Supercommittee budget failure has officials wondering what will happen here
pnj.com - November 26, 2011, By Travis Griggs
The deadline has passed and the supercommittee has failed, initiating $600 billion in automatic military spending cuts.
What does that mean for Northwest Florida?
It's a question local military and public officials alike are struggling to answer.
"Everybody's holding their breath," said Craig Dalton,vice president of armed services for the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. "At this point, there's just no way to predict what those cuts would look like."
On Wednesday, a congressional super committee failed to present a plan to trim the federal deficit over 10 years. Created in August, the committee had until Nov. 23 to present a plan. When it failed, it triggered $1.2 trillion in automatic spending reductions that will begin in January 2013. Half would come from the military budget over the following decade.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the cuts would "tear a seam in the nation's defense." Top Republicans immediately looked to change the schedule of cuts agreed on in August.
So what's next?
Despite fiery rhetoric and dire prophecies, it's possible that the cuts won't have a deep impact on Northwest Florida.
Many analysts believe Congress will likely undo or lessen the effects of the automatic cuts before they go into effect, despite the fact that President Barack Obama has threatened to veto such efforts unless Congress goes back to the drawing board and comes up with a balanced plan to cut the $1.2 trillion.
But many top-level Pentagon officials seem largely untroubled by the deadline's passing.
Speaking at a Military Reporters and Editors conference in Washington, D.C., this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey voiced concern about the cuts, but stopped short of doomsday predictions.
The worst-case scenario, $600 billion in cuts spread over 10 years, he said, would merely return defense spending to fiscal year 2007 levels — a reasonably attainable goal, Dempsey said.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said cuts to defense spending are still on the table, but stressed the need to enact them in a measured fashion.
"There are certainly areas within the Department of Defense that could be streamlined and costs that can be reduced," Miller said. "I am concerned that misguided cuts to (the Defense Department) could cause irreparable harm to our security."
But military and public officials in Northwest Florida, forced to watch the budget drama play out from afar, face a potentially shaky financial future.
Local military base commanders are mum on the issue, saying it's too early to speculate on the effect on area bases.
The Pentagon has also released scant details on plans for budget cuts, leaving local officials struggling to piece together the potential impact on Northwest Florida.
» Eglin Air Force Base
Eglin Air Force Base could be the largest potential target for budget reductions in Northwest Florida.
Eglin's F-35 training program and 7th Special Forces Group are likely safe from cuts, but the Air Armament Center, headquartered at the base, could be much more exposed.
The center is in charge of development, testing and acquisition of all air-delivered weapons used by the Air Force. Pentagon officials have previously warned that weapons development and procurement programs will see cuts over the next decade.
Earlier this month, the Air Force announced a headquarters-level consolidation that eliminated 315 civilian positions at Eglin and put the center under the command of a two-star general at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
The number of actual jobs lost was later reduced to about 20, but Okaloosa County officials worry that the consolidation could set the stage for future reductions at Eglin.
"If the testing headquarters moves to Edwards ... the concern is for the loss of mission at Eglin," said Jim Breitenfeld, manager of the Okaloosa County Defense Support Initiative. "As resources get tight, there's going to be further consolidation. You're looking at hundreds of jobs if you get into a worst-case scenario."
» Hurlburt Field
Hurlburt Field, home to the Air Force Special Operations Command and the 1st Special Operations Wing, is likely much less exposed than Eglin to potential budget cuts.
"There has been a common understanding that special operations is going to be exempted, to a large degree, from any budget cutting," Breitenfeld said. "We're not expecting any significant impacts there."
» Whiting Field
Santa Rosa County officials said they've not heard any rumblings of potential cuts to Whiting Field Naval Air Station, a hub of Naval flight training.
That doesn't quell their concerns, however.
"At this point, I don't even think the commanders of these installations have any idea," said Pete Gandy, military affairs consultant for TEAM Santa Rosa, the county's economic development council.
Whiting's training role could insulate the program from budget cuts like those faced by Eglin, Santa Rosa County Commissioner Don Salter said.
"Most of the activities at Whiting are pure training. It's not research and development or weapons programs. I think that helps us as we go through defense cuts," Salter said.
» Pensacola Naval Air Station
In Escambia County, officials also were forced to speculate on the future of local military bases.
"As a defense community, we pay very close attention to this. But there are so many unknowns," said Dalton, with the Pensacola chamber.
Dalton remained positive about the security of Pensacola Naval Air Station.
"Pensacola has been in a good position. It's a strategic base. Over the last five years we've seen almost $1 billion in capital investment at Pensacola Naval Air Station," he said.
He was equally upbeat about Corry Station, saying the base "continues to grow by leaps and bounds."
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