Shaw commander tells Sumter business leaders sequestration will hurt

bmarchant@theitem.comMay 9, 2013 

The commander’s breakfast is meant to highlight the bond between Shaw Air Force Base and the surrounding community. On Wednesday, Maj. Gen. Lawrence Wells focused on what it would mean if that bond breaks.

Most of the 9th Air Force commander’s address to the breakfast crowd at the Carolina Skies Club on base, organized by the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce, focused on the effects Shaw is already experiencing from sequestration, federal budget cuts that went into effect in March, and further cuts that could come into effect in the future.

Wells informed his audience that 2,300 civilian employees of Air Force installations in South Carolina face up to two weeks of unpaid furloughs this year, which could remove $11.3 million from the state economy. Shaw could see an even bigger reduction in its impact on the local economy as the base spends less money on maintenance and other services.

“If I’m walking around and I see a pipe leaking, I have to wait for that pipe to burst before I can fix it,” Wells said. “It’s better to maintain things, but now if something breaks, we have to wait until there’s money to fix it, and we’re probably going to be there for the next couple years.”

Shaw has cut flying hours for its pilots by 18 percent because of sequestration, after previously reducing hours by 25 percent in anticipation of reductions in funding. Wells said the $14 billion worth of cuts to the Air Force budget this year is forcing a change in the service’s culture of readiness.

“Every other service does tiered readiness,” he said. “But if I told you to deploy today, you’d be prepared for six months.”

But with sequestration, Wells fears that quick-response capacity will be degraded. Some airmen are now on basic readiness, which means they can deploy within 30 to 45 days. Squadrons that are currently grounded could deploy in 60 to 90 days.

“So if something in Korea happens, we’ll need them to give us 60 to 90 day’s notice,” Wells said.

If nothing changes, the general said next year could be worse. The defense budget will now be capped at $475 billion, he said, but projected expenses for fiscal year 2014 are already $527 billion.

Others at the commander’s breakfast also talked up the importance of Shaw to the Sumter area.

“Our chamber and our community have always had a good relationship with Shaw,” said Pete Flanagan, chairman of the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce.

Former Sumter Mayor Steve Creech, who works with the city on base relations, said Wells and his wife have been active members of the local community since Wells took command of the 9th Air Force in October 2011.

“I’ve been doing military relations for 25 years, and I haven’t seen an officer more times than Cathy and Larry Wells,” Creech said, before turning to the major general and adding, “I realize why you have those two stars.”

Besides sequestration, Wells also raised the threat of a future round of base realignment and closings (BRAC), which he expects to begin in 2015.

“The Pacific is where the focus is now,” Wells said. “Europe used to have 18 Air Force bases, and now it has three, so everything’s been cut there that can be.”

When BRAC begins looking for savings in the future, “They’re not going to be looking at Europe or the Pacific, they’re going to be looking here in the continental U.S.”

The uncertainty over the future can affect decisions airmen make today, such as whether they buy a house in the community where they’re based instead of renting.

“When the short term is so uncertain, they’re less willing to invest in the long term,” he said.

The short-term effects of sequestration could have a long-term effect on the military as well.

“I’ve heard people say they won’t stay in the military,” he said. “If the economy were doing better on the outside, I expect we would see more people leave.”

Reach Bristow Marchant at (803) 774-1272.

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