SC military commanders: Budget battles have us in 'reaction mode’

jwilkinson@thestate.comOctober 23, 2013 

Military leaders from bases across the state complained to Gov. Nikki Haley on Wednesday afternoon that budget cuts and ongoing fights over the federal budget are hurting their ability to complete their missions.

At Shaw Air Force Base, the commander of the 20th Fighter Wing, has seen one of his three squadrons of F-16 fighter jets grounded and maintenance on them frozen. He has had to cut training for his pilots. And as installation commander he has had to close the base library, find ways to privatize the golf course and the officers club and even stop cutting the grass.

“We are down to an emergency worker situation … reaction mode,” Col. Clay Hall said at a meeting of the S.C. Military Base Task Force.

Haley said she would take that message to Capitol Hill and the Pentagon in Washington in January when she goes to meet with the state’s delegation and other officials.

“It’s a scary time for military installations because … they have no stability coming out of Washington,” Haley said. “They have no certainty on what’s going to happen.”

The military pumps $16 billion into South Carolina’s economy each year, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce. And the across-the-board cuts caused by last year’s debt ceiling debacle, and furloughs from the recent government shutdown have a ripple effect, particularly in the state’s four main military communities – Columbia, Sumter, Charleston and Beaufort.

Fort Jackson, for instance, has 3,500 civilian workers, who collectively are paid $155 million annually. Shaw employs another 1,340 civilian workers with a payroll of $59 million.

When those civilian employees are furloughed, they don’t spend as much money on dining out, gas, entertainment or even necessities like groceries.

But in addition to the financial impact, the cuts and shutdown have affected the military’s ability to do its job.

“I can’t patrol Charleston Harbor as much as I would like,” said Capt. Ric Rodriguez of Coast Guard Section Charleston.

Rodriguez added that if the governor had wanted to meet last week “I wouldn’t have been able to come to this meeting.”

The task force was formed during the Mark Sanford administration to protect the state’s installations from the 2005 round of base relocation and closures, called BRAC. Fort Jackson and Shaw both did very well in that round.

Fort Jackson, the nation’s largest military training base, gained missions such as the national Drill Sergeants School. Shaw picked up Third Army, the logistics and planning arm for military actions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

The task force’s main concern is to prepare the bases for another round, which could come as soon as 2015.

Col. Steve Yackley of Fort Jackson said that he doesn’t think that the installation would lose ground in any new round of BRAC, but because of a drawdown in the military it could be training fewer soldiers.

“Training will be protected to some degree,” he said. “But by (2016) and beyond I could foresee some reductions.”

Col. Lex Brown of Beaufort’s Parris Island Recruit Depot, the Marine’s East coast training facility, echoed that view.

“You can’t have a Marine Corps without Marines,” he said.

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