Looming defense cuts bring return of familiar anxieties

August 5, 2011

Economic Development, Politics

Last Tuesday’s deal to slash defense spending by hundreds of billions as part of the deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling set off the kind of anxiousness not felt in Columbus since the Base Realignment & Closure commission shut down a half-dozen years ago.

Suddenly, the Golden Triangle’s continued economic resurgence is not as sure a thing as it was just a few weeks ago. If the Air Force needs fewer aircraft it won’t need as many new pilots. And Columbus Air Force Base, a flight training installation and biggest employer in Columbus, is in the business of producing pilots.

It all makes Joe Max Higgins, director of The Link, a Columbus-Lowndes County business support group, uneasy. “In our office today we’ve had one or two conversations,” he said. “Yes, the topic is already being discussed. What we’re doing here they are doing in Brookhaven. Somebody is talking about it in Vicksburg.”

Wages paid to civilian workers at the air base “probably beats our top three to four manufactures here,” Higgins said. “It’s our biggest generator of wealth.”

Columbus AFB had 1,494 military personnel assigned to it in 2009 and 1,777 civilian employees, producing an annual economic impact estimated at $287 million.

Since 1970, the 5,000-acre installation has trained one-third of the Air Force’s new pilots, or about 300 each year. Its training mission is shared by two other installations: Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas, and Vance AFB in Enid, Okla.

The agreement reached last Tuesday between Congress and President Obama specifies an estimated $350 billion in cuts for the Armed Forces in what lawmakers are calling Round One. Round Two is likely to see automatic cuts of $500 billion in the second round later this year. The only way automatic cuts in the Pentagon budgets won’t be triggered is through a congressional “Super Committee” of six Democrats and six Republican lawmakers agreeing to specific cuts of $1.2 trillion later this year. Debt ceiling negotiations that went down to the midnight hour give no reason to believe the two can come up with a mutual plan.

With the 2005 Base Realignment & Closure commission recommendations, Congress took an up-or-down vote on the installations to be closed. An up-or-down vote is also contemplated for the Pentagon cuts that would be triggered by an impasse of the “Super Committee” this fall.

Military spending in Mississippi came to $4.98 billion in 2009, of which the Navy accounted for $2.66 billion, the Army $1.17 billion, the Air Force $146 million and the Army Corps of Engineers and miscellaneous activities $207 million, according to the Consolidated Federal Funds Report for Fiscal 2009.

Homeland Security accounted for $99.4 million in spending and the Department of Veterans Affairs $43.1 million, the report says.

The Golden Triangle’s risks from the coming cuts go beyond Columbus AFB. The Triangle, and the rest of Mississippi for that matter, is home to a host of military contractors: American Eurocopter manufactures rotary-wing aircraft for the military and employs 400 workers at average salaries of $50,000 a year; Stark Aerospace produces un-manned aerial systems, or drones, for the Army and employs 125 people; Aurora Flight Sciences fabricates composite aerosystems for the military and employs about 250 workers at annual salaries ranging from $40,000 to $45,000; Nammo Talley Inc. produces munitions for the military and employs 50 people at average annual salaries of $50,000; American Power Source makes T-shorts for the military and employs 50 to 70 workers at $8 to $10 an hour.

In nearby West Point, Griffin Armor makes armored personnel carriers for the military and employs approximately 175 workers.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that for us it’s not just Columbus Air Force Base,” Higgins said.

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