Supporters of Cherry Point are finding some positive notes in President Donald Trump’s proposed Department of Defense budget, despite calls for a round of military base closings in 2021.
The proposal released by the White House last week calls for a Base Realignment and Closure process in 2021, a move that could threaten air assets as well as the Fleet Readiness Center East maintenance and repair facility at Cherry Point.
However, supporters of the base also see good signs in the proposed spending plan.
“There are 20 F-35B fighters for Cherry Point paid for in the budget, which is very encouraging,” said Will Lewis, mayor of Havelock as well as president of the Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow lobby group. “Everyone should remember that the president’s budget is only step one in a long process, which will include passage by the House and Senate. It’s still very early in the process.”
Cherry Point is scheduled to transition its AV-8B harrier squadrons to F-35Bs. According to the 2016 Marine Aviation Plan, Marine Attack Squadron 223 will be the first Cherry Point squadron to transition in 2023 and 2024.
The budget also includes funding for a number of new construction projects at the base. It includes $16 million for the construction of a new lift fan test facility that base supporters consider crucial to the future of F-35B work at FRC East. The proposal also included another $2.7 million in upgrades at FRC East.
“That’s very important for the life of the F-35B for the Marine Corps,” Lewis said. “We’re very encouraged to see construction money included in this budget. We’re actively involved on a regular basis with our congressman and representatives to make sure they know what our needs are. We’re very engaged in that process.”
The 2016 Marine Corps Aviation Plan calls for about $1.6 billion in construction at Cherry Point over the course of the next decade and a half, but any such funding would have to come from Congress.
The president’s budget proposal has also renewed concerns about the impact of proposed wind turbine construction on local military training sites. Lewis said Cherry Point and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base would likely close or downsize during the next BRAC if wind turbines encroach on training ranges and low-altitude flight paths.
“ACT is not opposed to alternative energy, and we are not opposed to the siting of wind turbine farms in North Carolina. However, wind farms must be allowed only in places where they will not interfere with military training,” said Lewis. “If too much encroachment occurs and the ability of our Marine Corps and Air Force pilots is limited or eliminated in eastern North Carolina, the Marine Corps and the Air Force will relocate to other states where training can occur. That would be devastating to our state’s role in the nation’s defense, our local economy, and quality of life.”
According to a 2015 study, the latest available, Cherry Point’s overall economic impact on the area was $2.01 billion. Salaries paid to active duty, retired military, and current and retired civilians was more than $1.215 billion, and more than $72.5 million in contracts were awarded.
Military leaders have pushed for another BRAC since 2013, arguing that the current domestic footprint is too large given reductions in force sizes and equipment modernization in recent years.
More than 350 installations have been closed in five BRAC rounds since 1988. The 2005 BRAC round forced hundreds of re-organizational moves that lawmakers complained hurt military communities and local businesses.
The president’s budget proposal faces a long legislative road before becoming law, with numerous controversial program extensions and cuts likely to face revisions from both congressional chambers.
“It (BRAC) has been threatened for occurrence for several years and will likely occur at some point, but we are optimistic that Marine Corps readiness and war fighting requirements, coupled with enhancements to Cherry Point in both technology and mission capabilities, will help keep it a vital part of America's future,” Lewis said.
The BRAC would come shortly after all of Cherry Point’s EA-6B Prowler squadrons are deactivated as the Marine Corps phases out use of the aircraft for electronic warfare and surveillance. That could leave Cherry Point vulnerable during a BRAC for even more reductions. However, it also could help with the relocation of other assets to the base.
The Department of Defense’s 2018 fiscal request is $639.1 billion, including $64.6 billion for overseas operations. It includes provisions to beef up many weapon systems and increase troop numbers.
The military conducted its last BRAC in 2005, a process that saved the Pentagon $12 billion a year. The current proposal would allow the Defense Department to immediately launch a study on BRAC, something that’s prohibited under current legislation.
The proposal does not immediately impact the $603 billion in defense funding requested by President Trump for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1. Administration officials have said the move is needed to create long-term savings for the military and help balance the federal budget.