A New Base Rises

Opposition Flags To Southcom's Home In Miami

By David Abel  |  Defense Week  |  7/12/1999

Before U.S. Southern Command moved from the triple-canopy jungles of Panama to the urban jungle of Miami in 1997, politicians from Colorado to Puerto Rico lobbied for the thousands of jobs and millions of dollars the military headquarters would generate.

Since then, Congress has stymied Southcom's growth and held a question mark over its future in Miami by refusing to provide money to purchase instead of lease the 28 acres its newly built headquarters is now set on.

Now, after a report from Secretary of Defense William Cohen called Miami "the best location" and Southcom chief Marine Corps Gen. Charles Wilhelm recently echoed those sentiments before Congress, the leading critics of keeping Southcom in Miami are tempering their opposition.

But they still want to keep their options open. So they continue to oppose providing the money to buy, rather than lease the land, even though they concede leasing costs more. Southcom oversees U.S. military interests in the Caribbean and Latin America.

"I think we should give the site in Miami time to develop," said Rep. Joel Hefley, (R-Colo.) the chairman of the House Armed Services' Military Installations Subcommittee whose district was under consideration for Southcom. "I want it to settle in; they may discover a lot of other things .... But I'm not in a position to second-guess the service."

Hefley was one of a coterie of critical lawmakers who helped block the $26.7 million the Clinton administration requested for fiscal 1999 to purchase the land and building in Miami that's now home to Southcom.

Though the Office of Management and Budget recommended forgoing the 10-year lease in favor of purchasing the property, the president did not seek the money for fiscal 2000, as the Pentagon report had not yet been submitted.

The administration is expected to make such a request for fiscal 2001. But Congress is unlikely to approve the money. According to Hefley and House and Senate staffers, the lease-which is considered less economical than buying fast-appreciating land in South Florida-allows Congress to keep its options open.

'Fait accompli'
"It's pretty much a fait accompli," said an aide to Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who previously supported attaching Southcom to U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Va. "There have been a lot of grumblings about putting it in Miami. I think we're stuck with the decision now. But if there was enough support for moving it to an existing base, I think the senator would support that."

Aside from pork-barrel politics, the main reasons cited for not purchasing the property in Miami are security and costs.

In the report accompanying its version of the fiscal 1999 defense authorization bill, the House Armed Services Committee stated it opposed buying the property because it was located in the flight path of a planned runway of Miami International Airport and didn't provide for nonmilitary support facilities such as housing and child care available on existing military bases.

One obvious location that was in contention for Southcom was MacDill AFB in Tampa, Fla., only a few hours northwest of Miami. It's already home to the Special Operations Command and Central Command, which is responsible for the Persian Gulf region.

"My boss has always been a proponent that Southcom be based at MacDill," said an aide to the powerful House Appropriations Committee chairman, Bill Young (R-Fla.), whose district borders Tampa. "It has all the necessary infrastructure. You don't have to go out and pay for things like housing or schools."

'Becoming a base'
That's a persisting complaint heard on the House Armed Services Committee: The Miami headquarters requires continual and expensive add-ons for the more than 1,000 military personnel assigned there.

"It's becoming a base," Hefley said. "Part of the reason for the opposition is Southcom's requirements keep changing. It appears to us in flux. That's why it's best to continue the lease."

The House committee said in its fiscal 1999 report that once Cohen explained how Miami was chosen and whether it was the best location, it would reconsider the proposal to purchase the land.

Cohen's answer came in late April. In a previously unpublished report, Cohen said Miami rose above more than 100 potential sites because of its emerging role as the first city of Latin America.

"When mission was given primary consideration, Miami was the best location, and under any circumstances Miami never ranked less than second," Cohen wrote. " ... As the gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean, [Miami] is the preeminent location from which to support regional security cooperation in the Americas into the 21st century."

And that opinion was followed up by the testimony of Wilhelm, the Southcom commander, in June before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said the two-year-old lease should be scrapped for a purchase plan to ensure Southcom's future in Miami.

"With its economic, cultural, academic, transportation and consular ties to our area of responsibility, Miami has proven to be the most credible location in the continental United States," Wilhelm said. "I believe the government will be best served by purchasing our headquarters."