SAVANNAH — With nine bases contributing an estimated $20 billion to the state's economy each year, Georgia has good reason to want to protect its investment in the U.S. military — and good reason to be nervous about the coming years.
The state would suffer a share of automatic budget cuts targeting the Pentagon if the president and Congress can't avoid plunging off the "fiscal cliff" by New Year's Day. Further down the road, a new round of base closings is likely in 2015, a decade after the last round saw four Georgia bases shuttered. Meanwhile, the military is already in a period of downsizing now that fighting has ended Iraq and the U.S. is winding down the war in Afghanistan.
Hoping to give Georgia's military communities a competitive edge, Gov. Nathan Deal has launched a new effort aimed at strengthening the state's lobbying of Washington policymakers while also working to recruit private industry to base communities.
The Governor's Defense Initiative, announced in late November, will be headed by a Washington defense consultant who knows his way around both Georgia and the Pentagon. Will Ball worked as chief of staff to former Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge before being appointed as Navy secretary in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan.
"We're in a tremendous period of uncertainty," Ball said. "This initiative is to reach deeper into the planning process and attempt to make sure Georgia's assets and advantages are brought to the attention of decision makers apart from any formal Defense Department (base closure) review."
The number of military bases in Georgia shrank from 13 to nine after the last round of closings in 2005, which cost the affected base communities 7,200 military and civilian jobs and $568 million in payroll.
But Ball's group isn't just anticipating the next time bases are on the chopping block, tentatively set for 2015. Budget cuts are already causing the military to reorganize and streamline. And Georgia has already felt the pinch.
Plans to locate a new Army brigade of 3,500 soldiers at Fort Stewart were scrapped in 2009 to save money. A recently completed reorganization within the Air Force meant the loss of about 500 civilian jobs in middle Georgia at Robins Air Force Base, which is the state's single largest industrial complex.
"We have to be very, very watchful for things that are occurring in the military," said Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas, whose city is the gateway to Fort Stewart, the largest Army post east of the Mississippi River. "And there needs to be an organization at the state level that does this for the entire state."
In the past, coordination of military communities statewide has been handled by the Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
That group will work with Deal's new initiative, which officials hope will further unify the voice of Georgia's military communities in Washington.
"I saw a lot of states and bases that were in the crosshairs in previous (base closing) rounds where it was sort of every man for himself, and that's not helpful," said Ball, who in 1991 sat on the government's Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which makes the final call on the Pentagon's recommendations for base closings.
While it touts Georgia to the Pentagon, the Governor's Defense Initiative will also be working to bring more private-sector jobs to the state's military communities.
In some cases, the group will be looking for defense contractors to open or expand operations in Georgia. In others, the initiative will work with the state Department of Economic Development to find new employers that need workers with the kinds of skills that soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians learn in the military.
"We're not anticipating losing any bases, but we want to be ready in case we do," said Rogers Wade, former president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation who will serve as executive director of the defense initiative. "This is an insurance policy for being ready for whatever happens."
Details of exactly how the defense initiative will work, and who will serve with it, are still being hashed out. Wade said he expects members of the group's board will be announced in January.
One early priority for the initiative will be looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each of Georgia's nine bases. Asked if he already saw any Georgia bases as being vulnerable, Ball noted that Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta was slated for closure by the Pentagon in 1991 but ultimately spared. But that doesn't necessarily mean Moody would be targeted next time.
"Nobody feels safe," Ball said. "Complacency is a hazardous sentiment in this business."