Base, community pillar reflects on service

After 40 years in civil service, Porter spends the next 20 (and counting) as an ambassador of the China Lake mission

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Base, community pillar reflects on serviceWhen the China Lake Alliance Board of Directors held its off-site meeting on Jan. 5, longtime Director Bill Porter observed a significant milestone in his service to the Navy, China Lake and the community.

“I went to work on base Jan. 5, 1953, and retired Jan. 5, 1993,” said Porter. “So it had been 20 years since my retirement, and 60 years since my first day. Of course, if you start adding those numbers up, you figure out that I’m really old.”

But his energetic representation of China Lake these last two decades stands in sharp contrast with his numerical age. Porter is credited by many of his alliance counterparts with playing a critical role in the formation of the group that has supported and lobbied on behalf of the Navy’s local mission.

Porter moved to China Lake right out of college and went to work as a junior professional in the Ballistics Division — which focused mostly on the ballistic trajectories of rockets.

One of the first major programs he worked on was the Shrike missile, which he was involved in since its inception. Several years later he was manager of the program. His subsequent promotions included those to head the Weapons Department and the Range Directorate. Eventually he became technical director.

“I was really blessed to have gone from an entry-level job to holding the top civilian position at China Lake,” said Porter.

It was in that role that he encountered what were fundamental changes to the organization of China Lake. Although the change of command and even the names of the base have shifted as its mission has evolved, the change that had the biggest impact to the structure was regionalization.

Now the main tenant of China Lake, Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, is under the Naval Air Systems Command (headquartered in Maryland) while the commanding officer for the Naval Air Weapons Station, the facility itself, is under authority of San Diego-based leadership.

“The work environment has changed a great deal since that has given China Lake less autonomy than we had in the old days, we have certainly seen an increase in the bureaucracy, but current leadership will probably tell you that has improved the collaboration between us and our counterparts at Point Mugu and Pax River.”

But an undeniably positive change has been in the relationship between the base and the community, said Porter.

“I think that was helped in part when the China Lake employees moved to Ridgecrest,” he said.

“The community support for and recognition of the base mission is as strong as it has ever been.” Citizens recognize the value not only of protecting an engine that drives the local economy, but of a facility that plays a critical role in national defense, he said.

Porter has been an ambassador in rallying support in the community, but also carrying that message to the policymakers who determine how the Navy funds its missions, especially during Base Realignment and Closure processes.

“During BRAC ’95 there was a community effort to support China Lake. I don’t know if there was an official name, but it was headed up by Jack Connell and had a lot of businesspeople like John Parlet (founder of John’s Pizza) as well.”

After the outcome, local supporters realized that they should have gotten involved earlier, said Porter. “The local group did a good job, but it was late in the game and there really wasn’t time to line up involvement at the state level.”

In the intervening years a community support effort — originally an offshoot of IWV 2000 — functioned under the name of the China Lake Defense Alliance. That group stayed active, so when legislation for BRAC 2005 was passed in 2003, a network of contacts was already in place in the county, state and national levels.

Phil Arnold was chair of the effort, and he and Porter made numerous trips to Washington, D.C., and locations across the southwest to educate congressmen and other leaders on the importance of preserving the China Lake mission.

“Almost all communities that have a military base have a group like this,” said Porter. “One of the challenges for us has been that some of those others are extremely well-funded.” The local alliance relies on primarily on membership dues and business contributions for support.

The group also received two state grants for about $100,000, as well as county funds through the efforts of former Kern County 1st District Supervisor Jon McQuiston.

Although China Lake employees are forbidden from any active lobbying for the local mission, that cause was taken up by the alliance — supported by elected officials, schools, businesses and other agencies. With nearly 1,000 new billets and $250 million in new construction gained as an outcome of the 2005 BRAC, the effort was deemed a success.

About five years ago, a group of community and base leaders, through the leadership of Jack Connell, determined that a community-based organization needed to continue. That reenergized the group, which began again under the name of China Lake Alliance. Mick Gleason — a former commanding officer of NAWS and newly elected Kern County 1st District supervisor — was named executive director, and served as the face of the organization for four years.

“One of the things he has done really well brought in really great speakers to speak to the membership, and we’ve opened those meetings up to the community.”

These speakers include former NAWCWD commanders now serving in the Pentagon, current China Lake leadership (military and civilian) and several politicians in higher offices.

In addition to local elected officials Rep. Kevin McCarthy, State Sen. Jean Fuller and Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, the alliance has also brought in Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico, and Reps. Buck McKeon and Duncan Hunter Jr. — the chair and a member, respectively, of the House Armed Services Committee.

“During all of those visits the base does a really great job of briefing everyone on their mission and giving them a tour that shows some of the important things China Lake does,” said Porter.

“So the focus of the alliance remains the same — to support the mission of the base and make sure people know the importance.”

Porter said that legislation for a new BRAC is the kind of crisis that sharpens the focus of the group and attracts support for the effort. “What you have to be careful about is Department of Defense cuts that are made across the board. We had a lot of those in the 1990s, which was really when the base workforce started declining.”

He said while a BRAC is not a perfect process, it is a method of assessing value and making decision. “When you look at that value to the military, China Lake always comes out on top. But if you take 10 percent from everyone across the board, they don’t necessarily consider that value.

“I can’t say that I’m a fan of BRAC, but it’s those other cuts that don’t demand attention that we really need to be concerned about.”

Porter said that he and other boardmembers were strategizing how to face those challenges at their off-site meeting. Among the board’s decisions that day was to name Eileen Shibley as the new executive director. See related story, this issue, for her vision for the alliance.

Story First Published: 2013-01-16