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Planned defense cuts spark concerns but impact is unclear in Missouri, Illinois

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 7, 2012 - WASHINGTON - When Pentagon officials announced initial proposals for changes and cutbacks in the nation's defense structure last month, the plans encountered a fusillade of criticism from military hawks but also engendered tentative support from backers of a leaner and more focused armed services.

Despite their policy differences, lawmakers on both sides shared one common reaction to the Defense Department's budget preview: They scrambled to try to determine how those realignments -- as well as possible new rounds of base-closing in fiscal 2013 and 2015 -- might impact their states, military bases and defense companies.

So far, there are more questions than answers about the impact in Missouri and southern Illinois, where interest centers on Boeing Corp.'s warplane assembly lines in Hazelwood and the future of three large military installations: Scott Air Force Base, near Belleville;Fort Leonard Wood in Pulaski County; and Whiteman Air Force Base in west-central Missouri.

The proposed Pentagon changes were spurred by the draw-down of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as by budget cutbacks mandated by Congress. They include proposals to reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps, retire aging military equipment, focus more resources on new technologies, such as unmanned drones, and start a new round of base closures.

"It must be a cutting-edge force for the future," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a security conference in Munich this weekend. While the U.S. military will be leaner under the plans, he said he wanted a force that "would be agile, that would be flexible, that would be rapidly deployable, and that would be technologically advanced."

But many Republicans were highly critical, saying they want to cut the federal civilian workforce rather than allow deep reductions in the military at a time of potential threats from rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran.

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, predicted in a statement that "these precipitous and reckless cuts proposed by the Obama administration would have disastrous consequences for the economy in general and Missouri's in particular."

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he was concerned that the proposed Pentagon budget cuts "have the potential to negatively impact the entire defense structure in the country." And U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville -- an Armed Services Committee member whose district includes both Whiteman AFB and Ft. Leonard Wood -- said the administration's plans are "dangerous and could put our national security in jeopardy."

But many Democrats argued that, overall, the changes outlined by Panetta and the Pentagon's military chiefs seemed to be reasonable -- and in line with the logical budget reductions with the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq and a continued troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"We can achieve significant savings in the Pentagon budget without sacrificing military readiness or our overall defense capabilities," said U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. "Most of the cuts involve savings within the Army and Navy. Those decisions should have a minimal impact on local jobs in St. Louis," which are mostly related to Boeing, whose F/A-18 Super Hornet and some other assembly lines are in his district.

U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said, "We need to look at every aspect of the budget for savings, including the Department of Defense, and the Pentagon is working hard to target savings in a way that strengthens our military." Arguing that "reducing our budget deficit is a national security imperative," Carnahan introduced a bipartisan bill with five other lawmakers "to cut waste and fraud from overseas contingency operations."

However, neither Clay nor Carnahan signed a Jan. 27 letter to Obama -- signed by liberal Democrats including U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. -- arguing that the Pentagon's budget could be cut nearly twice as deeply, by about $900 billion, over the next decade.

In both the House and the Senate, armed services committees postponed major hearings until next week as they awaited fuller details of the Pentagon's proposed fiscal 2013 budget, which would be the first to reflect the $487 billion defense cut over the next decade imposed as a result of last summer's deficit reduction law.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters in a conference call that she thinks Pentagon officials are trying to adapt to the changing nature of military conflicts and enemies in the new strategy blueprints.

"I think the notion is that you stabilize ground strength in the active force so that you have the capability of [bolstering] ground strength with Guard and Reserve while you rely on the technology and intelligence in a way that allows us to have eyes and ears all over the globe," McCaskill said.

"Because our enemy is no longer a sovereign nation; our enemies are pockets of radical people who want to kill us. That's why the leadership of the military is doing incredible work, recognizing that, acknowledging that, and moving toward a military that can be responsive to that threat."

Impact on Boeing Assembly Lines Not Yet Clear

Late last year, employees who work at Boeing's F-15 Eagle fighter jet assembly line in Hazelwood were boosted by the news that the administration had approved a $30 billion deal under which Boeing will sell 84 new F-15 [SA] jets to Saudi Arabia -- a contract that should keep that assembly line open for years to come.

And the news was generally good last yearfor the Pentagon's orders of Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter and the related EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft.

While company executives have not yet commented publicly on the possible impact of the Pentagon's new strategy, one detail of Panetta's plan would appear favorable: The Pentagon plans to delay further its procurement of the Super Hornet's stealthy rival, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, pushing off actual production until after 2017.

In an earnings forecast issued late last month, Boeing predicted that tighter military spending and higher pension costs would slow its earnings this year. Boeing Defense, Space & Security's revenue for 2012 was projected to be between $30 billion and $30.5 billion with operating margins "greater than 9 percent." In 2011, the Boeing defense unit's revenue was a bit higher, at $32 million, with an operating margin of 9.9 percent.

But the major Pentagon cutbacks aren't expected to kick in until the following year, and Congress will have ample opportunity in the coming months to make major changes to the new defense budget strategy that would involve military aircraft. Last week, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley said he expected a difficult budget year, with plans already in the work to cut seven squadrons and 286 aircraft in the coming years.

Asked to comment in general about the impact of the proposed defense plan on Missouri, Akin said in a statement that "the defense industry is an important and integral part of Missouri's economy. It is hard to see how the proposed cuts would not have a significant, negative impact on Missouri."

New Base-closing Round Faces Congressional Critics

While Boeing executives anxiously await the details of the new defense budget proposals, lawmakers are gearing up for a possible battle over Panetta's intention to ask Congress to approve a new round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).

Devised as a way of closing bases without undue congressional obstruction, the BRAC process involves a White House-appointed panel that holds hearings and makes recommendations on military installations, which are submitted to the president and then sent to Congress, which can approve or reject the plan but not amend it. Five BRAC rounds (in 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005) have closed more than 350 installations.

The Pentagon is expected to ask Congress to start a BRAC round in 2013, perhaps followed by another one in 2015. That's two years ahead of the recommendation of the most recent BRAC, which suggested a new BRAC round in 2015.

Panetta, a former congressman, said last month that his department -- in pursuing a new BRAC round -- "would continue to work to make sure that it's done effectively and that we achieve the savings that we hope to achieve from the process." But many congressional Republicans already have vowed to block a new BRAC round.

"The whole concept of having a BRAC is ill-advised, nationally, because it is a very expensive process" that causes "commotion and uncertainty" in military communities, Hartzler said in an interview. "With limited defense dollars, I think they should be invested in the war fighters, modernizing our equipment, and re-setting it after 10 years of conflict -- rather than squandering it on a BRAC study."

If there is a new BRAC round in 2013, Hartzler told the Beacon that she is confident that the two big bases in her district -- Whiteman AFB and Ft. Leonard Wood -- would escape major disruption. "I feel very positive about those installations because they are both vital to our national security in different ways." She said both have "vital national security missions, excellent leadership, and strong community support."

McCaskill and Blunt also argue that the Missouri bases are in a strong position.

Blunt said that he "would argue that Whiteman and Fort Leonard Wood are not only two of the big winners of the BRAC process we have gone through to date but are two of the most current and most likely to succeed military installations in the country."

McCaskill told reporters that Whiteman AFB should do well "because of it being the home of the Stealth [B-2 bomber], which also reflects technology this country has invested in, that I know everybody in Missouri is very proud of."

Whiteman, the home of one of the nation's five Global Strike Command bases, in 2010 also became one of the U.S. military sites that direct unmanned Predator drone missions thousands of miles away.

"The stealth capability continues to be something that our military relies on and, frankly, is the envy of the world," McCaskill said. "I think that it is likely that [more] of the drone capability -- and other capabilities that are classified -- could find a home at Whiteman."

The base closest to St. Louis that is usually examined as part of BRAC analysis is Scott Air Force Base, which employs about 13,000 people, making it Illinois' largest employer south of Springfield and the sixth-largest single employer in the St. Louis region.

Scott, which survived BRAC proceedings in both 1995 and 2005, houses key military transport operations, including the U.S. Transportation Command and the Air Mobility Command. Because it has become an international hub for moving both soldiers and material, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates described it in 2007 as one of the nation's three most important bases. And the opening of MidAmerica Airport in St. Clair County gave Scott a second runway for use in joint operations.

On Monday, Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, cut the ribbon at Scott for the new 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron Complex, which the congressman helped add to the 2010 military construction bill. The $7.4 million, 21,500 sq.ft complex includes new offices, storage space and training classrooms for the squadron, which provides rapid response aeromedical evacuation capability.

Costello, who played an important role in protecting Scott in the two previous BRACs, will retire from Congress at the end of this year. He said that Panetta made clear that "every state will be affected by these proposed defense cuts."

In a statement, Costello said: "With our budget situation in mind, I have been anticipating a new round of Base Realignment and Closure, and how any individual facility is affected depends to a great extent on the criteria used to guide these decisions. We will need to monitor this process closely for potential impacts to Scott and our region."