S.C. politicians howl over proposed Defense cuts

rburris@thestate.comFebruary 24, 2014 Updated 2 hours ago

FILE PHOTO: Fort Jackson graduates 50,000 soldiers every year. Nearly every Thursday of the year, families gather to see their sons and daughters finish basic training.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — The State Buy Photo

  • Effects of proposed cutbacks

    Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed military cuts Monday that could hit S.C. military bases hard.

    Training drain?

    Columbia’s Fort Jackson could see the biggest impact in South Carolina under the proposal, which would cut 80,000 active-duty troops from the Army. The base trains about 45,000 soldiers every year – half of the male soldiers and more than 60 percent of the female soldiers. If the Army drops to pre-World War II levels, it likely would need to train fewer soldiers. That could have a ripple effect throughout the Columbia and S.C. economies.

    Helicopter swap

    The plan would transfer the S.C. National Guard’s 24 Apache attack helicopters to the Army in exchange for 12 of the Army’s Black Hawk helicopters, which Maj. Gen. Bob Livingston, S.C. adjutant general, said were in poor condition. The move could cost the Guard about 170 jobs associated with the Apache choppers, Livingston said.

    Fighter jets

    Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover are on the military’s list to eventually get new F-35 fighter jets. The jets have been criticized by some in communities surrounding military bases for their potential noise pollution. However, money for the jets remains intact in the proposal.

    SOURCES: Interviews with military sources

Sweeping budget and personnel cuts proposed Monday by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel could hit hard some S.C. military bases, including Columbia’s Fort Jackson, while protecting others.

With the Army targeted to lose as many as 80,000 active-duty troops from its current 520,000-strong force, reaching its smallest size since before World II, major installations from Fort Jackson to Fort Hood, Texas, could see their operations scaled back significantly.

“There would be fewer and fewer people that require the training,” said retired Maj. Gen. William “Dutch” Holland, of the Shaw-Sumter Partnership for Progress and an adviser to the S.C. Military Base Task Force. “What South Carolina needs to do is foster itself to be ready to take all of that (infantry-training) mission here at Fort Jackson. We need to try to posture the positive aspects (of any potential downsizing).”

The proposal to shrink the world’s mightiest military comes as the United States seeks to redefine its role on the world stage, with the Iraq war over and U.S. combat in Afghanistan winding down. It also reflects the competing demands of spending restraints, national security and politics.

Fort Bragg, N.C., Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma, Wash., and Fort Campbell, Ky., likely would emerge largely unscathed from the cuts because of their specialized missions.

Hagel said he had recommended the realignment plan to President Barack Obama, who is expected to present his annual budget to Congress next week.

“This is the first time in 13 years we will be presenting a budget to the Congress of the United States that’s not a war-footing budget,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.

Maj. Gen. Bob Livingston, S.C. adjutant general, who oversees the S.C. Army National Guard and Air National Guard, is “very disappointed” in the plan.

“It places the nation at unnecessary risk, especially in the size of our land forces,” he said.

The proposal recommends reducing the size of the Army National Guard to 335,000 troops from 355,000 by 2017 and decreasing the number of Army Reservists to 195,000 from 205,000 in the same period.

“The National Guard is a proven entity,” Livingston said. “It brings a cost-effective solution to mitigating risk, and that is being ignored by the institutional military.”

At times during the 10-year Iraq war, the National Guard accounted for more than 50 percent of the “boots on the ground,” Livingston said.

Gov. Nikki Haley, whose husband recently returned from a year in Afghanistan as a National Guard member, also expressed disappointment in the plan.

“Look at what you’re telling all of these soldiers across the country that they left their businesses, they left their families to go serve their country,” she said. “You’re going to hollow out the National Guard? It is really a slap in the face to anyone who in the past decade has served multiple times and left their life to do this.”

Haley said the active-duty military has not felt the pain the National Guard has felt.

“Let’s be very clear: There are a lot of places you can cut in Washington. The National Guard is not one of those that has to be on the priority list.”

Haley was in Washington over the weekend for annual governors’ meetings, including a White House dinner hosted by Obama.

Haley said the president’s tone with the governors changed when talking about proposed Guard cuts. “It automatically went into an almost aggressive nature by him implying that, ‘Many of you wanted cuts. That’s what you said you wanted. Don’t start coming in and now complaining that these cuts are affecting you because you said you wanted it, and now you’re going to get it and you have to live with it.’”

The Pentagon plan reflects ongoing budget pressures in Washington amid partisan struggles over the proper size of government.

Obama’s aides indicated Hagel’s plan would get a warm reception at the White House. “The recommendations fit and represent a responsible, realistic approach to supporting the president’s defense strategy,” press secretary Jay Carney said.

Hagel is recommending a 1 percent pay increase for military and civilian employees to match an increase that White House aides said Obama will seek for all federal workers after a three-year wage freeze.

Despite congressional demands to cut overall Pentagon spending, lawmakers almost certainly will oppose hits on installations in their states and resist Hagel’s call for a new round of base closings.

“This is another dumb idea,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, an S.C. Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was deputy chief of staff for operations and training during his Army tenure, said the Obama administration is balancing the need to cut spending in the wake of two major wars with the continuing need to keep Americans safe.

“A reduction in the size of the Army can be in line with U.S. national interests and address national security priorities,” Eaton said. “However, inherent with such reductions, risk goes up, and we owe it to our troops to mitigate that risk.”

Staff writers Andrew Shain and Jamie Self contributed.

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