As warfare shifts to the digital realm, Fort George G. Meade has become the cyber center of the U.S. military. But even this powerful position isn’t a guarantee of long term survival. Tight budgets mean bases can be closed and their troops relocated. Meade’s impact on the surrounding area cannot be denied, and its closure would result in massive financial loss.
To survive, the base has to stay off the BRAC list.
WHAT IS BRAC?
BRAC is the dirty, four-letter word of the U.S. military. It stands for Base Relocation And Closure, which is what happens when the government tries to save money by consolidating bases. It’s been around since 1988 and it’s got a complicated history.
The Journal of Economic Policy Reform has information about how they decide to close bases, but here it is in the simplest terms:
Make sure your base has high value/low cost to the Department of Defense, or they’ll shut it down and its troops will make new homes at another base.
Fort Meade is a prime example of a base that benefited from BRAC.
THE ECONOMIC POWERHOUSE
The warm and fuzzy part of BRAC is that someone gets the personnel from whatever bases closed. Fort Meade saw a major influx of troops as the result of BRAC closures in 2005. The National Security Agency was expanded and the Defense Information Systems Agency and U.S. Cyber Command now called Meade home. The explosion in growth from 16,000 new jobs transformed the base into a major economic contributor to Maryland’s economy.
Dean Ertwine of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce summed up Fort Meade’s effect on the state’s economy. “There’s a total economic output of 27 billion dollars,” he said. “Another way to look at it, is that Fort Meade generates 8% of Maryland’s economy.”
Where does the economic power actually come from? There’s more to it than you think. In the video below, Ertwine explains the impact, in 2012, that Meade’s three layers of jobs had on the surrounding area.
The money adds up fast.
WHO’S SPENDING AND WHO BENEFITS?
At first glance, this seems like a pretty straightforward question. The people employed at the base go out into town and spend their paychecks. Businesses they frequent make a profit. That’s absolutely part of it.
For example, service members in the public affairs field graduate boot camp and come directly to the Defense Information School.
“When we first get here from boot camp, we don’t have a lot of the essentials, or even clothes for the correct season,” said Seaman Janine Jones, a student at the school. “So when we first got here, we probably spent $300-500 depending on what we had.”
The taxi service that Seaman Jones mentions in the video is a good example of how heavily businesses depend on Fort Meade. The owner of Tim’s Taxi, Timothy Lay, relies on service members to make his living.
“I started 12 years ago, when I saw another cab company overcharging these kids,” Lay said. “Now my business is 60-65% military.”
For Lay and his wife, the young military members living on base are more than fares. He’s even Facebook friends with some of them.
“They’re like my children,” he said. “I treat them like them my kids. Many of them are right out of boot camp and don’t know the ways of the world.”
IMPACTING THE ECONOMY
Now take into account the sheer number of people living and working on Fort Meade.
40,000 civilian employees
6.000 family members
All of these people are spending money in the areas surrounding the base. But that’s just one layer. Here’s another aspect to the economic output of Fort Meade, from the publication American City & Council:
“Finding an unconventional source of income, Howard County, Md., has agreed to sell the National Security Agency (NSA) its wastewater.”
Sound kind of weird? Think back to the new Cyber Command making its home on Fort Meade. The NSA is paying millions of dollars a year to have wastewater pumped from the county to cool the electronics in the command’s 600,000 square-foot data center.
Steve Tiller is the president of the Fort Meade Alliance, a group that helps to facilitate a successful relationship between Fort Meade and its surrounding communities. He has a bird’s eye view of even more ways the base affects the local economy.One of those ways is construction, but not on base.
“Traffic around the area is difficult, so we have been a large advocate for getting road construction done around the base,” Tiller said. “We were instrumental in helping to gain -approval of a 40-million-dollar grant which will widen [the main road] outside the base.”
These are just a few examples of the close ties between the business community and Fort Meade. After years of prosperity, it’s hard to imagine it any other way.
That’s why it’s important to remember the past.
WAKE UP CALLS
The city of Virginia Beach was rocked to its core when Naval Air Station Oceana found itself on the BRAC list in 2005. Due to complications with using the land surrounding the base, BRAC wanted to move the whole operation to Cecil Airfield in Florida. A massive mobilization of the area’s military and civilian forces was the only thing that saved the base, and the city’s financial security.
In Japan, strict curfews on U.S. troops were an eye-opener to local businesses. In Okinawa, the Christian Science Monitor reported that “An entire strip of shops, bars, and restaurants in Ginowan City, has gone out of business…”
While keeping an eye on base struggles around the world, it will also serve Fort Meade well to remember that BRAC isn’t going away. 2005 may have been the big year for closures, but there are calls to start another round.
From the U.S. Naval Institute: “Technological advances in weaponry and equipment, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, are changing the way the military fights, and what it requires. And the nation’s current fiscal plight is intensifying pressure for sizable cuts in the DOD budget.”
The development of UAVs continues, further pressuring a cash-strapped Pentagon to draw troop levels down.
THE FUTURE OF FORT MEADE
With U.S. military activity at a minimum in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon will continue to call for a lowering of troop levels. That means bases will continue to fight to stay off the fiscal chopping block.
While the base is in a strong position today, its leaders and community partners must stay vigilant. From the individual junior enlisted service member and the small businesses that serve them, to the top seats of Maryland’s government, everyone has a stake in Fort Meade’s prosperity.