In 2009, the three-star general in charge of the air wars in Iraq and Afghanistan moved from the NASA-like control room at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter to a forward operating base outside Doha, Qatar.
The move was made by the U.S. Air Force chief of staff so that the general – head of Air Force Central Command – would be closer to the fight and able to ease political concerns among U.S. allies in the Gulf. But the Air Force promised that air chief, now Lt. Gen. David Goldfein, eventually would return to Shaw.
Now, with combat operations over in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan set to wind down, Sumter officials are asking when the commander will return. Their fear is that if he is reassigned to another base, his 1,400 upper-echelon staffers, now at Shaw, could move with the boss. That’s the same number of jobs as a good-sized manufacturing plant, almost equaling the 1,600 jobs that Continental Tire announced for Sumter County earlier this year.
“Shaw Air Force Base is 20 percent of our economy,” said Steve Creech, who was mayor of Sumter for 12 years and now heads the Sumter Military Affairs Committee. “We want a date certain” when the general will return.
However, that date for certain may be hard to predict, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, told The State.
“But here’s the headline, I think: ‘The (three-star) flag returns to Shaw,’ ” said Graham, senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “People in the Air Force have told me on the record (and) off the record that this is a temporary move. I don’t believe they are lying to me.”
Right now, however, Graham noted, Air Force Central Command has other things on its mind, like having to direct any future air operations against Iran, where tensions are escalating. “So I’m not going to push the Air Force to do anything beyond giving me a commitment that it will come back.”
Efforts to reach Air Force commanders were unsuccessful.
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, said he has met Air Force commanders with Graham and received the same assurances. Mulvaney unseated long-time House Armed Services Committee chairman John Spratt, a Democrat who championed Shaw for decades.
“He’s over there for a need because of the demands on the Air Force in the Middle East right now,” Mulvaney said of Lt. Gen. Goldfein. “When those demands cease to be, he will come back. I don’t know how (the Air Force) could be any more plain than that. There was no misunderstanding.
“The folks in Sumter are concerned about it. They are right to be concerned about it. But everything we’ve seen in D.C. tells me their concern is misplaced.”
Threat of Defense cuts looms
Heightening those concerns are deep, impending cuts to the United States military.
The Pentagon already has announced $487 billion in cuts over the next 10 years – mostly to the Army and Marines as ground forces are pared back because of the end of combat in Iraq and the coming draw down of troops in Afghanistan. Experts say those cuts shouldn’t have a great effect on bases in South Carolina’s four main military communities – Columbia, Sumter, Charleston and Beaufort – that, along with Upstate defense contractors, pump an estimated $16 billion annually into the state’s economy.
But another $600 billion in cuts could be required beginning Jan. 1 because of last year’s debt-ceiling standoff in Congress and the failure of a Congressional “super committee” to make $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over the next decade. That failure could trigger automatic cuts – half to the military, half to domestic spending – called sequestering, if no other compromise is found.
In anticipation of those cuts, the Pentagon has asked for another two rounds of Base Realignment and Closure – base closings called BRAC – in 2013 and 2015.
Shaw Air Force Base – home to the largest F-16 fighter contingent in the United States and the only Air Force base on the East Coast with dual runways – has survived, even thrived during base-closing rounds in 1991, 1993, 1995 and, most recently, in 2005.
In 2005, the Army announced it would move its central command, along with the Third Army headquarters, to Shaw, a move subsequently completed.
The reasoning for placing the Army and Air Force commanders who oversee operations in the Middle East and southeast Asia at Shaw was that the services needed to be located in the same base so they could better coordinate operations. It also allowed the Pentagon to shut down Fort McPherson in Atlanta.
‘There is a risk’
That cooperation between the branches, Shaw boosters say, is another reason for bringing the Air Force central commander back home.
“We have often expressed concern that this move (of moving the Air Force general from Shaw) was a violation of the intent of BRAC,” Jack Osteen, publisher of The (Sumter) Item wrote in a recent column. Osteen also serves as vice chairman of the Sumter Military Affairs Committee. “After all, the commander of the Third Army resides right here in Sumter with this family.”
Despite reassurances from Washington, state officials say nothing is certain with another round of base closings and deep defense cuts pending.
“There is a risk,” said Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, who chairs Gov. Nikki Haley’s S.C. Military Base Task Force. “We just want to avoid that risk.”