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Corpus Christi Caller-Times July 8, 2005

Mine warfare unit, Gulf security among benefits of NS Ingleside

Leaders make case for facility to BRAC commission member

By Brad Olson

Naval Station Ingleside's potential for growth and its strategic importance to Gulf of Mexico security were among several claims advocates made that appeared to interest Base Realignment and Closure Commissioner James T. Hill during a community briefing Thursday.

Hill, who arrived in Corpus Christi Thursday morning, is in town to tour area bases. He and eight other BRAC commissioners have toured bases across the nation that are slated for closure or major downsizing by the Defense Department, including Naval Station Ingleside, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi and a distribution center for the Corpus Christi Army Depot. Together, the recommendations would amount to a loss of 7,015 jobs.

Thursday's presentation and another 45minute briefing scheduled Monday in San Antonio will be the only chance local advocates will get to defend Ingleside, which has been recommended for closure, before Hill and three other BRAC commissioners.

After U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz began the briefing Thursday morning by welcoming Hill, the retired general stood up to say he grew up in El Paso, went to school in San Antonio and married a woman from Mission.

"I understand this great part of the world," he said. "The (BRAC) commission has been charged by Congress to give an independent and fair hearing to all these issues. I'm here to see what's going on in these communities where there will be significant losses.

"We understand that this is not all about military value but about human beings and about jobs in the community. We will give you an honest, fair and independent view."

Former Corpus Christi Mayor Loyd Neal, former Mine Warfare Commander Paul Ryan and former Naval Air Station Corpus Christi Cmdr. Rocco Montesano presented pieces of a 45-minute presentation.

Among the highlights:

  • Mines are the greatest threat to the Navy fleet, and the breakup of the Mine Warfare Center of Excellence at Ingleside jeopardizes the capability to clear an area of mines quickly.

  • Dismantling the Navy's mine warfare program before new systems have been proven is risky.

  • Closing Ingleside and Naval Station Pascagoula on the Mississippi coast would leave the Gulf of Mexico unprotected.

  • Ingleside's potential to grow was overlooked, including Army Reserve plans to build 1 million square feet of refrigerated warehouses.

  • Relocating Navy Region South from Corpus Christi to Navy Region Midwest at Great Lakes, Ill., makes less sense than relocating the Midwest region assets to Corpus Christi.

  • Defense Department estimates of cost savings from closing Ingleside are exaggerated.

Ryan gave the bulk of the presentation, focusing on the importance of mine warfare to the Navy and how Pentagon recommendations to combine mine and anti-submarine warfare would put the nation at risk. He noted that since 1950, mines have damaged 14 ships, and other enemy actions have damaged five. After problems clearing the Persian Gulf of mines in 1993, the Navy created a Mine Warfare Center of Excellence at Ingleside.

As many task force members have noted before, when Gen. Mike Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, visited Ingleside, he asked Ryan how sailors cleared the Persian Gulf in a week for Operation Iraqi Freedom, when military strategists had planned on a month. Ryan said the reason for the improvement was a dedicated center at Ingleside where all the mine warfare assets - including the helicopter squadron at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi that is slated to go to Norfolk, Va. - can train together.

John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a Washington, D.C.-based defense think tank, said the community's effort to save Ingleside by defending the importance of mine warfare was a good strategy.

"I would definitely be prepared to listen to that one," he said.

Ryan also said Navy plans to replace Ingleside's ships with small mine-hunting modules housed on Littoral Combat Ships had yet to be tested. The Littoral Combat Ships, like many other vessels, have not been bought, and plans for adding to the fleet have often been scaled back, he said.

"I don't know how much faith we can put in the Navy's shipbuilding plans," he said.

During the meeting, Hill seemed to nod in agreement with some points in the presentation, particularly when Ryan discussed Ingleside's potential to grow. Ryan and Neal told Hill about Army Reserve plans to build 1 million square feet of refrigerated warehouses on the base and adjacent to it.

Hill asked if those plans had been put on hold because of the closure recommendation, and Neal said money had been appropriated and they were ready to build the first 120,000 square-foot center. Hill asked why the Army Reserve couldn't still build on that site once it had been turned over to another entity, and Ryan said they sought a protected area that a military base provides.

When the topic turned to keeping Ingleside open to protect oil and gas assets along the Gulf Coast, Hill asked how Ingleside protected such assets right now. Ryan replied that the Navy base is a deterrent to prospective attackers and that adding additional homeland defense missions at the base could further protect the region.

Pike said other areas have trumpeted their base's importance to homeland defense.

"Most of the arguments I've heard (about homeland security) would be better left unsaid," he said. "I don't think that's going to get you very far."

Hill asked Ryan what would happen if terrorists planted mines in the Houston Ship Channel.

"Let's say it's 10 years from now, and the mine warfare assets are in Norfolk and San Diego," Hill said. "How long would it take the Navy to respond and clear the area for mines?"

Ryan said it could take up to two months to clear the channel, something Hill said would cause "incredible" problems.

Immediately after the presentation, Neal said he thought Ryan did "a great job."

"We had a chance to prepare when we briefed the BRAC staff several weeks ago in Washington, so we knew what some of the questions might be beforehand," he said. "You never really know, but we didn't hurt ourselves today."

Copyright 2005, Texas Scripps Newspapers, L.P.