ONLINE UPDATE: Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he will introduce legislation to authorize another round of military base closings. Smith piggybacked on comments made below by Sen. McCain that not confronting the issue would be "cowardice." Smith is the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Sen. John McCain said he will consider closing military bases to eliminate wasted space, reviving a debate that has huge implications for Hampton Roads.
During a hearing Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman said he and ranking Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., are giving serious thought to something that hasn't been done since 2005.
"We need to talk about it," said the Arizona Republican. "I think it has to be considered."
The Obama administration repeatedly requested congressional authority close military bases in the name of reducing excess infrastructure. Congress wanted no part of it, and McCain's willingness to consider it turns the debate on its head.
The White House press office has released a plan that calls for larger, stronger military, but it is silent on the issue of base closings.
The 2005 Base Realignment and Closing (BRAC) commission altered the region's military landscape, and local reaction to McCain's comments were mixed.
Some officials say Virginia has learned from that 2005 experience and is well positioned to withstand another base-closing round. The state might even gain military assets, they say.
But one congressman says the Defense Department must provide more information before Congress can decide.
McCain said Congress must summon the backbone to act on this politically charged issue. He compared it to sequestration, the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that became effective several years ago when Congress couldn't agree on a larger budget deal.
"It's a little like sequestration," he said. "It's an act of cowardice. You can't make decisions ourselves, so we leave it up to a commission. Frankly, the last commission made some very bad decisions."
The 2005 effort was different from previous BRAC rounds. It sought to transform and reshape military functions, not just get rid of wasted space.
Fort Monroe in Hampton ceased to be an Army post. But one of its major tenants — the headquarters of Training and Doctrine Command — moved to Fort Eustis in Newport News, where a new building was constructed.
It also gave the region two jointly managed bases: Joint Base Langley-Eustis on the Peninsula and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in South Hampton Roads.
Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach was threatened with closure, but it survived.
The process rattled the region, which depends heavily on defense spending, but now many state and local officials say Hampton Roads and Virginia are in much better position if BRAC comes calling again.
A state report issued in 2014 suggested Virginia should welcome another BRAC round. It said BRAC would allow the Defense Department to move assets from other states into Virginia, a state with a deep military infrastructure, smattering of four-star commands and proximity to Washington.
U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Virginia Beach, said he isn't advocating another base-closing round, but the prospect doesn't frighten him. He agreed that Virginia could end up a net winner in such a process because it is better prepared. Hampton Roads, he said, doesn't have much excess space.
"I don't think what McCain is saying is super off base," he said. "That's a tough decision, but so what? That's why I'm here."
Bruce Sturk, the director of federal facilities support in Hampton, said the city has taken nearly every possible step to protect Langley Air Force Base. He agreed that the region and state are "very well postured" for any federal base-closing effort.
U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, was involved in previous BRAC debates as chairman of the readiness panel in the House Armed Services Committee. He now chairs the sea power panel, but remains convinced that Congress needs more information before proceeding.
The 2017 defense authorization bill called for increasing troop levels in the Army, Marines and Air Force. Meanwhile, the Navy has issued a plan to dramatically grow its fleet. With big changes proposed, he said Congress needs the more recent data on the military's projected size to make a well-informed decision.
In an email, Wittman spokesman Gregory Lemon said in part: "At a time when we are trying to rebuild our military and increase end strength, Rep. Wittman does not think that now is the time to be looking at decreasing the number of military installations."
Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.