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Proposed defense cuts could have impact in Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: February 25, 2014 at 07:33 AM

The United States will have the smallest Army since before WWII, an entire class of jets will disappear from the skies, the budget for base commissaries will be slashed and communities will face losing cherished military bases if President Barack Obama has his way with Congress.

These are the already-much-discussed realities Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hammered home this afternoon introducing the Pentagon's first budget request in what for the U.S. will be a post-Afghanistan war world.

Hagel's military spending projections for the new fiscal year beginning in October and beyond offers both good and bad news for Tampa, where MacDill Air Force Base pumps about $5 billion a year into the local economy.

Hagel, introducing the first annual defense budget request package that takes into account the planned end of combat operations in Afghanistan in December, said the Middle East will remain a focus for the military in the future and that special operations forces, which will be increased by about 4,000 to 69,700, will play continue to play an important role.

That's good news for the two major military commands based at MacDill, and a buffer from any move to close bases. U.S. Central Command oversees military operations in that region and U.S. Special Operations Command provides commandos and sets special operations doctrine.

But with the war in Iraq over, combat missions in Afghanistan slated to end by December and increasing economic pressures, the $496 billion budget introduced by Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also contains cuts that could be felt in the Tampa region. Any cuts would only get worse if the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration - put off until 2016 by Congress - return, Hagel said.

With nearly $500 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget over the next decade as part of a 2011 spending measure and nearly $40 billion in automatic spending cuts to the Pentagon last year, MacDill has already taken a hit. About 900 airmen of 3,800 from the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill were notified their positions are subject to termination, and as many as another 1,200 could lose their jobs in cost cutting aimed at headquarters like Centcom and Socom.

Other cuts may be in the offing because each command is made up of service members from all branches. All told, there are about 14,000 military and civilians working at MacDill.

In a press conference this afternoon at the Pentagon, Hagel announced additional spending reductions that some say will amount to a pay cut for the area's thousands of service members, their families and veterans.

Chief among them is a requested $1 billion cut over the next three years to the $1.4 billion defense commissary budget.

That could mean "significantly higher prices" for the thousands who use the MacDill commissary, according to Candace Wheeler, spokeswoman of Save Our Military Shopping Benefits. The MacDill commissary is the 24th largest of the 245 in the system, employs more than 100 and has annual sales of nearly $60 million, according to the Defense Commissary Agency, which oversees commissaries.

Even with a 5 percent surcharge, the commissary system saves users about 30 percent on selected goods, according to a recent survey by the commissary agency. Those savings could evaporate if Congress, which will be presented with Hagel's budget request next week, approves that provision, said Wheeler, whose group represents 19 military related organizations and about 2 million people.

Commissary users "will see anywhere between a 30 to 50 percent increase" in spending, said Wheeler. "That amounts to a cut in pay for our military families and our veterans."

Wheeler also expressed concern that the reduced commissary budget would result in layoffs, adding to the stress of military families, many of whom have spouses working there.

Another cut that could affect military families, especially junior enlisted troops who make less than $24,000 a year, is the reduction in the basic allowance for housing, from 100 percent to 95 percent over a five-year period. The allowance provides "equitable housing compensation based on housing costs in local civilian housing markets within the United States when government quarters are not provided."

While Hagel said that no one will see a decrease in their basic house allowance, one local real estate agent who works with military families said they will still feel some pain.

"Military families are often already struggling," said Manuela Woodrum, of Future Home Realty. "A lot of those families need to live off base. They are on a certain budget and can't find anything close enough to Tampa. It takes time away from family and extra gas money, which means less money in their pocket."

Hagel also called for changes in the TRICARE military health insurance program.

"We will ask retirees and some active-duty family members to pay a little more in their deductibles and co-pays, but their benefits will remain affordable, as they should be," he said. "Medically retired service members, their families, and the survivors of service members who die on active duty would not pay the annual participation fees charged to other retirees, and would pay a smaller share of the costs for health care than other retirees."

The average military retiree would pay 11 percent of health care costs out of pocket under the plan; the current standard is 8 percent.

Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said the community should step in and help any service member pinched by the cuts.

"Besides stepping up to defend their country, our military service men and women are struggling to make ends meet as well," he said.

In Tampa, the community's reaction to Hagel's announcement is one of concern but not alarm.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said MacDill is well-positioned to weather any base closing effort, known as the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, or BRAC, because of the missions there.

"Special Operations forces, headquartered at MacDill, will play an expanded role and I am pleased that Secretary Hagel invests in Special Operations," said Castor in an email to The Tampa Tribune. "U.S. Central Command also will continue to play a pivotal role in our national security due to the instability within its area of responsibility: the Middle East. Fortunately, MacDill is not under consideration for realignment or change due to the important missions located at MacDill."

Convincing Congress to vote to close a military base is a tall order, said Rep Richard Nugent, R-Spring Hill.

"It's roll of the dice," he said. "But from my short time on the House Armed Services Committee, BRAC is not a word or an option that is very well liked."

Rich McClain, director of the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance, said while any base closing is a concern, MacDill might actually gain units from less well-positioned bases. The Army, for instance, is already working on a plan to bring 23 Black Hawk helicopters from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport to MacDill.

Doug Brown, a retired Army general who commanded Socom from 2003 to 2007, said Hagel's budget request bodes well for commandos.

Hagel "obviously sees the continued increase need for special operations and the very special capabilities they bring to the battlefield," said Brown.

Some other notable proposed cuts announced by Hagel include reducing the Army from about 520,000 active duty soldiers to as low as 440,000; cutting Marines from 190,000 to 182,000 - less if sequestration returns; trimming the Army National Guard and Reserves from about 355,000 National Guard soldiers and 205,000 Reserves to about 335,000 soldiers in the Army National Guard and 195,000 in the Reserves; grounding the fleet of A-10 close support jets and retiring the venerable U-2 spy planes in favor of Global Hawk drones.

Hagel's package, which will be formally introduced on Capitol Hill next week, has a long battle ahead, notes Jon Bayless, a retired Navy rear admiral and chair of the Greater Tampa Chamber's Military Council.

"This is the first salvo in what will be an extended fight in Congress especially over programs and personnel issues," said Bayless. "Case in point, look how quickly the retiree pension reductions were not only addressed but reversed."

haltman@tamaptrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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