story by Bloomberg News and The City Wire
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said Monday (Aug. 6) he is pleased with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision to not push for a BRAC round in 2013, but is not sure what it might mean for the Fort Smith-based 188th Fighter Wing.
According to Bloomberg News, Panetta said there will be no new round of military base closings next year, abandoning a proposal he made in February that Congress was set to oppose.
“It’s now clear obviously there will not be a round of BRAC authorized” in 2013, Panetta said in a Monday speech to the Association of Defense Communities in Monterey, Calif., referring to the base realignment and closure process, known as BRAC.
“Frankly, this was no surprise,” he said, noting that in anticipation of congressional opposition, he had not allocated any money in the budget to initiate a new round of closings.
“I didn’t put any money on the provision,” Panetta said. “But it’s an important debate to have and, frankly, it’s not going away.”
Continuing, Panetta noted: “Now may not be the time for BRAC as our economy recovers, but sooner or later, one way or another, the department is going to need to take a hard look at its basing infrastructure as we seek to reduce our overhead costs.”
It was learned in February that the Air Force proposed reductions of 3,900 active-duty, 5,100 Air National Guard and 900 Air Force Reserve positions.
Broad cuts in U.S. defense spending include the removal of the 20 A-10 Thunderbolt fighter planes from the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith. The loss of the fighter mission is tentatively scheduled to be replaced with the unmanned Predator drone. The drones and intelligence specialists needed to analyze drone-driven data would not be based in Fort Smith.
Community officials and former 188th officials were concerned the lack of planes would result in deep job losses. The 188th now has about 1,000 personnel attached to the unit, with a little more than 300 in a full-time status. Initial estimates were that the full-time numbers could fall to around 55 with the new mission.
Arkansas’ Congressional delegation has fought to save the 188th from the mission change. Part of that includes a “Defending our Defenders listening session” planned for Aug. 21 in the Arkansas Best Corp. Performing Arts Center at the Fort Smith Convention Center. The event will welcome U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who serves as chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Readiness. U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, in conjunction with U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., is sponsoring the event.
“I think that’s an honest appraisal from the Secretary,” Womack said of Panetta’s reason for not having a BRAC round in 2013.
He remains “cautiously optimistic” about the short term, but said “a future BRAC could put us in the crosshairs again” with respect to the 188th.
But Womack was uncertain as to what that means for the 188th related to sequestration-induced budget cuts.
“On the surface that sounds like it is good news on our side, but I have not heard any detail or any chatter about what they plan to do or not to do. We still have a lot of unanswered questions as we near the end of the year, especially with this issue of sequestration,” Womack explained.
The Budget Control Act established a so-called “Super Committee” tasked to find $1.5 trillion in budget cuts for purposes of reducing the national debt. The Act stipulated that if an agreement was not reached, the automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion would hit several areas, including at least $500 billion in U.S. defense budget cuts. When the Super Committee failed to agree on budget cuts, the “sequestration” cuts were put into play and are scheduled to begin in early 2013.
Womack said said other factors, including a change at the White House or who controls the Senate, could end or alter sequestration cuts.
The House and Senate Armed Services committees rejected a new base-closing round in their versions of the annual defense authorization bill for next year. Many lawmakers questioned the effectiveness and fairness of the 2005 closure round.
The Pentagon chief had proposed two new closing rounds in 2013 and 2015, saying the Defense Department must cut excess infrastructure as the military becomes smaller. Otherwise, money needed for training the troops will be spent to maintain unneeded bases, he said today.
“It’s the very definition of hollowing out our force,” Panetta said.
He acknowledged complaints from Congress that the cost of previous closings “were way out of line from what was predicted” in some cases. Even so, the prior rounds of closings are saving about $8 billion a year, he said.
The Association of Defense Communities represents about 200 regions with a significant military presence, according to the group’s website. The association, based in Washington, is holding its annual conference in Monterey, Panetta’s hometown.