The fiscal cliff might have been averted for now, but looming, across-the-board federal spending cuts and possible base closings still threaten to cripple Beaufort County's economy.
That's the message a group seeking to protect the county's three military bases plans to deliver to federal lawmakers in the coming weeks.
Unless Congress and the White House come up with another agreement to fend off drastic cuts by March 1, the Pentagon will be forced to cut as much as $500 billion over the next 10 years.
The Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee has said the cuts would devastate Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and Naval Hospital Beaufort.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The committee hired Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Hurt Norton & Associates in June to help it follow the negotiations and understand "sequestration" -- mandatory, across-the-board budget cuts. The firm also will carry the message to lawmakers that the bases play critical roles in national defense.
The committee plans to spend about $300,000 on lobbying and other expenses to fight the spending cuts and potential base closures.
At stake are more than 15,000 Lowcountry jobs and $636 million in direct employee compensation a year, according to a 2012 study by the S.C. Department of Commerce.
"I don't think people in Washington, let alone Beaufort County, realize just how important the military is to this area and how vital a role it will play in our national defense," committee vice chairman and retired Marine Col. Jack Snider said.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday he has directed the Pentagon and each of the Joint Chiefs to start detailed planning for deep cuts in military spending, to be prepared for sequestration. Panetta said he told the chiefs to immediately curtail facility maintenance, freeze civilian hiring and delay certain contract awards.
Panetta also directed the chiefs to plan for civilian furloughs -- although he stressed that the planning is "strictly precautionary," should the Pentagon be forced to trim $42 billion from its budget for the last seven months of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Of particular local concern are possible cuts to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and abandonment of the planned expansion of the 5,183-acre Townsend Bombing Range in McIntosh County, Ga., owned by the air station.
Lawmakers have not yet said whether those projects would be cut as part of sequestration, said Snider, who commanded the Beaufort air station until 2011.
The Pentagon, though, recently revealed that flight tests completed through November found vulnerabilities in the F-35's design, including deficiencies in protecting the fuel tank from mid-air explosions. That could bode ill for a program beset by technological troubles and a price tag of $396 billion, which makes it the most costly weapon ever built.
About $75 million in construction is under way at the air station as part of a $351.8 million makeover it must undergo over the next five years to house the F-35, which will replace all of the base's F-18 Hornets. The air station will be home to three new active-duty F-35 squadrons and two pilot-training squadrons, expected to arrive in 2014, Snider said.
Military committee members hope to convince lawmakers of the cost efficiencies of having three bases in one community, as well as tout Parris Island's capacity to double the current number of recruits and the air station's planned F-35B training center -- which would be the only one in the Marine Corps.
"The bases have continued to become leaner and leaner, because most of the money is being put into warfighting operations," Snider said. "The bases are about as lean as it can get while still providing significant combat power and contribution to national defense."
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom