Editor’s note: Less than half a year into his post as AEDC Director of Military Affairs, retired Col. Robert Ator already has created a solid vision for supporting and growing Arkansas’ military installations. He was gracious enough to share these insights with us.
Arkansas has a proud history of military service, infrastructure and resources. Our service men and women and our military installations not only play a vital role in our national defense, but they make an enormous, positive impact on the state’s economy.
Arkansas has five military installations: Little Rock Air Force Base, Pine Bluff Arsenal, Camp Robinson and Camp Pike, Ebbing Air National Guard Base, and Fort Chaffee Joint Maneuver Training Center. The U.S. military contributes a lot to the Arkansas economy, providing 67,000 direct and indirect jobs and a local economic impact of more than $4.5 billion a year. Little Rock Air Force Base alone is the third-largest employer in the state.
While each installation has its own attributes and needs, there has never been a coalescing force to put together statewide priorities to help these installations and their surrounding communities and economies thrive.
Through the Military Affairs Division at AEDC, I’m taking a three-pronged approach to serving the state in this role:
- Support community development surrounding the installations
- Protect installations from incompatible development
- Bring more missions to our installations
The partnership between a military installation and its surrounding community is critical to mission success. While each installation has state of the art equipment and tools, the engine that drives our armed forces is our people. Service members are not only warriors; they are husbands and wives, moms and dads with the same desires and dreams for their families.
A long-standing anecdote for our military is that we recruit soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, but we retain families. That surrounding community is trusted with the care of the service member’s family while they do our nation’s business. Simply, a strong community is vital for a strong military installation. I want Arkansas to be the most military-friendly state it can be. Part of how we can do this is by playing our part in strengthening the local schools around installations. Military families are generally very involved in their children’s education. When you’re moving every few years, making sure your kids have the best opportunities cannot be left to chance.
We recently announced a $377,821 Military Affairs grant to the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council and Jacksonville High School to develop and implement a cyber training curriculum. Students who participate in this program for four years will graduate high school with three of the four credentials they need to be a cyber technician. By partnering with local universities and the Arkansas Air National Guard, students will be connected to mentors and gain experience with real-world networks. Future options for these graduates will include attending college, joining the military as Cyber Warriors, or heading straight into the workforce, able to demand upwards of $60,000 a year.
The great result of the program is that the middle school and elementary schools now are developing curriculum to prepare the high school participants and adding rigor to the lower grades. This is a win for both the base population and the community.
New development is important to any state’s economy. Sometimes, though, particular types of development are incompatible near military installations. For example, a wind farm too close to Little Rock Air Force Base, where low-level military training routes are done daily, would compromise the base’s ability to train.
Right now we don’t have any major encroachment issues, but it’s important that we proactively try to prevent any from coming up. To stay ahead of this, it’s typical for each installation to commission a joint land use study, which looks at potential incompatible development and encroachment.
We are in the process of conducting a statewide joint land use study to map out the entire state, pinpointing potential issues. We can then go to the legislature to put rules into place to ensure any development that takes place within a certain radius of a military installation meets criteria that prevent encroachment and to inform better decisions in development. Part of accomplishing this goal is driving all over the state, gaining buy-in from military commanders, community support agencies, and town mayors.
We absolutely encourage development within the communities surrounding our Arkansas military installations, but we also have to protect military training routes, airspace, etc. Having a plan that sets parameters will help us achieve both.
Keeping each of our installations active and strong involves bringing in new missions. For example, the Pine Bluff Arsenal is working to gain a mission to become a logistics hub that would benchmark, test and stockpile equipment used in chemical defense for the entire Department of Defense and other federal agencies. The Arsenal is also being considered to produce RDX, an explosive used in precision-guided missions.
A barrier at the Arsenal, however, is the installation’s commercial entrance. There are two entrances to the Arsenal, and the commercial entrance sits on an active railroad line. Having trucks with explosive materials sitting on railroad tracks is a no-go.
Of all the priorities in the entire U.S. Department of Defense, an installation in Arkansas that doesn’t yet have the mission doesn’t rise high enough to receive the investment needed to build a flyover for the commercial entrance. With Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s involvement with the Military Affairs Initiative, however, the Arkansas Department of Transportation can assist in working on the entrance, making the Arsenal more likely to gain the missions.
Being a Military Friendly State
Arkansas is a very patriotic state, but there is work to be done to make the state more military friendly. Gov. Hutchinson formed the Military Affairs Initiative, put together the Military Affairs Committee and appointed me to take on this mantle.
We’re doubling down on taking care of our military installations, not just because we are patriotic, but also because it is good for economic stability in Arkansas.