Fort Benning braces for defense budget cuts

Federal budget cuts that could have a profound effect on Fort Benning and the Columbus-area economy will be among the major issues up for discussion during a Dec. 10 Regional Defense Impact Summit.

The event, which will take place at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, is expected to attract a number of federal, state and local officials, along with community and business leaders.

"I've heard all kinds of things and none of them are pretty," Mike Gaymon, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, said of the specter of U.S. Department of Defense cuts that most certainly would ripple down to the local military installation that trains Infantry and Armor troops.

"We all know that sequestration means more cuts to the military if something doesn't get worked out. Well, does anybody think it's going to get worked out before the deadline? I hope it does," said Gaymon of the $500 billion in automatic federal defense budget cuts that will occur in January if President Obama and Congress can't work out a compromise before then.

The cuts, which would occur over 10 years, are on top of an earlier $487 billion in defense cuts agreed upon by both Democrats and Republicans. The "fiscal cliff," as the potential budget slashing and tax increases have been dubbed, could possibly push the U.S. economy back into recession, experts have said.

Gaymon said he believes some sort of announcement from Washington on how military installations will be impacted by the cuts is imminent. There has been previous speculation that Fort Benning's 3rd Brigade Heavy Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division could be a target as the military downsizes and restructures its forces from more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fort Benning's Public Affairs Office would not confirm any timetable for an announcement. On Friday, Gary Jones, director of public affairs for the Maneuver Center of Excellence on post, issued a simple statement.

"Whatever budget decisions are reached by our nation's leaders in Washington, D.C., Fort Benning's soldiers and civilians will continue to be good stewards of the tax dollars entrusted to them to train the Army's maneuver force," he said.

Earlier this year, the installation said it was cutting its training load sharply in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The number of troops receiving instruction on the post was slashed by 35,000 to 96,000.

The post also identified 250 positions among its civilian workforce for elimination, while civilian contractors connected specifically to carrying out the Base Realignment and Closure process have been phased out. The primary result of BRAC was the relocation of the U.S. Army Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky., to Fort Benning.

"Hopefully, this will help end some of the speculation, so then we can start to deal with reality," Gaymon said of the coming budget announcement.

Congressional leaders met with Obama at the White House Friday, with both Republicans and Democrats expressing confidence that a budget impasse can be resolved.

"I believe that we can do this," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in an Associated Press report.

"We understand our responsibility. I feel confident that a solution may be in sight," said U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the top House Democrat.

Gaymon said the upcoming Regional Defense Impact Summit, which will be open to the general public, also is expected to touch on the topics of land use and the environmental impact, technology growth such as simulation and gaming targeted for military use, and health care for veterans. The latter could center around where some sort of treatment facility could be located in the Columbus area, he said.