Washington lived a charmed life while other states lost thousands of jobs during rounds of military base closings in the 1980s and 1990s. The charm may be wearing off.
A recent U.S. Army assessment posited a potential loss of 16,000 military and civilian personnel at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma. Although there is no apparent, immediate threat to Fairchild Air Force Base, the U.S. Air Force estimates it has 30 percent more base capacity than it needs or can sustain.
Washington has 10 military installations, most clustered in the Puget Sound area. They have survived because of the vigilance of key members of Washington’s congressional delegation, and geography: Washington is the closest Lower 48 state to Asia, a theater toward which the United States is pivoting more resources.
Also, communities like Spokane have reached out to make members of the military and their families feel welcome and respected. Local officials have worked strenuously to assure development does not encroach on Fairchild, possibly compromising the base’s future.
A 2012 study prepared by the Washington Military Alliance estimated bases in the state are the source of $15.7 billion in economic activity and 136,000 jobs, the sixth-highest total among the states. An estimated 1,500 suppliers generate still more jobs and economic activity.
Not much was done with that information until late last year, when canceled contracts and other damage done by federal budget sequestration drove home the implications of a long-term decline in defense spending. A division of Economic Development for the Military and Defense Sector was carved out of the state Department of Commerce, with Kristiné Reeves as director.
This week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced he was reviving the alliance, with former Greater Spokane Incorporated President Rich Hadley among the civilian and military officials rallied to prepare Washington’s case for preserving, if not expanding, its military assets.
Reeves says the alliance has four priorities: protecting infrastructure around bases, including efforts to prevent encroachment; promoting the state’s defense-dependent industry; developing partnerships that can help identify common concerns and share solutions; and identifying ways of softening the effects of potential base downsizings.
Although Congress in January refused to initiate another Base Realignment and Closure process, or BRAC, Hadley says the Obama administration could undertake such an effort, or authorize the service branches to do so.
“You should never be complacent,” he warns.
Defense-related activity generates about 4 percent of Washington’s gross domestic product. The bases and their missions are a source of pride as well as business, but as warfare evolves, so must the armed forces.
The alliance must work with military officials to ensure Washington continually repositions itself to anticipate and respond to new initiatives. The importance of the task cannot be overstated.