The U.S. military's presence means billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs for the Charleston area, giving this region a vested interest in recent news of spending cuts.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Monday that he would close a major command in Norfolk, Va., and begin to trim other jobs to save $100 billion over the next five years. His remarks made clear what happens to the U.S. Joint Forces Command in southeastern Virginia but left uncertain the potential impacts at other military operations around the country.
Gates and other Pentagon officials also did not provide a dollar figure on the cuts.
Military operations make a $3.5 billion economic impact on the Charleston area every year, providing nearly 30,000 jobs to enlisted, civilian and contract personnel, according to figures from the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.
North Charleston is home to the Air Force base and Goose Creek to the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command. Local businesses ship equipment to Middle East battlefields, including mine-resistant vehicles, and Charleston serves as the pilot location for an innovative port security program called Project Seahawk that brings federal, state and local law enforcement together in one operations center.
Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic, which provides technology solutions to support the military, alone makes an estimated $2.6 billion annual impact on the state, according to a recent study. More commonly known as SPAWAR, it supports one of every 14 jobs in the Charleston area and numbers among South Carolina's top 10 employers.
Public affairs officer Lonnie Cowart said SPAWAR "is looking across the board for efficiency gains while meeting the needs of the war fighter." That means ongoing process improvements to make its operations more efficient.
Advertising executive Peter Wertimer, who serves as chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's Military Policy Council, said the local defense contracting industry could be insulated from any drastic cuts because most firms support SPAWAR. He noted that SPAWAR develops critical "leading edge" communications technologies that support troops in combat zones from its East Coast headquarters on the Naval Weapons Station.
"I don't anticipate that those types of activities are going be cut," Wertimer said.
He added: "If the size of the pie is reduced and our slice stays the same, we actually become a more important center of gravity."
One local business, Charleston Marine Containers Inc., could get hit by defense spending cuts, since nearly all its work comes from military contracts, according to retired Adm. James Flatley, a consultant to the company. The business builds specialized steel containers for the Army and Marine Corps and employs about 200 people inside its three cavernous warehouses off Noisette Boulevard.
"Certainly there's that concern, but those containers have become a fundamental part of our military and how it moves," Flatley said.
Tommy Pruitt, senior director of communications for Ladson-based, blast-resistant vehicle maker Force Protection Inc., said Monday's announcement means his company will "remain in constant contact" with its customers. The U.S. government accounts for nearly all of Force Protection's contracts, with a small portion of business going to the United Kingdom.
"It's still a little early to determine whether it's going to impact our operations here," Pruitt said.
U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat, said Gates' plan might mean less of a budget cut than a transfer of money from contractors to programs that develop more advanced weaponry.
"To a great extent he's shifting money around," Spratt said. "How he'll shift that is yet to be determined."
U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, requested information from the Pentagon on how potential cuts could affect the Palmetto State. Officials in DeMint's office said late Wednesday that they have not received a response yet.
U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, also a Democrat from South Carolina, called Gates' decision "a very difficult and courageous undertaking" that could make his department more efficient and effective in tough economic times.
"No agency should be exempt from such a review," Clyburn said.
Ellen Pfeiffer, president of the local chapter of Women in Defense, praised Gates' decision but understands her place in the scheme. She runs a contracting service, Palmetto Integrated Technology Solutions Inc.
"I don't build new ships. I do IT monitoring systems," she said. "Where am I going to end up in this?"
Pfeiffer said she takes comfort in the fact that Charleston's military operations seem to run more efficiently and with tighter management than the Washington area.
"It's a long time in coming," Pfeiffer said. "I think a lot of money's getting spent without much sense of accountability. We're not downsizing the defense budget. We're shifting money to get more coverage for the war fighter."
She added that she sees little room for local cutbacks.
Robert Behre, John McDermott and Katy Stech contributed to this story. Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or email@example.com.