How does Wayne County protect Seymour Johnson AFB?
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 29, 2012 1:50 AM
A car approaches the main gate at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. With the announcement that there is a possibility of a base realignment and closure committee in 2013 or 2015, local officials are looking at what the city and county need to do to protect the base.
It wasn't news that local leaders -- or residents -- thought they would hear for years to come.
But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta delivered it anyway Thursday afternoon.
And while his proposed round of base closures would only come to fruition via an act of Congress that many feel is unlikely to unfold in a presidential election year, some of those familiar with the process said future cuts -- as early as 2013 -- are imminent.
Local leaders, though, do not seem all too concerned about a potential BRAC -- or whether or not Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Wayne County's economic engine, would be on the chopping block.
Military Affairs Committee Chairman Henry Smith was among them.
"We're certainly expecting Seymour Johnson to fare well," he said. "I don't think there are any glaring weaknesses ... because we have been vigilant.
"And I would think that the upcoming rounds of BRAC ... are addressing DOD needs during a period when the F-15E will continue to be the workhorse for the United States Air Force."
But that position, former Air Force Chief of Staff Ret. Gen. Michael Moseley said, is "short-sighted."
"Whether the aircraft and the pilot and the (weapons system officer) is absolutely critical to the mission in Afghanistan and Korea or anywhere else is not the same question as, 'Is Seymour Johnson critical?'" he said. "The F-15 aircraft and the people who fly it can be based anywhere."
In many ways, BRAC has been on the minds of those involved in the 2005 process ever since.
Mayor Al King characterized Panetta's announcement as "expected," and less than two years ago, spoke candidly about how he felt Seymour Johnson stacked up against other installations of its kind.
And while he acknowledged, then, that many positive things came out of BRAC 2005 -- Seymour Johnson gained eight more KC-135R Stratotankers for its Reserve wing and an engine repair facility for its F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet fleet and local leaders fostered relationships with military contacts in Washington -- he said he was still wary about speaking on the future of the installation as though its existence here a decade from now was a certainty.
"I think we have developed a tremendous reputation for base and community relations. It's one of the best in the country, if not the best, and that will serve us well," King said then. "But we can't lighten up and say, 'OK, we're there.' We have got to continue to ensure that we review everything that the BRAC committee is concerned about in our community."
And his list of concerns was not limited to a few quick fixes.
He identified encroachment as a "critical" concern.
"If we allow that air space to be encroached, you can kiss Seymour Johnson goodbye," he said.
But the most pressing issue -- the one he felt would do the most damage -- is the perception of, and reality inside, Goldsboro High School.
"Don't fool yourself. They know what those few problems are. They keep tabs on it. And I guarantee one of those problems is Goldsboro High School," King said then. "For some reason, the Board of Education just doesn't understand how serious the Goldsboro High issue is and how it impacts Wayne County, Goldsboro, this whole region. I don't really think they get it. It's the most difficult issue facing us today as far as BRAC."
Other problems were aired when Gov. Bev Perdue traveled to Walnut Creek earlier this year for a meeting meant to give her office insight into how to prevent cuts at North Carolina installations should BRAC be reconvened.
4th Fighter Wing Operations Group Commander Col. Brian Kirkwood spoke at length about encroachment, the prevalence of bird strikes and the need to protect the Dare County Bombing Range -- three issues that have an impact on Seymour Johnson aviators' ability to train.
And Goldsboro City Manager Scott Stevens and his Wayne counterpart talked about the need to replace some of the aging infrastructure on base.
Smith agreed that local military advocates need to keep an eye on those issues.
"We need to re-evaluate where we are," he said.
And lobbying, to some extent, will be necessary.
"We were already planning to do that," Smith said.
But because the Strike Eagle is the "heavy lifter" in Afghanistan and beyond, he does not feel there is all too much to worry about in the immediate future.
"I have to feel like an East Coast F-15E base is certainly a very secure place to be right now," he said. "I don't see (closure of Seymour Johnson) as in the realm of possibility as long as we remain vigilant."
Moseley said that no base is ever safe from BRAC -- that "sanctuaries" aren't granted based on reputation or heritage.
Not even for the home of the storied 4th Fighter Wing.
"You have to go into this knowing that there's no sanctuary," he said.
And believing that somehow Seymour Johnson is untouchable distracts from the painstaking work needed -- efforts that were, in the past, spearheaded by men like longtime MAC and Seymour Support Council Chairman Troy Pate who "really got it" -- to ensure it remains a fixture in Eastern North Carolina beyond the conclusion of what rounds of base closures might unfold.
"When you look at sustaining a base, whether it's Seymour Johnson or Luke or Eglin, you don't wait until the threat of a BRAC and then wave your arms and say, 'We're immune because of who we are,'" he said. "That dog won't hunt. This BRAC business becomes a very clinical and a very empirical analysis. You have history and you have frames of reference ... but it is not an emotional calculation.
"That is a very uninformed and a very short-sighted view. The people at Charleston Navy Yard thought that, and look what happened to them."
AREAS THAT COULD CAUSE CONCERN
• Wayne County Public Schools -- The state of Goldsboro High School, and the fact that many Air Force officers send their children to private schools in the area, could paint a less-than-positive picture to the committee.
• Dare County Bombing Range -- When Gov. Bev Perdue came to Wayne County late last year, military advocates stressed the need to protect the range.
• Bird strikes -- Repeated bird strikes are costly and put aviators in danger. The city has said it is working on bird harassment techniques to prevent large water fowl from nesting in the constructed wetlands located just beyond the flight line.
WHAT ABOUT ENCROACHMENT?
When local officials discuss the need to protect Seymour Johnson from encroachment, their primary focus is preventing development around the installation's perimeter, a goal that both the Wayne County Board of Commissioners and Goldsboro City Council have taken seriously since before BRAC 2005. The county approved new zoning and development rules to restrict development, and the city also toughened its zoning around the base.
But protecting flying routes, Military Affairs Committee members told Gov. Bev Perdue late last year, has become equally important.
So they recommended that the legislature take a stand against construction of wind farms across Eastern North Carolina -- and anything else that might affect Seymour Johnson aviators' ability to train.
And they know they must continue to fight for unencumbered air space to avoid having a lack of adequate training, which would be noted by BRAC officials, should the committee be reconvened.