The group working to keep Beaufort’s military installations off the chopping block said base closures remain a possibility, even as the $85 billion sequestration cuts begin taking effect.
Jon Rembold of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Military Enhancement Committee said a federal budget proposal due out next month is expected to call for another Base Realignment and Closure process, or BRAC, in 2015.
“The topic of BRAC has not gone off the table,” Rembold said Tuesday. “We still hear from our consultants in D.C. that that is being discussed.”
Another round of base closures also is possible in 2017, according to retired Col. Jack Snider, committee chairman.
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The committee, which received a $50,000 infusion Monday from the S.C. Military Task Force, advocates for Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Naval Hospital Beaufort and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island locally and in Washington.
That money is in addition to financial commitments from Beaufort County government and other municipalities within the county.
While base closures are a long-term threat, short-term challenges posed by the budget gridlock in Washington could also affect the bases.
For instance, a defense bill under consideration in Congress could blunt some of the impact of sequestration cuts, Snider said. But those budget cuts could be compounded if that bill fails.
“Our worst-case situation for our military, as a whole, is sequestration plus a yearlong continuing (budget) resolution,” Snider told Beaufort County Council on Monday.
“Hopefully, by next Friday, we will be able to report ... that a defense bill has been approved for fiscal year 2013. That doesn’t erase sequestration — we will still deal with that — but it does give reprogramming capabilities to the services and reduces the pain.”
In other words, money could be spread to where it’s needed most, Rembold said, something that’s not possible under the current budget.
The sequester took effect March 1. It requires the government to find $85 billion in budget cuts by Sept. 30.
Capt. Jordan Cochran, spokesman for MCAS Beaufort, said the base is not yet feeling the effects of the cuts.
“We will continue to inform everyone, including our civilian employees, of everything we know when we know it,” he said Tuesday. “We are one team here, and (the commanding officer) takes that very seriously. We will work through this as one team.”
Although BRAC poses a new set of risks — namely the loss of one or more local bases — Rembold believes Beaufort is well-positioned to avoid any closures.
For instance, Rembold expects MCAS Beaufort will have the F-35B fighter-jet training program running soon, which will bring new pilots to the area full time. Three F-35 fighter squadrons also will be stationed at the base.
“We are optimistic that this makes us a hard target for BRAC,” he said, adding that Parris Island’s history and its value as an “ideal training area” also bode well.
There’s also a chance that the Beaufort bases could emerge larger after BRAC, Rembold says.
“While many people focus on the “C” — closure — we like to concentrate on the “R” — realignment,” he said, noting that other bases in the area were converted into joint military bases during previous rounds of base closures.
“Maybe we’ll have a realignment and we gain from it.”