COLUMBIA, SC — The first F-35B fighter jets will begin arriving in June at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufor, with the first class of pilots beginning training in the fall, authorities Wednesday told the Military Base Task Force in Columbia.
The jets could give the air station an advantage in the face of potential military budget cuts and base closings that could occur as the U.S. military reduces its size following 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We think (the arrival of the jets) positions Beaufort extremely well,” said Jim Wegmann, a new executive committee member on the Task Force.
Across-the-board cuts mandated by Congress as a result of the 2011 debt ceiling fight, called the sequester, will kick in automatically if they aren’t repealed by 2016. And the military likely will ask Congress for permission to conduct another round of base closings as early as next year.
South Carolina officials have been working to put the state in a position to weather the cuts and possibly gain missions as bases in other parts of the country close. Keeping the military strong in South Carolina is important because it pumps nearly $16 billion into the state’s economy each year.
The state has been working to pass military friendly initiatives – such as tax breaks for military homeowners – that the Department of Defense takes into consideration when deciding which bases to close.
With the jets moving into Beaufort and other assets, such as military operating areas off the coast, military officials feel confident at least that base will be in a strong position.
The station eventually will have two training squadrons and three operational squadrons, Wegmann said. And every F-35B Marine pilot will be trained in Beaufort, he said.
The first class of eight to 10 pilots will begin training in the fall, said Col. Bill Lieblein. In a few years, as operations are slowly ramped up, Lieblein expects about 70 pilots a year to be trained in Beaufort and up to 88 jets eventually could be based at the station.
Training will take between eight and 10 months from when pilots arrive, generating a lot of officers coming through Beaufort, he said.
Other countries could train pilots at the Beaufort facility, as well, with British pilots already set to train there for the initial few years, he said.
The potential for military bases to close was a concern for representatives from military communities across the state during the Military Base Task Force Executive Committee.
Just last week, the Department of Defense told Fort Jackson to prepare for cuts of up to 3,100 jobs – nearly half of its civilian and military workforce – as a precautionary measure. Other installations throughout the nation also were asked to assess the impact that deep cuts would have on their communities, but not all bases will have job cuts that severe.
Members of the executive committee discussed strategies such as using partnerships with public and private entities to reduce operating and service costs for the military installations.
“What we need to do is try to find ways that we can help our installations run more cost effectively,” chairman William Bethea Jr. said after the meeting.
That way when bases are under review, it will show management is being prudent, he said.
Retired Maj. Gen. George Goldsmith said the base is trying to get the Army’s Sexual Harassment Assault Response & Prevention program to be located at Fort Jackson, which could help combat the sting of the potential cuts.
Stephen Creech, of the Sumter Chamber of Commerce, said the threat of base closings can be leveraged to help change communities where military installations are located.
He said in the early ’90s when bases were under review, Sumter passed countywide zoning in light of encroachment concerns with Shaw Air Force Base.
“You use this to make the community better,” Creech said.
Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.