Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's proposal to cut defense spending, which includes base-closure sessions in three years, shouldn't have much effect on local bases, Beaufort's military committee chairman says.
Jim Wegmann of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee, said it is still too early to tell if base closures will actually occur, noting that similar proposals in the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years never became part of the budget.
"In the last five years, as Congress goes through the budget, it doesn't end up looking like what is proposed," he said. "There's been no indication that they'll authorize BRAC sessions."
The Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee works to better position Beaufort County's three military installations in the face of possible base closures or spending cuts. The Marine Corps would face a nominal drop in troop size, from 190,000 active Marines to 182,000, under Hagel's proposal Monday. The majority of cuts would draw from the Army, with a reduction of active-duty soldiers from 522,000 to about 450,000.
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Hagel's proposal also calls on Congress to approve new base realignment and closure sessions to start in 2017. Hagel cited a need to cut "unnecessary and costly infrastructure," even though similar requests for closures were shot down the last two years.
"If Congress continues to block these requests even as they slash the overall budget, we will have to consider every tool at our disposal to reduce infrastructure," Hagel said.
Base realignment and closure (BRAC) sessions involve the closure or reassignment of military bases in the United States, done to improve efficiency and cut military spending. BRAC sessions last took place in 2005.Beaufort County's military installations -- Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Naval Hospital Beaufort -- have survived five rounds of closures, dating to 1989, Wegmann said.
Even if a BRAC panel reconvenes, Wegmann said, the county's installations would still be in good shape, thanks to the Joint Strike Fighter, which is to arrive at the air station this summer. He also cited attempts to pass military-friendly state legislation that has been recommended by the U.S. Department of Defense. Some of those measures, such as simplifying absentee voting for military families and transferring professional licenses for military spouses, have already passed.
"We've been successful five times before, so there's no indication we wouldn't be successful again and weather the storm," he said. "We will continue to work hard, as will the community and state."
U.S. Rep Mark Sanford said he would review Hagel's proposed defense budget when it was released and was interested to see how the proposed 2017 BRAC sessions fit into the plan. Sanford said he expected the installations in his district to be viewed favorably.
"I think decision-makers at the Pentagon and within military circles will recognize that our bases in the 1st District, whether it's MCAS Beaufort, Parris Island, Naval Hospital Beaufort or Joint Base Charleston, have made important contributions to our nation's military readiness over the last few years," Sanford said. "The bases are a big part of our community in the Lowcountry, and I think they'll continue to stand out as examples of how to meet our security needs even when budgets are tight."
Wegmann said he wasn't aware of anything that would affect the air station or F-35B funding.
Hagel said F-35 funding remains in tact in his proposal, which will be submitted to Congress as part of the 2015 federal budget. Funding for the fighters would only be cut if sequester-level cuts hit the Defense Department, which would mean up to 24 fewer F-35s would be produced, he said.
Three active-duty F-35B squadrons and two training squadrons will eventually call Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort home, replacing the F-18 Hornets now flown at the base. The first training squadron, VMFAT-501, will arrive from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida in June, air station public affairs officer Capt. Jordan Cochran said. Training will begin in October.
Last week, a Bloomberg News report revealed that cracks were found in the F-35B's bulkhead during on-the-ground stress-testing of the Marine Corps variant of the aircraft in September, shutting down durability testing of the planes until the fourth quarter of this year. However, the testing shutdown won't delay the arrival of the F-35Bs in Beaufort or affect their flying operations, said F-35 program public affairs officer Joe DellaVedova.
Cracks began to form in the bulkhead after 9,480 flight hours, past the jet's first "lifetime" of testing, DellaVedova said. F-35s are rated for 8,000 hours of flight. Durability is tested through two lifetimes, or 16,000 hours of flight, DellaVedova said.
The discovery was made in an F-35B specifically built to conduct durability testing. DellaVedova said the testing would allow improvements and repairs to be made now, rather than years from now when hundreds or thousands of aircraft could be affected.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.