Military News

Delayed base closings little comfort for SC military

A new round of military base closings could be delayed two years until 2017, members of the S.C. Military Base Task Force said Wednesday.

The development may not be good news for South Carolina due to its strong political support for the military and recent history of benefitting from realignment.

Meanwhile, across-the-board military cuts triggered by last year’s debt-ceiling debacle by Congress — called the sequester — are starting to have more a profound effect on South Carolina’s bases, particularly Sumter’s Shaw Air Force Base, where a third of its F-16 fighter jets have been grounded.

The challenges also come at time when the task force, appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to protect the military’s $16 billion economic impact on the state, is in transition. Haley moved it from the Comptroller General’s office, an independent elected office, to the Department of Commerce, a Cabinet agency. The task force also has a new chairman appointed by Haley earlier this month and new executive coordinator approved Wednesday.

New chairman Bill Bethea, a Bluffton attorney and former Marine Corps captain, said the move to Commerce makes sense from an economic standpoint.

“It’s a better fit because it’s in the business of economic development,” he said, noting that Commerce also would expand the task force’s mission to court and keep defense contractors. “We’re creating a focus on that component.”

After a brief executive session, Charlie Farrell of Columbia, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot who is director of Commerce’s Aerospace Task Force, was named executive coordinator, effective July 1. Present coordinator William “Dutch” Holland of Sumter, a retired Air Force two-star general, will stay on after July 1 as a senior adviser.

“Charlie Farrell has a wealth of experience in military matters and his assistance and leadership will be a tremendous asset,” Bethea said. “With the looming defense budget cuts, the work of our group will be important as we prepare for possible base closures here and in other states.”

The military faces $500 billion in across-the-board cuts over the next 10 years. Those reductions are part of the $1.2 trillion in overall sequester cuts — half to the military, half to domestic spending. They come on top of $487 billion in reductions already targeted for the Pentagon. Together, the cuts equal about 18 percent of the 2012 defense budget.

For more than a year, President Obama and the Pentagon have been asking for rounds of base closings and realignments in both 2015 and 2017. That’s a more thoughtful way to trim the defense budget, experts say, but Congress has been unwilling to call for one.

During the process, which is called BRAC, a bipartisan panel studies potential options for closures and then presents its recommendations for a vote of Congress. Task force executive committee member George Goldsmith of Columbia, a retired two-star general, said BRAC would be more equitable because states and communities would have a chance to make cases for their bases.

“The public would have a say,” he said.

For many members of Congress, however, BRAC is politically dangerous, experts say. Faced with losing bases through BRAC, they would rather let the president and Pentagon take the heat for meeting the across-the-board cuts they have mandated though the sequester.

Those cuts already are taking a toll:

•  Nearly 2,000 civilian workers are being furloughed at the state’s eight military installations.

•  One of three squadrons of F-16 jets at Shaw — about 20 aircraft — have been grounded through September. It will take a full month for the planes and their pilots to get back to flying readiness, the Air Force has said.

•  Nearly all building maintenance at military bases here — such as painting and plumbing upgrades — is being deferred.

•  Air shows at Shaw and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort have been canceled.

•  Fort Jackson is considering closing its Leesburg Road gate because of the furlough of security guards.

•  Shaw already has closed its community center, is privatizing its officer’s club and is considering closing its new library.

•  And all flyovers, such as those at football games and patriotic events, have been canceled.

Task force member Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, South Carolina’s adjutant general and commander of the S.C. National Guard, said the sequester is ill-advised. “It was not a smart thing to do,” he said.

Protecting S.C.’s military

Several developments have occurred that will affect the defense of the state’s military bases and defense industries, worth $16 billion annually.

Another round of base closing and realignments, called BRAC, is expected to be pushed back from 2015 to perhaps 2017.

The military task force has been moved to the Department of Commerce from the Comptroller General’s office.

The task force has a new chairman, Bluffton attorney Bill Bethea, and new executive coordinator, Charlie Farrell of Columbia.

“Sequester” cuts are more deeply affecting S.C. bases, including possible closure of the Leesburg Road gate at Fort Jackson, closure of the community center at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and cancellation of the annual air show in Beaufort.