Air Force Secretary stresses mission-readiness in speech to Chamber

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James spoke to members of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called on Charleston-area business leaders to stress mission-readiness to Congress as the Pentagon faces an uncertain future of cuts and reductions.

Her comments come as sequestration and a base closure and re-alignment review could still become reality, putting Charleston's military installations under national scrutiny.

"Please make clear to our elected officials in Congress that above all else we need to maintain a ready force for the future," James said Tuesday at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's annual "Salute to the Military."

James is making a swing through Charleston. She will visit the Charleston Air Force Base on Wednesday and speak at The Citadel graduation Saturday.

Her visit also comes as Congress is debating whether to get behind another round of base realignment and closure evaluations, or BRAC, similar to what led to the demise of the Charleston Navy Base and Shipyard in the 1990s. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants Congress to approve another round of BRAC for 2017 as he seeks to save billions of dollars post-Iraq and Afghanistan.

James on Tuesday did not speak to Charleston's situation specifically, but she already has a deep knowledge of the installations in the area. She lived here from 2007-2010 when she worked for the defense contractor Science Applications International Corporation, and was involved in the Charleston Chamber's Board of Directors.

James said shrinking dollars for the military is a certainty.

"We're flattening out our budgets. Our budgets may even go down farther. But what we must do is we must make sure we make every dollar count," she said.

Whether there will be another BRAC by Congress remains a subject of intense debate. U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said last week he didn't think it was something for the immediate future given the caustic relationship between Congress and the White House.

"I think that the well is somewhat poisoned for the next two-and-a-half years," he said. "I just think there is too much strife on that front right now."

Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a non-partisan Washington national security think tank, also said he doubts Charleston or any other military community has much to worry about in terms of Congress enacting a full-fledged BRAC soon. "There's just no appetite on the Hill for that," he said.

Charleston is home to more than 50 military installations of all sizes, and the military remains the region's largest employer, with over 22,000 personnel. The annual impact to the economy runs to more than $6.7 billion.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551