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Wright-Patt May Take Hard Hit with Defense Cuts

Worse, if committee can’t agree by Nov. 23, even deeper defense cuts will be imposed.

WASHINGTON — In recent years, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has become skilled at dodging budgetary bullets, first with the 2006 Base Realignment and Closure process and then, more recently, with a reorganization of the Air Force Materiel Command.

But a new threat on the horizon may be harder to escape: A congressional committee tasked with cutting as much as $1.5 trillion out of the federal budget within the next 10 years may take aim at defense spending.

And Wright-Patterson could see a target placed on it once again.

“The larger the federal installation, the more it has to lose,” said Michael Gessel, vice president of federal government programs for the Dayton Development Coalition, a group of community leaders that lobbies on behalf of Dayton and Wright-Patterson.

With a hefty population of civilian contractors and a role in weapons development work that could be easily scaled back, Wright-Patterson has reason to worry, said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., pro-defense think tank.

“This is an all around bad news story for Wright-Patterson,” he said.

The impact would be felt around the region: Wright-Patterson is the state’s largest single-site employer, and as of 2009 it accounted for one-sixth of the economy of the Dayton region.

“If Wright-Patterson catches a cold,” said Gessel, “the region’s economy gets pneumonia.”

Military leaders and contractors across Ohio are warily watching for word of a breakthrough by the 12-member bipartisan so-called supercommittee.

If the committee members succeed, the stakes are high.

If they fail, they are higher.

They have 10 days.

If they don’t have a plan by Nov. 23, a law passed by Congress in August requires automatic, across-the-board cuts of about $500 billion for the Department of Defense.

Those reductions would come on top of $350 billion that Congress already agreed to cut in August as part of the Budget Control Act that established the committee, which includes Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls the second round of reductions “doomsday” cuts, and for good reason — they would mean dramatically scaled-back weapons programs, less research and development, and a reduction in troops.

For Ohio, it also would mean lost jobs — thousands of them.

The House Armed Services Committee predicts that if the supercommittee fails to reach an agreement — or if Congress doesn’t pass the committee’s proposal — Ohio’s active-duty military force of 8,261 would be cut by about 17 percent, or 1,377 jobs.

The impact would be bigger for the state’s defense contractors: Of their 25,001 jobs, a quarter — 6,250 — would be lost under the mandatory cuts.

National defense is just one part of the federal budget facing deep cuts. At risk are federal research dollars that lead to cures for diseases, food safety programs that prevent devastating food-borne illnesses, and highway dollars that keep roads safe.

They are all programs to which U.S. citizens have become accustomed, like them or not. Cut any of them, and the impact would be tangible to someone.

“Everything is important,” said John Leland, director of the University of Dayton Research Institute, which works with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on research projects. “Yet we can’t afford it all. That’s the dilemma we’re up against.”

‘Discretionary’ spending targeted

Many Americans argue that spending cuts are a much-needed response to bulging federal budget deficits that threaten to choke off hopes for growing jobs and stabilizing the economy.

But while virtually everyone agrees the projected federal deficits are unsustainable, a great divide exists over how to reduce them.

Republicans on the supercommittee, including Portman, have ruled out raising income tax rates as a means for closing the deficit. Democrats, meanwhile, have been reluctant to embrace overhauling the rapidly expanding entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which constitute more than half the federal budget.

If budget-cutters do not deal with entitlements — always a big, political football because of the large constituency that relies on that funding — the next target is discretionary spending — money approved by Congress every year that includes national defense, criminal justice, housing, education and transportation.

Defense cuts of the magnitude being talked about would be sweeping and dramatic — and have a huge impact on Ohio’s defense industry.

Deborah Gross of DaytonDefense, an organization representing some 300 companies that work with Wright-Patterson, said contractors in the region work on “the kind of science and engineering that are going to produce the capability to keep us safe in the future.”

DaytonDefense represents more than 10,000 employees in the region. “Some of the best science in the world is being done right here at the research labs,” Gross said.

UD’s research institute is among the labs devoted to that groundbreaking work. UDRI has worked with Wright-Patterson on everything from developing advanced jet fuels to how to sequester carbon dioxide using algae.

Cuts “would have a severe impact on us,” Leland said. “We’re pretty competitive and pretty agile and we can adapt and accommodate … but when you start talking about 10 percent above and in the time frame they’re talking about, I don’t know of any organization that can respond to cuts like that without taking some drastic measures.”

Defense procurement $6.25 billion industry

Nearly every corner of Ohio holds some military installation or contractor: Dayton has Wright-Patterson, Cleveland a Defense Finance and Accounting Service office and Columbus is home to the research and development company Battelle, along with three defense accounting and supply centers.

In all, Ohio’s economy benefited from $6.25 billion in defense procurement spending alone in 2009, according to statistics compiled by the Ohio Department of Development. Greene and Montgomery counties account for about one-fourth of the state’s DoD contract haul.

The assumption from a lot of observers is that Ohio’s defense industry would suffer from cuts forged by the supercommittee. But it would suffer more if the supercommittee fails to reach a deal.

According the Aerospace Industries Association, Ohio would lose at least 18,424 jobs if the supercommittee talks fail and the across-the-board cuts are enacted. And, the association says, the number is most likely conservative.

National estimates are even more gloomy: at least 1 million direct, indirect and community jobs and 25 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product growth over the next decade. The study only examined military procurement and research and development accounts, meaning the job loss and GDP loss could be higher.

Some military installations are already on edge.

“It’s a very dangerous game of chicken being played right now,” said Lima Mayor David Berger.

His city is home to the General Dynamics-run Lima Tank Plant, which produces M1 Abrams tanks for the U.S. Army.

Berger fears deep cuts could decimate the tank plant, which the Obama administration has already targeted for a temporary closure.

“Supercommittee deadlock is a threat just so enormous,” Berger said.

“I’m not sure most people really understand the depths of the problem created with the automatic cuts that will result.”

security risks?

The possibility of nearly $1 trillion in defense cuts alarms Portman, who warned that “we’ve just got to be sure that we don’t do too much too fast that would hollow out our military and put us in a position of vulnerability. I’ve always said defense needs to be on the table. It cannot be immune from the kind of cuts that we have to make. But let’s do it in a smart way.’’

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Centerville, said the risks wouldn’t just be dire for Ohio businesses. Military readiness also could be impacted.

“Things aren’t getting safer,” he said “The cuts we’re about to put in place are substantial.”

Ohio service members are also concerned.

Lee Crognale, 41, of Powell, a Naval Reserve officer based at Wright-Patterson, said training cutbacks could leave American troops vulnerable on the battlefield.

“When someone starts shooting at you, your brain has a tendency to tighten up a little bit,” said Crognale, who noted that training helps build muscle memory and develop automatic responses to stressful situations.

Crognale, who has spent 22 years in the National Guard and the Navy Reserve and also served in Iraq, believes a

strong military helps keep America safe.

“If Pee-Wee Herman tells you to be quiet, you laugh at him,” he said. “If Mike Tyson walks in the room, you’re probably going to listen to him.”

Thompson said the presidential election could change the stalemate between Republicans and Democrats in Congress if one party walks away with a solid majority. In that case, he said, Congress could reverse some of the spending cuts before they take effect in January 2013.

But Gessel said the unprecedented nature of the cuts and their size make it dangerous to assume that they can be easily undone.

“Cuts of this speed and magnitude have never occurred in anyone’s memory,” he said.

Gessel said the prevailing sense is that whatever budget cuts occur, they will be painful.

“It’s a plausible scenario that the cuts will be so draconian that they will be reversed,” he said. “But not before damage is done.”

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