Members of the Virginia delegation are crying foul at Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision this week to shutter the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., arguing it is illegal to circumvent the official base closure and realignment process.
Defense officials contend that the decision to stand down the combatant command - whose headquarters reside on Norfolk Naval Station, with other offices located in southern Virginia and personnel scattered across the United States and overseas - does not trigger the BRAC law.
"One of the tenants will be leaving the property," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. "The naval base remains. This is not a base closure, this is not a realignment. This is the disestablishment of an organization."
But Virginia lawmakers point to the law, which requires a lengthy and formal process if any realignment at a military installation involves a reduction of more than 1,000 Defense Department civilians.
JFCOM employs 1,533 Defense Department civilians, along with 1,491 military personnel and 3,300 contractors, according to the command. Only 688 people work at the command's headquarters, including 294 Defense civilians, but the vast majority of JFCOM personnel work in southern Virginia.
"A strong legal case can be made that the base closure statutes are applicable because this involves a reduction of more than 1,000 civilian personnel," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., an Armed Services Committee member and former Navy secretary, in a statement this week.
Webb and other members of the Virginia delegation sent a letter to Gates Friday objecting to the "plan to ignore the legislative intent" associated with the base-closure law.
"This provision was established to ensure that Congress has sufficient time and opportunity to review DoD proposals that would result in the closure or realignment of significant military facilities," they wrote.
Morrell, however, argues that the Pentagon has the authority to stand down a command without going through the formal BRAC process, which involves an in-depth review by an independent commission and ultimately a congressional vote on the entire list of bases.
"We've got 10,000 lawyers, and they've looked at it every which way," Morrell said in an interview Friday. "Secretary Gates doesn't roll out to the podium unless everything has been buttoned down. He is very confident in the legal advice he's received."
The decision to stand down Joint Forces Command is part of a larger, five-year plan within the Pentagon to cut more than $100 billion from overhead costs and other unnecessary expenses and redirect that money to force structure and modernization accounts.
Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, whose southern Virginia district is near the JFCOM headquarters, argued that Gates "seems to have adapted the strategy that the ends justify the means." Forbes is the ranking member of the Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, which would have jurisdiction over a base closure round.
"We think they're going to try to play some kind of shell game in how they get around [the law]," Forbes said.
A House aide said the Defense Department could nix some of the civilian jobs at JFCOM upfront, claiming that those positions are redundant. Doing so would get the department below the 1,000-civilian threshold.
"BRAC doesn't count when you're basically firing civilians," the aide said.
Forbes acknowledged that approach could be an option, but said doing so would be a breach of the intent of the law.
"I don't know which direction they're going to go, because they haven't said," Forbes said.
Gates, who has authorized each of the military departments to consider consolidation or closure of excess bases and other facilities, recognized on Monday that the issue is a "politically fraught topic."
"Currently, Congress has placed legal constraints on DoD's ability to close installations," Gates said. "But hard is not impossible, and I hope Congress will work with us to reduce unnecessary costs in this part of the defense enterprise."
Forbes and others said they believe other communities surrounding military bases should be concerned that their installations could be targeted.
"Every military community should be calling their members of Congress to say, 'If [Gates] can do this on a whim and without thorough analysis, then he can do anything that he wants to do'," said Paul Hirsch, president of Madison Government Affairs, which does base-closure consulting work. "He could close Air Combat Command at Langley [Air Force Base, Va.] or any other command or major entity."
Hirsch was a senior staffer on the 1991 base-closure commission and now counts among his clients Newport News, Va., which is a short drive from Norfolk.
On Wednesday, Gates told reporters that he believes Virginia lawmakers' concerns over the potential loss of jobs is "absolutely valid." But he also cautioned that nothing will happen immediately.
"So I think we have some time to work through this," Gates said. "But I think their concerns about jobs for their constituents are completely legitimate."
Morrell said the department will "do everything we can to try to make this difficult transition less so."