Arkansas Inc. Podcast - Military Affairs Part I

 December 10, 2019

In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. podcast, host Clark Cogbill talks with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission's Director of Military Affairs, Col. Robert Ator. They discuss recent initiatives that include retaining military personnel and improving cybersecurity in Arkansas. 

Already listened to Part I? Part II is available to listen here


Introduction: Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast where we discuss the latest topics and trends in economic development with subject matter experts and influencers from across the nation and around the world.

Clark Cogbill: Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. My name is Clark Cogbill. I'm Director of Digital Marketing with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. My guest today is Colonel Rob Ator, Director of Military Affairs, also for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, or AEDC. Colonel Ator retired from military service in 2017 after spending his entire career in the United States Air Force. Most recently serving as commander of the 189th Airlift Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard, the largest Air National Guard C-130 Wing in the U.S. As commander, Colonel Ator was responsible for leading the Wing's 14 subordinate units with more than 1,000 members, assets valued in excess of $2 billion, and an annual operating budget of $70 million. During his military career, Colonel Ator implemented strategies and built partnerships that resulted in the increased significance of the 189 Air Lift Wing, the Arkansas Air National Guard, Little Rock Air Force Base, and the state of Arkansas and the nation's defense by re-imagining uses for existing infrastructure and seeking out new missions that ensured the Wing's viability for the future. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy where he also played football and where he earned a bachelor's degree in engineering. Now because I know and work with Colonel Ator, I know he goes by his Air Force call sign, Gator, so that's what we'll call him. So, Gator, welcome to the Arkansas Inc Podcast.

Rob Ator: Well, thanks, Clark. And you know, I got to tell you, I'm kind of impressed by all that. So I really appreciate the intro. I don't think I've had one like that for my whole career. So thank you.

Clark Cogbill: If you're willing to come on the podcast, we'll give you a good intro. So give us an overview of the Military Affairs division. You were appointed to this position in 2018 by Governor Asa Hutchinson. How would you describe your role?

Rob Ator: Sure. The whole concept of the Governor's Military Affairs Committee, really, it's a story in what I think is some forward thinking on the part of Governor Asa Hutchinson and Mike Preston, the Director of AEDC, or really now, he's our Secretary of Commerce. What it all came from was in 2015 the governor asked the question about what segment of the state's economy was being neglected and what do we need to concentrate on. And Mike responded with that, we weren't doing anything in the field of military affairs. So at the time I was the wing commander and I was there for the announcement when the Governor did announce the Governor's Military Affairs Initiative and I was part of the backdrop and ruined the look for him because you know I got a face made for radio. But one of the things that he said during that announcement was that the economic impact of the state's military installations in the missions in the state was over $1 billion.

Rob Ator: And I remember sitting there thinking about, boy that's a lot of money. So flash forward, one of the first things they did was build this initiative and build a committee. And so we have 10 members in the Governor's Military Affairs Committee and they go from everything from the Lieutenant Governor to civic leaders that operate around each of the state’s five installations. Those five installations being Little Rock Air Force Base, Camp Robinson, the Pine Bluff Arsenal, Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith, and Fort Chaffee, just outside of Fort Smith. So we have representation from those communities, and these are business leaders that can help us move forward and actually put the focus on the communities and the missions of those installations.

Rob Ator: So the first thing that we did was try to have a better understanding of actually the scope of those. And so we contracted to have a military economic impact study done and that was done in 2016. And the thing that we found out of that was that the value that it brought to the state, the economic impact to the state, was over four and a half billion dollars a year, not the one that we all were all stunned by.

Rob Ator: So four and a half billion dollar industry in the state of Arkansas. And it contributes to about 67,000 direct and indirect jobs to the state. So it's a big, big player in the field. And so the Governor was spot on with identifying this as an area that we needed to concentrate on. So when I came on in January of 2018, the first thing that I wanted to do is to try and set some baseline. Because truthfully the job was ill-defined. We're making it up as we go based off of what we were learning about the space and what we needed to do to try and answer the need.

Rob Ator: So a lot of it is when you think back to before we had this committee was that each community that surrounded one of these installations had to work issues by themselves. And a lot of times they were going to the congressional delegation because most of the work that's being done is federally funded because of the military. And there was no setting of priorities. And so it was hard to go and solve problems for these installations. And so a lot of on the front end was spending a lot of time with these community leaders and getting to understand not only their communities in the mission, but being that conduit so that we could then set priorities for the state so we could concentrate our efforts to go ahead and solve some of those problems. So we spent a lot of time doing that.

Rob Ator: And so far, it's just been amazing, because the one thing I always said when I was in uniform was that Arkansas is one of the most patriotic states I've ever been a part of. But truly at the time, Arkansas was not exactly military friendly and it wasn't out of any commission. There wasn't that they were trying to do, it was just they didn't know. And they, and so what we're able to do is put the spotlight on it and focus our efforts on it so that we can do the things that we can to make those installations viable.

Clark Cogbill: Well with 67,000 direct and indirect jobs, and an economic impact of $4.5 billion a year in the state- it's certainly something that does need priority and attention.

Rob Ator: Well, I certainly think so. It's one of the largest employers in the state of Arkansas.

Rob Ator: And more than that, when you talk about military folks, the military is the smallest it's ever been. Our air force is the smallest it's ever been since its inception in 1947, for example. So less than one half of 1% of the U.S. population actually wears a uniform. So who is advocating for these people in these missions? And so a lot of it is just putting the attention on it and taking Arkansas from that patriotic, not really military friendly, to really kind of getting to the core of it where they're doing amazing things. And we had a lot of success in the last legislative session where we were doing the right things for our installations, our people, and their families. And so a lot of it is just putting the focus on it and let Arkansas be Arkansas and really make it something positive.

Clark Cogbill: So Gator, you mentioned our five military installations across the state and there's a lot of things happening that you're working with these installations on with these communities. Talk about what's happening at each of these.

Rob Ator: Oh you bet. One of the things I just explained was that there are five installations, those being the two in central Arkansas, which being the Little Rock Air Force Base and Camp Robinson. And then we have Pine Bluff Arsenal. And then we have two installations over in the Western part of the state, that being Ebbing Air National Guard Base that's on the Fort Smith airport, and then you have Fort Chaffee. All of them have very, very unique and distinct roles and missions. And so a lot of what we started with was spending a lot of time with their commanders, finding out their vision of where they're trying to take it and what they're doing, and then also try and understand what the things are that are limiting them. And so we spend a lot of time on the front end doing that. And then we spent all our time after that trying to formulate plans for how do we take away some of these things that are causing issues with their accomplishing their mission.

Rob Ator: So just going down the list, if we start out like at Pine Bluff Arsenal. A lot of people don't really even understand what Pine Bluff Arsenal is. And then that it's not a normal military installation. It is a part of the Army's material command, part of the organic industrial base. So in a sense it is an industrial park that builds military equipment. In the case of Pine Bluff Arsenal, they are the site, or the center, of industrial technology excellence. So they're the headquarters of the production of chemical defense, or biological defense, equipment. So they make a lot of different filters, the actual garb that the soldiers and airmen and Marines wear, but they also are the place that makes all of the incendiary and smoke munitions for the entire Department of Defense. So unique mission, a lot of people thought that, you know, once Pine Bluff was done making chemicals and storing chemicals and we fixed that problem many years ago.

Rob Ator: And so there's none of those on the installation itself anymore that they thought that the kind of the installation kind of went away.

Clark Cogbill: Right.

Rob Ator: But truthfully, it's a very, very vibrant base. And now, because the U.S. has been in a fight for over 20 years that we have kind of depleted a lot of our munition stores. And so the things that we're doing there, matter of fact, last year we were able to get in about a $43 million ad to increase the number of munitions that are producing there at Pine Bluff Arsenal. So it's a very, a very vibrant base and those are a lot of positives that are going on right now. The most recent one is that we just signed a contract with a company called Source One. And they're a company, they're going to be doing operations on the base itself. What their job is, is they're going to be manufacturing our chemical biological suits. That move that was just announced about two or three weeks ago, is going to add 75 jobs to what we're doing down there at Pine Bluff Arsenal.

Rob Ator: Then we're spending a lot of time with the folks down in Whitehall. Right now we're doing a compatible use study and I'll get into this in some greater detail cause we're doing this in several different places around the state. What a compatible use study is, is one of the things that I wanted to be able to do to try and kind of create a baseline of truly understanding what were the things that were causing issues around our installations. So a compatible use study, what it does is you hire a company to come in, they come in and they'll baseline and look at everything from compatible development or that's around the installation. The next things they do is they'll look at incompatible development.

Rob Ator: They'll also look at any kind of encroachment issues, which may be airspace and may be water and may be energy resiliency. They look at all that stuff. So now we knew really what are the things that we needed to concentrate our efforts on? So Pine Bluff, because of the mission they had before with the chemical weapons they have all these environmental permitting. And so we wanted to make sure that we're all still good in what we're currently doing with making the munitions as well as those biological suits, that we were doing things the right way. And so right now we have a compatible use study going on and now that is altogether about $400,000 to do that study. 90% of that money is coming from the federal government. That's coming from the Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment.

Rob Ator: And so they gave us that money. We had to provide 10% match, which I provided via the Military Affairs Grant Program. So we're getting a better understanding of what's going on. And you think about just to the north of Pine Bluff Arsenal, there are some other commercial development that is going on that's going to be creating some tightness on the environmental permitting. So you know, it's good to be able to understand prematurely, what kind of issues that are going to come up that we need to work.

Clark Cogbill: And so there's compatible use study going on at the Little Rock Air Force Base. Tell us about that one.

Rob Ator: Well, you bet. You know, at Little Rock that's probably well a little bit more complex just because you know the base is large, it's over 6,000 acres. But you also have all the air space concerns that go with that. You know, flying the C-130, we have military training routes that cover the entire state.

Rob Ator: So, when you bring all that into noise abatement and those kinds of issues, really it covers about 70-80% of the state and so that's a very large study. That one will be close to a half a million dollars. And so we just put that one on contract. And again, the whole point of this is to have a better understanding of what things do we need to do to take away that vulnerability for that installation. And I'm glad you brought up the compatible use study. You know, cause we're talking about Little Rock Air Force Base, and for us it is by far and away the largest installation that we have in this state. You know, we have over 6,000 almost 7,000 military members that are going to work every day at Little Rock Air Force Base. The economic impact of that base alone for Central Arkansas is over $1.2 billion.

Rob Ator: And you think about all that goes on there. It's really kind of a mini town. We have housing areas, we have shopping centers, we have hospitals.

Clark Cogbill: More like a city, right?

Rob Ator: It is, it's a little city and so it's a very large installation and we currently operate the C-130 two different variants of the airplane. And I'm sure everybody that's been anytime in the state of Arkansas, we call it the state bird cause it, C-130, it flies everywhere in this state. And Little Rock is known as home of the Herc. And we got it painted on the big hangar out there at the air base. So, anybody that flies a C-130 from around the world, they come to Little Rock. We train not only everyone that flies the C-130 in the Department of Defense, but we also train up 47 different allied nations that fly the airplane.

Rob Ator: It's a little known fact, but the largest international flying school in the world is at Little Rock Air Force Base. It's a large base, lot going on out there. So what we're trying to do is spend a lot of time working with the commanders out there at the air base and understand the things that are compromising their mission and doing some things that are positive that will take away some of those burdens. One of the big things that we're trying to do is partnerships. We're talking about intergovernmental support agreements, where you can set a contract with a city like the city of Jacksonville to come out and do some of the things that are needed to be done on an air base. For example, let's say we need to fill potholes instead of putting out a federal contract, we can contract directly with the city that operates outside.

Rob Ator: So it increases their capacity, reduces costs for the air base so everybody wins. There's a whole lot of different things that we're doing out there. And like I said the first thing that we were doing was the compatible use study. And what's really kind of unique about doing one of these compatible use study is that it's not the military that is putting on this study. It's the community that surrounds the installation that does this study. So the actual sponsor of this study is the city of Jacksonville and Mayor Bob Johnson out there. But we've brought in all the county judges and Barry Hyde and Metro plan and Entergy, and we've brought in all the partners that have a stake in making sure that base is viable. And we're all sitting around the table discussing the base. And so it's knocking down a lot of walls. So there's a communication going on because ultimately what you want is that community to look at that base and go, that's my base. That's not the air force out there, it's not the army out there, it's my base.

Clark Cogbill: Kind of makes me think of a community with a large university when they embrace that university and collaborate with that university, amazing things happen. And so on these military bases, you have highly trained, educated personnel who can come together with resources and infrastructure. And like you said, everybody wins.

Rob Ator: Well absolutely. A real good example of this is here more recently is that, one of the things that we spend a lot of time worrying about is resiliency and being able to get back in the fight in no matter what happens. And so, when you look at the base, we know some of the things that we spend time planning for and dealing with is hurricanes, tornadoes, a New Madrid earthquake. How do we get ourselves back on our feet because our nation will need us immediately and get those airplanes going so we can start moving food and people? So, one of the things we started a discussion with Entergy for example, and part of that was, that living in Jacksonville on the north side of Pulaski County, we're kind of down the stream a little bit on the power grid. So we wanted to be able to enter into an agreement to try and get some generating power in there at the air base.

Rob Ator: Entergy jumped all in. Once you brought the problem to them, they were going absolutely. And so we're in negotiations right now to create a generating capacity out there at Little Rock Air Force Base. And if the plan goes through as is certainly planned right now, the air force is going to long-term lease some land to Entergy, and Entergy is going to put that generating capacity on the air base. Which will allow us to have a 100% of the bases need of for energy at its peak, always available to them. So no matter what happens, whether that be a natural disaster of any sort, a cyber event or whatever, the air base can always be back up and going. And so, but again, that would've never happened if we weren't sitting around and discussing and talking through things. And so some of the really benefits of the compatible use study is how it's just closing the gaps cause we're talking for the first time.

Clark Cogbill: All right, so now let's shift over to the western part of the state. There's some really interesting things happening at both Edding and Fort Chaffee. Talk to us about that.

Rob Ator: Well, the first thing to bring up is that a big part of my job is to make sure that each of the installations remain viable in case there's another base realignment and closure commission, which would close military bases. This was experienced in here at Eaker Air Force Base in Blytheville and the economic impact that that created, we want to prevent that. So, most people know that Ebbing Air National Guard Base is on the Fort Smith airport, and they used to fly the F-16, they lost those airplanes during the last BRAC and we got 810's. And then in 2013 those airplanes were traded in and we took on the unmanned aerial vehicles and flying the MQ9. Now we don't have the actual aircraft, but we're operating those aircraft every day over in theater and we're not only garnering intelligence, but we're also targeting and getting after the bad guy.

Rob Ator: As it's turns out, we've adopted this mission so quickly and so well that the 188th Wing that operates those MQ9's, they are the unit of choice. So they will take someone who's been monitoring them, move them out of the way to bring in the 188 guys to come in, actually exploit that intelligence. So just doing a phenomenal job out there.

Rob Ator: A part of the 188th is another example of us where we needed to talk and put a focus on things. The 188th operates what's called Razorback range, which is an aerial gunnery range and that's located on Fort Chaffee. Which is, Fort Chaffee is only four miles from the end of the runway. In an effort to try and save some money, big air force said that they were going to close down this range. Obviously, we didn't want to do that because of all that it means for future missions, but you know, once you give something up it's hard to get it back.

Rob Ator: And their justification was that we didn't have any aircraft, but Fort Chaffee is kind of a unique place, and that is a joint regional training center. And so that range is supposed to drag in people from around this region of the country. And so we fought that. We were able to engage with our congressional delegation, and we got money to be able to keep them that range open. And then from the actual usage of the range, we went out and made sure that we were talking to the units that could potentially use the range. And we've just gone off the charts with the usage of the range. At our peak when we were, had aircraft on a Ebbing Air National Guard Base, we would fly about 700 sorties a year on Razorback range. This year we're looking at getting more than over a thousand sorties on that range and we don't have aircraft.

Rob Ator: And a lot of that is just again, putting the focus on it and going out and talking to people, marketing what we're doing out there. So now it's one of the most highly used ranges in this part of the country, so.

Clark Cogbill: Wow.

Rob Ator: Then right next door, it's like when we were talking about Ebbing's mission is now very, very classified, you know, with working the MQ9, and every day they're out there putting the hurt on the bad guys. But the thing that's kind of unique about their mission is that we've also used them, you remember back in May, at the end of May and June, we had all the flooding on the Arkansas River.

Clark Cogbill: Right.

Rob Ator: We're using that same technology that we use to monitor stuff, but we're taking Civil Air Patrol airplanes and they're just videotaping, and we're using the same equipment to make sure that we're coordinating with all the different state agencies like the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, the National Guard, and the Corps of Engineers about where we think these things are. So we're using the same skill set, the same equipment that we used to go monitor a bad guy, and we're using that to save lives here in the state of Arkansas. So it's kind of a unique capability that we have here in this state now.

Rob Ator: And then, like I said, four miles off the end of the runway is Fort Chaffee. And you know, Fort Chaffee's history is really pretty unique. It's a very large installation. It's got over 60,000 acres out there. And so we have these huge ranges, and it used to be part of the big army. They moved out and we took it over, in the Army National Guard. And then we parceled off a little portion of it, but altogether we have invested some very, very well spent money that we have the state of the art ranges. So we are trying to draw people in to be able to utilize those ranges because it's a very, very unique capability.

Rob Ator: And one of the things, I mean, just little things that I didn't know until I took this job, we have the only bridging space to the West of the Mississippi river. And what that is, we have 600 acres to the north side of the Arkansas river and the rest of Fort Chaffee is south of the river. And so army units can practice how to do the bridging operations so they can go over water, and the only place to do it in this part of the country, this half of the country is at Fort Chaffee. So it's very, very critical training space. We just cut the ribbon on a new infantry platoon range that allows both mounted and dismounted patrols to be able to, and it's all re-creatable. So we can debrief because we're videotaping it, we're listening to all the coms, and we put it all together so that we can figure out and learn from our mistakes.

Rob Ator: And so it's a very, very unique capability. And so now what we're trying to do is we just gave a Military Affairs Grant to the folks there in Fort Smith, to market those ranges in that base because we have these different units that come into Fort Chaffee, we want more of them. Every time we have, what's one of these was called exportable combat training exercises, it has an economic impact of $6 million to the city of Fort Smith. We want more of that. And then on that backside if we have more of that, then we can go and in good faith, make the argument for upgrades to infrastructure on the actual installation. And so it's really been kind of a unique challenge, but a very, very pointed and focused approach to how we do it so that we can add more value to not only the state of Arkansas but to the nation.

Clark Cogbill: So a lot of great things happening across military installations across the state. Last but not least, Camp Robinson and the MAGP Grant Camp Alliance program, which really supports our National Guard families. Give us an overview of that Gator.

Rob Ator: Well, let me back up just a second there, Clark, in that, let me explain what the MAGP is. And back in 2016 the Arkansas legislature gave AEDC a Military Affairs Grant Program. So they gave the committee $750,000 to be able to try and solve some of the problems and it's meant to leverage other monies and other grants that we get them on the federal side. So what we do is that, this program allows us to identify things that will add military value to those installations and reduce some of the burdens that they have. And so what we've done is that MAGP for Camp Robinson, it's really for the National Guard statewide, is that we want to make quality of life an issue. We want to be military friendly. We want to take care of the people that are in uniform to make sure that they can focus on mission and that we can sit there and take care of their families.

Rob Ator: And so what Camp Alliance is, is a nonprofit, but they were putting together, they applied for this grant, and we gave them some money that leveraged money from AmeriCorps, so that we have these day camps and training events for military kids. So when a soldier or an airman goes to National Guard drill, you know the one weekend a month, two weeks, a year, and in reality is quite a bit more than that. When they do that, we have trained professionals that have a program for those kids so that their parents know that their kids are being well taken care of, but on top of that, it's something that the kids, instead of just being put off on a babysitter, we're doing something productive with them. And so it's meant to take some of the burden off of the folks in uniform. And so it's been a real successful program. And so we're really excited about where that's going. And it looks to be expanding.

Clark Cogbill: You've been listening to the Arkansas Inc. podcast. To learn more about the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, log on to ArkansasEDC.com. Thanks for listening.