Our Military Might


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A CENTURY AFTER HE WROTE THEM, Rudyard Kipling’s words on the British soldier of the 1890s may strike a familiar chord with San Diegans of the 1990s. There have been times, certainly, when our region’s vast military presence has been a source of some unease for the civilian populace. Once, one might have actually seen one of those signs posted near a San Diego naval base: SAILORS AND DOGS, KEEP OFF THE GRASS!

But more recently, the image of the servicemen and women who live and work among us—and our assessment of their value—has risen substantially. In dollars and cents, each sailor or Marine represents more than $25,000 a year to our community. According to the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, the economic impact on San Diego is $1 million for every 36 military jobs. Last year, the total output from the military in the area was some $9.5 billion. Nearly 60% of that flowed into the local community via payroll income and construction.

More sailors and Marines are based hereabouts than anywhere else in the world. Norfolk may have more ships, but 50-plus are home-ported here. And the military is San Diego’s number-two industry, second only to manufacturing.

In the 1980s, when a 600-ship Navy was on the board, then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman intended several major home ports on each U.S. coast. Thus, most of the Pacific Fleet would be scattered between Puget Sound, San Francisco, Long Beach, Pearl Harbor and San Diego.

But with the meltdown of the Cold War, the Navy shrank to fewer than 400 ships. The country no longer needed—and certainly could no longer afford—so many home ports. Something had to give. For the Pacific Fleet, what gave was San Francisco and Long Beach.

Not that San Diego escaped altogether. An entire class of ships—the steam cruisers—plus a dozen others (mostly landing craft) were lost within five months. And the loss of 17 ships is a matter of no small concern to the Chamber of Commerce. Retired Commander Howard Ruggles, director of the CofC’s military and government relations department, says, “We’ll be down by essentially that amount over about 10 years, until we get the third nuclear carrier in 2005, the Ronald Reagan. That will get us back to where we were before we made the cuts.”

Within 10 years, San Diegans will look across the harbor and discover that aircraft carriers sporting the familiar numbers 63 and 64 have been replaced by ones numbered 68, 74 and 76. Goodbye, Connie and Hawk. Hello, Nimitz, John Stennis and Ronald Reagan. By then, each will doubtless have its own nickname. Each also will have a crew in excess of 3,000.

The value of any ship home-ported here goes far beyond the payroll. The cruiser USS Lake Champlain had been scheduled for overhaul at Long Beach. The work was recently rescheduled to be done at NASSCO. Many others will follow.

“We are a nuclear-carrier home port,” says Ruggles, “and there’s work going on that has to do with that.” Indeed. And the money is allocated for it. According to the city manager’s office, the 1995 budget contained money for dredging the turning basin near the piers at North Island. The ’96 budget provides for construction of a second berth and a controlled industrial facility for support of nuclear components.

So who’s in charge of all these ships? The entire Pacific Fleet is under the command of Admiral Ronald Zlatoper in Hawaii. Locally, the Third Fleet is under the command of Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, with Naval Surface Forces, Pacific Fleet headed by Vice Admiral David Robinson, and the Naval Air Forces, Pacific by Vice Admiral Brent Bennitt.

Rear Admiral J. Scott Walker holds the title of Commander Naval Base, San Diego. His public affairs officer, Commander Steve Burnett, says, “We’re responsible for coordination of all shore-based fleet support in California south of Monterey and the entire state of Nevada.”

OF COURSE, THE MILITARY PRESENCE goes beyond ships. More than a dozen major installations stretch from the Marines’ Camp Pendleton, bordering Orange County, to Ream Field near the Mexico border.

Along the waterfront in the south section of town and extending into National City is Naval Station, San Diego, better known as “32nd Street.” It is not a street, of course (that’s the main entrance), but one of the largest naval bases in the world. Its principal mission is providing services and support to the Pacific Fleet.

Across the bay is North Island Naval Air Station, considered the birthplace of naval aviation. It began life as an Army Air Corps field during World War I, but ere long the Navy took over. At the other end of Coronado is the Naval Amphibious Base, or “Phib Base,” as the sailors call it. In addition to housing and training various components of the “Gator Navy,” it’s home to some of the deadliest fighting men in the world, the Navy SEALs.

On Point Loma, at Ballast Point, is the Submarine Base, home port to eight nuclear-powered attack submarines. Appropriately enough, the submarines are based close to the Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Center, which is next to the Naval Training Center. The anti-sub folks protect us from the bad guys’ boats. A great deal of the training is done on simulators; it’s a lot less expensive than using real ships and submarines.

At the south end of the Silver Strand in Imperial Beach is a huge antenna structure. Some irreverent sailor once dubbed it a dinosaur cage. It’s on the site of the Naval Radio Receiving Facility, which houses an organization called Naval Computer and Telecommunications. The building inside the dinosaur cage is manned mostly by the Navy’s spooky cryptologic technicians. Those folks always work in closed compartments; do not knock on the front door and expect to be invited in.

Ream Field (officially the Imperial Beach Naval Auxiliary Landing Field) is another facility started by the Army but taken over by the Navy. The Army set up shop in 1917; the Navy took over in the 1920s. It is now the only West Coast training center for Navy helicopters.

Few civilians whizzing by on Interstate 5 through North County’s 17-mile stretch of Camp Pendleton realize the size or scope of the Marine Corps base. Pendleton’s 125,000 acres are populated by more than 37,000 Marines and sailors and 14,000 dependents. (Its back country is populated by 400 species of mammals and birds, including 55 bison.)

F.D.R. himself dedicated the place on September 25, 1942. In addition to being San Diego’s welcome buffer to the dread spread of Los Angeles and Orange County, Camp Pendleton is home to several major commands. One of the largest is the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF), under the command of Lieutenant General Tony Zinni. I MEF is composed of air wings; support groups; surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence people and a service company.

I MEF is a combat-ready group poised to move out whenever and wherever trouble occurs. Many of the men and women we see on television when Marines are sent to Somalia or other trouble spots are from I MEF. It contains the famed 1st Marine Division, the Corps’ oldest and most-decorated division-sized unit, commanded by Major General Frank Libutti. Camp Pendleton itself is headed by Major General Claude Reinke.

Another Marine Corps post that figures to be with us well into the 21st century is the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD), currently headed by Brigadier General Garry Parks. The depot has been here for a long time. According to an article by Ellen Holzman in Traditions, a magazine covering San Diego’s military heritage: “On August 11, 1923, personnel and equipment from the recruiting district in San Francisco left on the USS Sirius for their new home in San Diego.”

Next door to MCRD is the Naval Training Center (NTC)—or what’s left of it. Boot camp is gone. The last of the 1.7 million recruits who have trained there graduated in 1993. Various schools with the Service School Command are being phased out. Footsteps now echo in empty buildings that have been Navy since 1923.

San Diego Assistant City Manager Tim Johnson, Project Director NTC, says, “It’s scheduled to close in April 1997 ... the Navy will lower the flag and walk away from it.” They will be completely out by September 1999, when most of the land will revert to civilian use.

AND WHO WILL MOVE IN as the Navy moves out? First, the Navy will keep enough land to provide about 500 housing units. The Port District has its eye on a section adjacent to the airport. After that, the city is required to develop the land in order to produce jobs.

According to Mayor Susan Golding, a new high-tech outfit, the Navy’s Space and Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), is interested in setting up some of its offices there; it’ll be close to the main offices farther out on Point Loma. Also interested is Science Applications International Corporation, a local high-tech outfit that talks dollars in the billions.

“The actual value of NTC,” says Golding, “is the present value minus the cost of what it takes to get it to the point that it can be used again. The president’s nine-point plan calls for economic development as primary use ... and the governors have all said these bases [those being discontinued] should be used in large proportion to produce jobs.”

Then real estate developers should be licking their chops?

“Quite frankly, just the opposite,” says Johnson. “There’s several land-use constraints on the property. It’s in a tidelands trust. It is property that is in [the purview of] the Coastal Commission. It is property that’s in the flight path of Lindbergh Field, so there’s a clear zone. There’s noise contours. There’s height limitations. There’s all sorts of things.”

The question of what will happen to the coveted property is being addressed by the NTC Re-use Planning Committee, convened by Golding in 1993. They are working on a “vision.” According to a booklet prepared by the Rick Engineering Company, the vision being considered would:

“Create a center that celebrates San Diego’s maritime history and opens public access to a waterway linking San Diego and Mission bays. This community will anchor revitalization of the North Bay region. It will also support education, training and research-and-development programs that attract new industries to San Diego and strengthen the region’s performance in international trade from Mexico to the Pacific Rim.”

Among other things in Golding’s vision, that means a canal from San Diego Bay to Mission Bay. Will we someday be able to sail a boat down Midway Drive and Sports Arena Boulevard?

Maybe. But remember that few things are completed by the first study group. The first airport-relocation study began a half-century ago. Lindbergh Field has not moved.

The Miramar Naval Air Station is not moving either. But the Navy is. NAS will become MCAS—Marine Corps Air Station. The thousands of sailors and Navy pilots will be replaced by an even larger number of Marines (about 4,000 more). Navy squadrons now based in Mira Mesa are headed for other bases in California, Virginia and Nevada. The F-14 squadrons will end up in Oceana, Virginia.

Meanwhile, the 21st century looms, and San Diego’s military/defense picture is changing fast. That outfit with the George Lucas–sounding name, SPAWAR, will move in over the next three years. One of three principal procurement agencies for the sea service, SPAWAR is responsible for communications, computers, intelligence, electronic warfare and the like. The total operating budget is $4.1 billion, the lion’s share of which should be spent locally. SPAWAR figures to employ more than 500 civilians.

When SPAWAR spends money, might it spend some of it with SAIC? That acronym stands for Science Applications International Corporation, a La Jolla–based think tank Buck Rogers would envy. According to Sue Volek, vice president of public affairs, “SAIC is a systems integration company, which means that we can take many parts and tailor them to a customer’s requirements.”

Potential customers are just about anybody who needs help with things that tick, buzz, hum, whirr, cheep or travel at the speed of light. That includes companies working in the fields of transportation, energy, geospatial information, environment, law enforcement, healthcare and national security. National security accounts for about half of SAIC’s revenues. With the drawdown, SAIC’s revenue from defense-related industries is declining as a percentage of the total, yet total revenue, including that from national security, has been increasing yearly.

In San Diego, SAIC employs about 3,600 people and pays them a total of about $100 million. That would seem to make it a nice place to work. Lots of former high-ranking members of the defense team must think so. The Navy’s former superspook, retired Admiral Bobby Inman, once director of the National Security Agency, is on the SAIC board of directors. So was Nixon’s former Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, until he retired last summer. When Admiral William A. Owens retired as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff late last year, he was hired to fill a spot on the board.

Even more high-tech defense-related work is done by a pair of outfits on Point Loma: Naval Command Control and Ocean Surveillance Center (NCCOSC) and the Fleet Combat Training Center, Pacific. NCCOSC’s mission runs the gamut of research, development, test, evaluation, engineering and fleet support for command, control and communications systems and ocean surveillance. That means they run a lot of tests on electronic stuff. The Fleet Combat Training Center provides academic and practical instruction in tactical warfare and combat systems.

SAN DIEGO’S SHIPS, CAMPS, training centers, airplanes and defense posts are run by people, of course. Military people. And San Diego has lots of them. Who are they, exactly?

Some 240,000 are active duty, mostly Navy or Marines. Another 56,602 are retired. Nearly 8,000 are reservists. The Coast Guard musters in with 400. The Army and Air Force presence is sparse: some veterinarians at NTC, a handful of visiting doctors at the Naval Hospital and a few recruiters.

And there are some distinct advantages for San Diego’s military population.

The Navy operates exchanges at Naval Station, San Diego; Miramar; North Island; Coronado and Imperial Beach plus several mini-marts. In addition, Marines have their own stores. None charges the onerous sales tax; that’s a big advantage. Eligible patrons include anybody who has a military ID card. This includes all the retired folks and their dependents plus reservists.

And most major commands have commissaries, limited to food sales. The commissary system is not operated by the individual services but by the Defense Commissary Agency. Because the system is propped up by $1.1 billion of appropriated money, none can lose money.

Locally, one finds few merchants who will complain about that competition. Jim DeGraw of the San Diego Business Journal noted that a while back. “It’s very difficult to find somebody who would go on the record to say ‘We are getting hurt by it,’ because it would be construed as an anti-Navy thing,” he wrote.

Sooner or later, much of San Diego’s military population will go on sick call—many to the hospital. Officially the medical facility at Balboa Park is the Naval Medical Center (NMC), San Diego. Unofficially it’s Balboa Hospital.

The first rudimentary facility was established shortly before our entry into World War I. Lieutenant A.C. Smith, a young doctor, held the first sick call on May 20, 1917. If he took as good care of his patients as he did of himself, they were a lucky bunch. When the present hospital opened in 1988, retired Captain Smith, then a sprightly 96-year-old, was still around to cut the ribbon.

For nearly eight decades Navy doctors, nurses, corpsmen and corpswomen in San Diego have repaired untold thousands of sailors and Marines, then returned them to their units. They have also cared for dependents; indeed, today NMC helps increase their number. About 10 babies a day are delivered there.

The new medical center is headed by Rear Admiral Richard A. Nelson, M.D. The hospital complex covers 2 million square feet; it needs a lot of space because it serves nearly half a million people. Everything is state of the art—the $263 million price tag included $90 million for the latest equipment. One of the Navy’s major teaching hospitals, NMC is also one of the largest in the city. Its staff includes 3,300 military (nearly all Navy) and 1,300 civilians. It has more than 500 beds. (In comparison, UCSD Medical Center has about 442 beds.)

Many military retirees believe they have an absolute right to free medical care. Not so, according to the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. A booklet on TriCare, the services’ new healthcare delivery system, states, “Though the law never guaranteed free lifetime care (only care when available), military leaders know most sailors, Marines, soldiers and airmen believe they were promised this care.”

Today, most retirees and their dependents are moved over to Medicare when they turn 65. Nevertheless, the Navy tries to maintain the tradition. The local director of TriCare, Captain John Shore, says, “We will always treat our retired members at Balboa if we have room.”

Sailors and Marines have kids. Kids go to school. What’s the impact on local education? Mostly it’s good. The U.S. Office of Education provides funds to school districts based on the average daily attendance of the children of federal employees. Throughout the county, that runs to almost $16 million.

THE ECONOMIC CLOUT of the military is also felt on the third leading industry in town—tourism and travel. The Chamber of Commerce estimates that nearly $350 million was spent in 1992-93 on business trips to our town by military and Department of Defense (DoD) officials, base contractors and reservists.

The San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (ConVis) recognizes the importance of the military travel dollar. In fact, while most cities have a ConVis, ours is the only one in the country with a separate military and defense division. A lot of money is out there waiting to be spent. DoD allocates $7 billion per year just for travel.

ConVis’ Dale Vandergaw signed on in 1993 to woo those important dollars. The first step, he explains, is to convince DoD members to hold business meetings here in town. “We have all the obvious things going for us: restaurants, military bases, affordable rooms and a year-round meeting climate.”

He feels his plan is working. He says, “Three years ago San Diego had 100 military accounts. Today we have more than 600.”

When military visitors come, Old Town Trolley Tours often gets them. In 1994 the sightseeing company contracted with local military commanders to conduct tours of the bases. Now, visitors can take in the sights at the Submarine Base, Miramar Air Station, the Naval Station and North Island.

Manager Lorin Stewart works closely with ConVis to ensure that visiting veterans are aware of the tour. He says, “We give the historic side of San Diego, rather than just a military tour.”

In fact, it would be difficult to separate them. Military and defense have been a part of San Diego’s history from the beginning. And as a new century approaches, the military continues to write a very large chapter in San Diego’s future.

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