The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce has begun a petition campaign to collect signatures in support of Fort Jackson, which could face drastic employee cuts as the Army draws down after 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Army has asked the fort’s commander, Maj. Gen. Bradley Becker, to prepare for a worst-case scenario of losing 3,100 of its 7,000 full-time employees at the nation’s largest basic combat training base. The fort has an annual economic impact on the Midlands of about $2.6 billion a year.
The chamber started the petition in response to that request, as well as a letter-writing campaign and other efforts to show public and political support for the fort in the face of the proposed cuts.
“We’ve got to get people energized,” retired Maj. Gen. George Goldsmith of the Chamber’s military affairs committee told members of the S.C. Military Base Task Force on Wednesday. “We’re going to reach out to every segment of the community.”
Fort Jackson today trains 54 percent of the Army’s soldiers – about 47,000 a year. That is more than the Army’s three other training bases – Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and Fort Sill, Okla. – combined.
The Army reached a peak of about 570,000 soldiers in 2010 and could go as low as 420,000 by 2017 if deep budget cuts mandated by the U.S. Budget Control Act of 2011 – called the sequester – are not changed by Congress.
Becker told task force members he doubted that the cuts would be as deep as 3,100. “Our ability to conduct basic combat training would be almost eliminated,” he said.
The general added that with enough public support and political pressure, Fort Jackson could, perhaps, pick up basic combat training missions now at Benning, Sill or Leonard Wood.
“Where are (Pentagon officials ) going to see the most resistance?” he said.
Fort Jackson houses nine battalions of soldiers in training, Becker said, and is building barracks for two more battalions. A battalion has up to 1,200 soldiers.
“We can increase capacity,” Becker told the task force’s executive committee, which is appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to protect and expand missions at installations in the state’s four military communities – Columbia, Sumter, Charleston and Beaufort. “There’s an opportunity here.”
Fort Jackson was initially not on the list for targeted cuts when the Army was expected to shrink to 490,000, because training is considered a vital mission. But it and other smaller installations were added to prepare for the deeper cuts mandated by the sequester – cuts the military says would cause it to change its entire national defense structure and strategy.
To meet those cuts, the Pentagon likely will ask for another round of Base Realignment and Closure, called BRAC, as early as 2017. The Army is now collecting public input during a public comment period that runs through the end of August in preparation for a new round of BRAC.
The petition cites a report by Columbia’s Pentagon lobbyist, Cassidy & Associates, which terms the 3,100 number a “worst-case scenario” that would be “devastating to the Midlands.”
It anticipates that the loss of 3,100 jobs would cause over the next five years:
• A regional population loss of 7,733 people, including direct and indirect employees and their families.
• A reduction of $286 million in sales, including sales taxes of $3.3 million.
“We’ve got to be sure the people of this community understand the impact of Fort Jackson,” Goldsmith said.