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Altman: Portrait may signal leadership change at MacDill

If I were a betting man (and other than the Super Bowl pools I am no longer) I would bet that last week’s visit to the House Armed Services Committee marked the last time U.S. Special Operations Command honcho Adm. William McRaven delivers a posture statement.

And I am betting that sometime this summer, there will be a Socom change of command ceremony over at MacDill Air Force Base.

Not only is it the Spec Ops community buzz, but I’m also reading the commando tea leaves.

First of all, it’s getting to be that time.

McRaven, the nation’s highest ranking SEAL, took command Aug. 8, 2011.

The average command length of seven of the previous eight commanders (throwing out for statistical purposes the short stay of Socom boss No. 4 Army Gen. Henry Shelton), is about three years.

Aug. 8 will be the three-year mark for McRaven.

But that alone doesn’t make for this wager, because each of McRaven’s two immediate predecessors served longer; Eric Olson a little more than four years and Doug Brown, nearly four, meaning McRaven would have another year in Tampa if that trend line continues.

I don’t think it will, and here’s why.

Late last year, I reported a little item in this space about the command commissioning a portrait of McRaven.

“A maximum of two sittings is anticipated for the portrait. Shipping and delivery of the final portrait for placement required by 1 June 2014. Shipping shall either be included in the unit price or included as a separate line item.”

At Socom, portraits are generally hung right before a change of command, according to spokesman Ken McGraw, who said there was no significance to the delivery date.

But then there was this cryptic remark from McRaven Thursday at the House Armed Services Committee, in a nod to fellow panelist, Air Force Gen. William Fraser III, head of U.S. Transportation Command, who has announced his retirement and intention to move back home to the Lone Star State after hanging up his own stars.

“I do look forward to seeing you in Texas soon,” said McRaven, like Fraser, a Texan.

Friday afternoon, McGraw told me that “DoD announces leadership changes at this level and DoD has not made any announcements. It would be inappropriate for me or anyone else to speculate on when there will be a change of command.”

So there you go, a little gander at the leaves of the beverage commandos are famous for drinking with village elders. Of course, as we have seen here in Tampa, you never know what surprises might pop in the interim that could reshuffle the deck.

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Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel began dropping one of the nastiest four-letter words known to Congress: BRAC.

OK, it’s an acronym (for Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission), not a word. Either way, in an effort to save money, Hagel is once again asking Congress to swallow that very bitter pill.

A BRAC would theoretically put MacDill, like every other base, in the cross hairs. But as the only base with two combatant commands as well as two aerial refueling wings, the Joint Communications Support Element, Special Operations Command Central and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration among other units, it seems unlikely that even if there were a BRAC, MacDill would be hit.

Still, in an uncertain world, anything is possible. And MacDill could conceivably pick up units in a BRAC, which has not happened since 2005. So I wanted to poll our local legislators and get them on the record. None expressed a willingness to bet the future of the base, which pumps about $5 billion into the regional economy, though one left the door open and two are on the fence.

I’ll start off with Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, a strong advocate for MacDill, because her response, which leaves a whiff of BRACishness, puts the issue in perspective.

“By all accounts the notion is dead on arrival, and the Department of Defense, like other parts of the government, must be more efficient with every tax dollar,” she said. “DOD should employ a revised threat assessment to align our bases and resources with the current threats to our national security.

“This type of assessment would seem to favor our community. For example, American technological advancements over the past 10 years have been remarkable. That is one reason why you see a greater investment in special operations forces by the Administration.”

A large ground war with huge American troop brigades is very unlikely, while cyber warfare is more likely. Socom and (U.S. Central Command) are central to the modernization of DOD. Again, it is highly doubtful that BRAC would occur at all and in turn that it would affect us, but there may be other areas outside Florida that must think ahead for transition.

“It is important to note that during military base closures under President George W. Bush, some communities worked with business and financial groups to create economic development opportunities for their areas. That is imperative. I would never support a BRAC unless local communities are integral in determining the transition and future of their local bases.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “doesn’t even want the Pentagon thinking about closing bases domestically until we finish taking a good hard look at what we are doing overseas,” said spokeswoman Emily Rogers. “There’s a report coming out this spring expected to recommend additional reductions in Europe and Nelson looks forward to seeing that. It’s called the European Infrastructure Consolidation Review.”

A new BRAC round “is something we are looking at,” said Brooke Sammon, a spokeswoman for Sen. Marco Rubio.

Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, is dead set against BRAC.

“Defense has been cut enough,” said Rooney, an Army veteran, in a statement to The Tampa Tribune. “The Department of Defense, with their budget proposal, is basically implementing sequester, even though we averted it, and making the same kinds of cuts they previously said would significantly weaken our national security. They were right the first time – in my opinion, these cuts will hurt readiness and they will compromise our security.

“As a member of the Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee, I’m going to fight any cuts to MacDill. Because of the vital, strategic role MacDill plays in supporting our air capabilities around the world, it should be absolutely off limits in any BRAC efforts.”

Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Spring Hill, says he has yet to decide whether to support a BRAC.

“At this point I do not know,” said Nugent, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, in an interview last week. “But I always preface what I will or won’t do until I see it. I have never been through BRAC, so I want to hear from those within the Armed Services Committee. We do not have an active duty base in my district, but MacDill is certainly very important to me and to Florida in general and it should be.”

Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Dennis Ross did not respond to questions seeking their opinion.

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The Pentagon announced no new deaths in Afghanistan last week.

There have been 2,300 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

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