Cuts could hurt disaster response, S.C. Guard warns

The first F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in July 2014. Col. Peter Buck told Gov. Nikki Haley on Wednesday that the air station expects to add another training squadron and two operational squadrons.

COLUMBIA — If mandated defense cuts continue, it could leave the S.C. National Guard unable to respond to natural disasters, such as the deadly flooding in October that left residents stranded and in need of rescues.

Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston Jr., head of the S.C. National Guard and state adjutant general, was among 10 state military commanders who met Wednesday with Gov. Nikki Haley for an annual briefing on military matters.

Livingston told Haley that by 2018 National Guard levels nationwide could be reduced from 342,000 to 315,000 troops, If that occurs, he said, South Carolina’s Guard would lose about 1,000 of its 9,300 troops, impacting its ability to respond in emergencies when it is mobilized to safeguard areas or rescue people.

“If our nation continues on its current course, with sequestration, yes it could happen,” Livingston said. “That will have a definite effect on our ability to conduct state operations.”

About 1,200 S.C. Guard troops are set to be deployed overseas in the coming year, Livingston said.

Haley said Congress needs to recognize the threats posed by terrorism and cyberattacks, along with natural disasters.

“We’ve got to strengthen our military, we’ve got to strengthen the equipment and the resources because we don’t know what is in the future,” Haley said. “But whatever it is, we’re not ready.”

The second-term Republican governor asked the commanders to work with her and other governors in asking Congress to “reverse course” on the $500 billion in automatic spending cuts to the military over the next 10 years.

Fort Jackson in Columbia, which trains 70,000 soldiers annually, will cut 180 positions. A significant number, Maj. Gen Roger Cloutier said, but much less than an earlier projection of about 3,000 as part of the Army’s planned 40,000 troop reduction. No other commanders mentioned potential cuts at their bases.

The Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort is slated to get the Pentagon’s newest stealth fighter, the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

Marines have been training on the new-generation fighter at the Beaufort air station for the past year, and Col. Peter Buck said an additional training squadron and two operational squadrons are slated to be added.

McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover and Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter are waiting to find out if they will receive any of the 2,457 jets that cost nearly $400 billion.

Reach Gavin Jackson at 843-708-1830.