South Carolina's military communities are bracing for an uncertain future after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday called for deep cuts to the Army in 2015.
While Fort Jackson in Columbia - where more than 45,000 recruits are trained annually - is the obvious target, Charleston's and other installations also may be in the cross hairs since Hagel also called for a new round of base-closure reviews in 2017.
Still, the decision on rekindling a Base Realignment and Closure Commission depends on Congress, which has delayed the assessments in recent years in the interest of protecting jobs at home.
Hagel on Monday proposed reducing the Army to its smallest force-size since before World War II as part of a broad reshaping in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During a press conference, Hagel said the Defense Department should adapt to shrinking budgets, technological gains and the need for a more nimble force.
"We are repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future: new technologies, new centers of power and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable and in some instances more threatening to the United States," he said during a speech from the Pentagon.
The active-duty Army would shrink from its current 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 under Hagel's plan.
Other cuts in Hagel's budget include eliminating the Air Force's fleet of A-10 "Warthog" aircraft, as well as the U-2 spy plane.
The immediate concern in South Carolina is what happens to Fort Jackson, where 50 percent of all the soldiers and 70 percent of the women entering the Army receive their basic training each year, making it the largest such base among the Army's such installations.
George Goldsmith, chairman of the military affairs committee for the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said the reductions are difficult to gauge now since there's a question about whether decreased recruiting or increased retirement would be the preferred goal.
But he added if the need for recruits dips significantly, then Fort Jackson and Columbia could be forced to alter their scope in some way, including in terms of personnel, buying local supplies and even in how families fill hotels for class graduations. "If they start reducing the number of people trained, it will definitely be felt in the community right quick," he said.
While the number of full-time Army troop numbers would be reduced in Hagel's plan, so would the allocations for the National Guard. His budget shrinks the force from 358,000 nationwide to about 315,000.
There are more than 9,400 soldiers in the S.C. National Guard assigned to more than 60 armories. Plus there are more than 1,100 airmen and women in the S.C. Air National Guard.
State and local officials have long been preparing for the threat of military cuts here and the possible return of a BRAC review after the particularly heavy hit that the region absorbed in the 1990s with the closing of the Naval Base and Shipyard. More than 20,000 jobs were lost, according to some estimates. Last year, the S.C. Military Base Task Force was placed under the heading of state Department of Commerce, a recognition of the financial impact of the state being home to eight major military installations, more than 56,000 retirees and 900 defense contracting firms.
In all, the military has a nearly $16 billion economic impact each year in South Carolina, supporting more than 138,000 jobs, according to Commerce officials.
The Lowcountry has the strongest military footprint of any area, with more than 50 active commands of all sizes and missions that employ thousands under the Joint Base Charleston heading.
William "Bill" Bethea Jr., chairman of the Military Base Task Force, said the goal now is to make all the military communities as responsive to the military's needs as possible.
The message is that "the military is good for us but that we're good for the military as well," he said.
Mary Graham, who leads the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's effort to protect military assets here, said the work keeping the military needs tended to here is perpetual. "You're doing everything you can every day," she said.
Some of the cooperation the chamber has accomplished in recent years, she said, was in getting the state Legislature to ban synthetic marijuana, which had become a concern for leaders at the U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Training Command in Goose Creek.
Also, the chamber lobbied the state to halt the property tax levy that occurred when a private company built housing on military bases. "Those sound like little things, but they are taking care of your military," she said.
Charleston's area congressmen on Monday released statements saying they saw the need for spending refrain but also spoke up for the area's military bases.
"As Congress weighs whether to authorize another BRAC, I will continue to advocate on behalf of South Carolina's valuable contributions to our national security and will consider input from stakeholders throughout the state," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.
Added Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, "I think that Joint Base Charleston is a model for how we meet our future security challenges in a difficult budget environment and would expect decision makers at the Pentagon and within military circles to recognize the unique contributions that the base provides."
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.
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