The military could be in the crosshairs after the November election with the president – whether it is Democrat Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney – having to trim the nation’s $1 trillion-plus budget deficit.
South Carolina – home to more than 62,000 military personnel and seven major bases with an annual economic impact of $15 billion – has much at stake.
Cuts could start in January with $1.2 trillion slated to be cut from the federal budget over a decade – half coming from defense. Also, another round of base closings is expected, though closings have been taken off the table for next year.
“We’re already seeing impact on installations with planned cuts,” said William Holland, a retired two-star Air Force general who heads the S.C. Military Base Task Force. Some routine maintenance work might be done less frequently, using military labor instead of using contractors, for example, he said.
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Both presidential candidates have said they support more help for veterans, including those returning from recent wars, and unclogging the backlog of Veterans Affairs cases.
But while the politicians debate where new defense threats and priorities lie, some experts warn that voters have other priorities this election. “The focus remains the economy, health care and big government,” University of South Carolina political scientist Robert Oldendick said.
Where the candidates stand
The 2012 election has seen a bit of a switch in defense talk.
Democrats, usually seen as weaker on national security issues, have a stronger hand than usual this year because of the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden – a theme that was hammered during the Democratic National Convention.
“The president has inoculated himself somewhat,” said Mark Tompkins, a University of South Carolina political scientist.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, the state’s only Democrat in Congress, says fellow Democrat Obama has “demonstrated time and time again that he wants a strong national security presence.”
But the president also recognizes that defense spending needs to adapt to the end of the Iraq war and draw down of the Afghanistan war, Clyburn says.
“We looking for a lean, mean military machine,” Clyburn said. “If you can see where they can improve, why not improve?”
Romney has been clear that he plans to give military spending a greater portion of the nation’s economy to deter enemies from even thinking about attacking U.S. interests.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said a stronger military force is needed to protect Israel, prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and combat the growth of radical Islam that is threatening the Middle East.
“The differences (between the candidates) are very stark,” said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services committee. “We’re sitting on sidelines in Mideast. We’re leading from behind. We’re not helpless victims here.”
Romney also would ensure the rollout of the next generation of aircraft, including the F-35 jets slated to replace F-16s at S.C. bases, Graham said.
But questions remain about how Romney would cut the federal deficit – as he promises – while growing the military, said Laura Peterson, national security analyst for the Washington-based budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Based on previous budgets, Peterson said she expects Obama would continue to increase military spending, but at lower rates than in the years since 9/11. She predicts the president’s reductions won’t put a huge dent in the decade-long military build up.
“Neither (candidate) is going to significantly change the mission of defense. We’re talking percentage points,” she said. “You have to keep the big picture in these ‘increases’ and ‘decreases.’ Everyone in the military knows there’s excess capacity and there’s a changing nature of warfare. But the idea that bases across the state will go up in puff of smoke or companies that have (Defense Department) contracts will go broke will not happen.”
More base closings?
Still the specter remains that S.C. bases will have to withstand another round of base closures – a game of musical chairs every few years that creates hand-wringing in communities.
Ike McLeese, president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, says the Pentagon will cut bases – it is just a matter of when.
The Obama administration postponed a base-closing round set to start next year, a move that some analysts considered a calculated to ease fears and pacify voters in an election year.
McLeese said the next set of base closings could come in 2015 with an Obama re-election or 2016 with a win by Romney, who from an “academic standpoint” would need to make military cuts to lower the deficit despite his promises to bolster defense spending.
South Carolina was a winner in the last round of closings, especially at Shaw Air Base, which added 2,500 new personnel when the Sumter base gained the Third Army headquarters.
McLeese said he and other state leaders are ready to plead the state’s base case again. But both Graham and Clyburn say the Parris Island Marine training depot near Beaufort could be threatened in a new round of base cuts. In an elimination contest, it could face off with the Marine training base in San Diego.
A Romney victory could give a plus to Republican South Carolina.
“Sen. Graham has some leverage to use as he will with whatever program he decides to embrace,” Tompkins said.
But, even in second Obama term, “Sen. Graham is strong enough to protect South Carolina,” Tompkins predicted.
A sense of what military spending will look like in the next four years should become clear soon after the election.
A lame-duck Congress must weigh what to do about forced decade-long budget cuts before the first $100 billion has to be trimmed in January.
Those deliberations will be colored by who wins on Nov. 6, analysts agree. Regardless, veteran benefits and military pay have been exempted from the so-called “sequestration” cuts.
A Romney victory could slow some defense spending reductions, while an Obama re-election could mean slimmer military spending unless the president can win an end to Bush-era income tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 a year.
“It’s awful to use the men and women on the military to say, ‘We’ll fix sequestration if you raise taxes,’ ” Graham said. “I am not willing hold them hostage for taxes. They are not there to defend Republicans. They’re there to defend the country.”
But Clyburn and others predict Congress will find a solution to the required sequestration cuts that avoids drastic budget hacks. “I’m hearing a lot of scare tactics,” Clyburn said.
It’s possible that the end of some fear – bin Laden’s death and the end of the wars – will cause voters to focus elsewhere, said Peterson of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “It’s going to give people a chance to consider the budget crunch and whether we need to take a good look at defense spending.”