A s the U.S. Department of Defense kicks off its Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, recommending 63 major military facilities for realignment, closure and consolidation, a little-noticed and potentially more significant move has been proposed.

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is slated to be carved up and moved out of Northern Virginia. Of all the BRAC recommendations, none is likely to deliver such a vast, immediate blow to national security. Under current plans a small Washington headquarters staff would move to Fort Belvior, Va., while several thousand of the remaining government and contractor program management and technical staff would shift to Huntsville, Ala.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.; Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.; and Los Angeles Air Force Base. Ostensibly, this is proposed in the name of security and economic efficiency. The plan would move the MDA outside the beltway and out of leased commercial offices that do not comply with the Defense Department’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, facility security requirements. The department claims this move would save $359 million over 20 years.

On the surface, the security issue sounds prudent. The MDA sits atop a hill overlooking the Pentagon in a facility historically known as the Navy Annex. My office overlooked the side of the Pentagon that was struck by the airliner flown by the Sept. 11 terrorists. That jet flew over the Navy Annex before crashing into the Pentagon. While moving the MDA outside the Washington metro area may make sense, widely dispersing its employees does not.

The supposed economic efficiencies are penny-wise and pound-foolish. New buildings will need to be built to house the agency in six different states. The lack of a central location will require more travel. Add to this the cost of building and operating an elaborate enterprise information management system to foster a collaborative work environment across the multiple facilities.

The $359 million in projected savings over 20 years amounts to about $18 million a year. An agency with an annual budget of about $8 billion could certainly deliver similar efficiencies without such a disruptive move.

But beyond the cost issue, consider the near-term priorities. The MDA must complete the development and fielding of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense and Aegis ballistic missile defense systems. The MDA also needs to demonstrate the technical capabilities of the Army’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense system and the Air Force’s Airborne Laser, and initiate the development of the Kinetic Energy Interceptor and other advanced systems, all while integrating them into the planned ballistic missile defense system. No single location outside the Washington metropolitan area can offer this level of jointness. The MDA needs to focus on these priorities now, while North Korea continues to threaten its neighbors as well as the United States. The MDA needs to field these systems reliably before other nations, such as Iran and others, can threaten our forces, our friends and our homeland.

The department’s proposed BRAC-inspired moves are wrong both in timing and effect. Even if the agency does not move until the 2008-2009 time frame, the effect on people will be immediate. During the next three years, when the integrated missile defense system should be deployed in its initial spirals using ground- and sea-based defenses, MDA leaders and work force will be distracted by the prospect of uprooting itself and moving.

The ability to coordinate, communicate and focus on executing critical missile defense programs will be undermined as people focus on their own “here-and-now” issues of whether or not they move or take new jobs. Typically, only a small fraction of the work force moves following a BRAC decision. The MDA’s leaders will discover that the best and brightest will quickly find other jobs in the Northern Virginia area.

Rear Adm. Wayne Meyer, the architect of the U.S. Navy’s Aegis weapon system, has often noted that, “The system reflects the organization that built it.” An organization that is effectively led, coherently organized, populated with quality people and strongly focused on execution is more likely to develop and field effective weapon systems. The converse is true as well.

If the admiral’s sage advice rings true, what would a missile defense system built by such a perversely organized and managed agency look like? How could such a structure execute the program and build the world’s most complex system in an effective and integrated manner?

In any organization or endeavor, success comes down to the people who do the work. I have had the privilege to occupy missile defense leadership positions dating back to the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization. I know the quality, dedication, technical competence and tireless sacrifice of these wonderful people. Their dedication to service deserves that we reciprocate, that our leaders lead.

As the BRAC Commission considers myriad facilities and bases recommended for realignment or closure, it must pay special attention to the disposition of the MDA. The commission must weigh the physical security and economic issues against the national security challenge, and the likely impact this will have on the MDA’s ability to field those systems needed in times of national emergency.

Failure to do what is right, right now, may leave the United States largely defenseless for the foreseeable future against existing and emerging threats from missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction.

Robert Snyder was executive director of the Missile Defense Agency from 1998 to 2004.