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Fort Jackson commander doubts cuts will be as deep as Army warns

Fort Jackson’s commander, Maj. Gen. Bradley Becker, said Tuesday that any future cuts at the nation’s largest training base likely will be less than the 3,100 workers the U.S. Department of Defense warned of earlier this year.

In fact, Fort Jackson could be in a position to benefit from any base realignment due to post-war cuts to the military, Becker said Tuesday in an address to the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce.

“We have the capacity to expand,” said Becker, who was promoted to two-star general July 2.

Fort Jackson today trains 54 percent of the Army’s soldiers – about 47,000 a year. That is more than the Army’s three other training bases – Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and Fort Sill, Okla. – combined.

Fort Jackson houses nine battalions of soldiers in training, Becker said, and recently has built barracks for two more battalions.

“It would make sense to bring the other installations to Fort Jackson,” he said. “But it’s a political fight as well. It will come down to which state makes the most noise.”

After 13 years of war, the Army is set to shrink. It reached a peak of about 570,000 in 2010 and could go as low as 420,000 by 2017 if deep budget cuts mandated by the U.S. Budget Control Act of 2011 – called the sequester – are not changed by Congress.

The Army has asked all large and medium-sized installations to gauge the economic impact to their communities if the number of their employees were drastically cut. It has asked Becker for a report on what the impact of Fort Jackson losing 3,100 of its 7,000 military and civilian workers would mean to the Midlands.

Fort Jackson was initially not on the list for targeted cuts when the Army was expected to shrink to 490,000, because training is considered a vital mission. But it and other smaller installations were added to prepare for the deeper cuts mandated by the sequester – cuts the military says would cause it to change its entire national defense structure and strategy.

To meet those cuts, the Pentagon likely will ask for another round of Base Realignment and Closure, called BRAC, in 2015.

To prepare for any possible cuts to Fort Jackson, the Lexington chamber and Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce are uniting to make a case about the importance of the post to the area’s economy. It has an annual economic impact of $2.6 billion, a study by the S.C. Department of Commerce has shown.

A report by Columbia’s Pentagon lobbyist, Cassidy & Associates, terms the 3,100 number a “worst-case scenario” that would be “devastating to the Midlands.”

It anticipate that the loss of 3,100 jobs would cause over the next five years:

• A $189 million loss of income in the region.

• A regional population loss of 7,733 people, including direct and indirect employees and their families.

• A reduction of $286 million in sales, including sales taxes of $3.3 million.

Although the Air Force and National Guard have not announced a formal review process, Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover also could be threatened by BRAC.

For the proposed worst-case Army cuts, a written public comment period was set by the Defense Department. It extends through August. Also, Army officials are expected to host a public hearing at Fort Jackson in the fall, said Carl Blackstone, new chief executive of the Columbia chamber.

“We’re going to roll out the red carpet for them,” said Blackstone, who attended the Lexington meeting with other Columbia chamber officials. “We want to make sure that they see that we really are the most military-friendly community in the country.”

Becker’s address to the Lexington chamber was a first for a Fort Jackson commander. It was intended as a kickoff to rally the troops to stave off cuts at the installation, on I-77 in Richland County.

About 40 percent of Fort Jackson’s 3,500 civilian workers and a large portion of its enlisted workers live in Lexington County, said Randy Halfacre, the Lexington chamber’s chief executive and a former Lexington mayor.

“That’s a huge impact,” he said. “So we have to fight for the fort.”

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