WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that tough economic times require that he shutter a major command that employs some 5,000 people around Norfolk, Va., and begin to eliminate other jobs throughout the military, a decision that is not expected to impact the Charleston area.
The announcement was the first major step by Gates to find $100 billion in savings in the next five years. Gates said that money is needed elsewhere within the Defense Department to repair a force worn down by years of war and to prepare troops for the next fight.
Gates and other Pentagon officials would not put a dollar figure on cuts outlined Monday, but the savings is expected to be less than what the individual military services are trying to trim on their own.
Big cuts are essential considering the strained economy and the likelihood that Congress no longer will give the Pentagon the sizable budget increases it has enjoyed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Gates said.
The Charleston region captures billions of dollars in economic benefit from military spending with the Charleston Air Force Base, the Charleston Naval Weapons Station, and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center.
A recent study estimated that SPAWAR alone contributes $2.6 billion annually to the state's economy. The high-tech electronics procurement hub for the Navy and other federal customers employs about 9,000 private-sector workers and roughly 3,300 federal civil service employees. It is among the top 10 employers in the state and more than tripled in size over the past nine years.
Fred McCarthy, with the Charleston Defense Contractors Association's media and public relations committee, declined to answer questions about the potential impact of defense spending cuts when asked by The Post and Courier.
However, Mary Graham, senior vice president of public policy for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said that long-rumored defense spending cuts haven't worried the region's defense contracting community.
Graham said that's because major local military players, such as Joint Base Charleston commander Col. Martha Meeker, have pushed cost-cutting efforts, including the move to combine services provided to the Air Force base and the weapons station. Merging the two military installations comes as part of a Department of Defense plan to save about $2.3 billion over the next 20 years.
The political backlash from Gates' announcement was swift and fierce from lawmakers fearful that jobs would be lost in their districts.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, said in a hastily called news conference that eliminating Norfolk's Joint Forces Command would deal a devastating blow to the state at a time of runaway federal spending on lower priorities.
Likewise, Republican Rep. J. Randy Forbes called the decision "further evidence of this administration allowing its budget for social change" and the "piecemeal auctioning off of the greatest military the world has ever known."
Democrats, including Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb of Virginia, also condemned the move. Warner said he could see "no rational basis" for eliminating a command created to improve the services' ability to work together and find efficiencies.
"In the business world, you sometimes have to spend money in order to save money," Warner said.
In a Pentagon press conference, Gates was optimistic that Congress would eventually swing behind his plan despite lawmakers' control of the budget. He said in the case of Virginia, the state could wind up with additional jobs if the savings found by closing Joint Forces Command enables a boost in shipbuilding.
Eliminating the command would take the backing of President Barack Obama. Obama applauded the overall belt-tightening in a statement Monday but did not mention JFCOM or two smaller offices set for closure.
"The funds saved will help us sustain the current force structure and make needed investments in modernization in a fiscally responsible way," Obama said. "Change is never easy."
Gates described his initiative as just the beginning in his hunt for inefficiencies across the Defense Department, which commands a nearly $700 billion annual budget including war spending.
Katy Stech of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.