was unprepared during the last BRAC round. After the 2005 ordeal, the council went back and reviewed any shortcomings in advocating for the base, and looked at areas it could improve upon for the next round.
“It’s very much like a fire company,” said Steiner. “You better be ready, well-trained, and able to respond. We’re doing the same thing. We want to be ready, trained and ready to go if and when we will be called into that whole process again. We don’t want to have to scramble. Everybody wants to save their own base in their own community, and there are going to be some tough decisions ahead.”
SMAC has added incentive to prepare a robust defense of Schenectady County’s military installations before 2015.
Last summer, the Pentagon called for base closures outside of the BRAC process. And even though the House Armed Services Committee rejected the plan, the mere mention of base closures sent base advocates into a flurry of pre-emptive action.
“Even though we’re doing something individually, the governor is looking at this issue statewide and is right on target with it,” said Steiner. “He recognizes that a well-prepared community that can answer to the BRAC is far better off than a community just waiting for it to happen.”
Military insiders have suggested that a strong economic defense isn’t the linchpin to keeping a base where it is. So if a specialized purpose and economic downfall of a region aren’t enough of a defense to avoid realignment or closure, base advocates are trying to pin down just what is.
The only answer is no one’s really sure.
Steiner believes it’s a bit of everything — demonstrating the units’ uniqueness, their economic impact, and the ways they make up the social fabric of the community.
Almost every day, a group of Stratton employees patronize Subway on Freemans Bridge Road in Glenville. The manager there expects them like clockwork.
“They eat at our restaurants, they shop in our stores, they support our local businesses,” said Glenville Town Supervisor Chris Koetzle. “They’re very visible in our community. We see them every day at Wendy’s or at Goldstocks Sporting Goods. I run into them all the time.”
He is also a member of the Schenectady Military Affairs Council, and assists with writing grant applications for advocacy support. If Stratton were to end up on another BRAC list, Koetzle said Glenville would “fight very hard” to keep them here.
“We refer to them as the pride of Glenville, because we really do have such pride that these men and women call Glenville home,” he said. “If we lost them, it would be more than just economic. It would be a huge psychological blow as well.”