New jets could help ensure air station's survival

The (Columbia) StateMarch 26, 2014 

COLUMBIA -- The arrival of the first F-35B fighter jets at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in June positions the base well to survive an upcoming round of military budget cuts, officials said Wednesday.

The jets give the air station an advantage as the U.S. military downsizes following 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they said.

"We think (the arrival of the jets) positions Beaufort extremely well," said Jim Wegmann, a new executive committee member of the Military Base Task Force.

Across-the-board cuts mandated by Congress as a result of the 2011 debt ceiling fight, called the sequester, will kick in automatically if they aren't repealed by 2016. And the military likely will ask Congress for permission to conduct another round of base closings as early as next year.

South Carolina officials have been working to put the state in a position to weather the cuts and possibly gain missions as bases in other parts of the country close. Keeping the military strong in South Carolina is important because it pumps nearly $16 billion into the state's economy each year.

The state has been working to pass military friendly initiatives - such as tax breaks for military homeowners -- that the Department of Defense takes into consideration when deciding which bases to close.

With the jets moving into Beaufort and other assets, such as military operating areas off the coast, military officials feel confident at least that base will be in a strong position.

The station eventually will have two training squadrons and three operational squadrons, Wegmann said. And every F-35B Marine pilot will be trained in Beaufort, he said.

The first class of eight to 10 pilots will begin training in the fall, said Col. Bill Lieblein. In a few years, as operations are slowly ramped up, Lieblein expects about 70 pilots a year to be trained in Beaufort and up to 88 jets eventually could be based at the station.

Training will take between eight and 10 months from when pilots arrive, generating a lot of officers coming through Beaufort, he said.

Other countries could train pilots at the Beaufort facility, as well, with British pilots already set to train there, he said.

The potential for military bases to close is a concern for representatives from military communities across the state.

Just last week, the Department of Defense told Fort Jackson to prepare for cuts of up to 3,100 jobs - nearly half of its civilian and military workforce - as a precautionary measure. Other installations throughout the nation also were asked to assess the impact that deep cuts would have on their communities, but not all bases will have job cuts that severe.

Members of the executive committee discussed strategies such as using partnerships with public and private entities to reduce operating and service costs for the military installations.

"What we need to do is try to find ways that we can help our installations run more cost effectively," Chairman William Bethea Jr. said after the meeting. That way, when bases are under review, it will show management is being prudent, he said.

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