published Monday, June 30th, 2014

Army outlines worst-case losses for Georgia

Soldiers from across Fort Benning, Ga., 113 strong, take the reenlistment oath in front of McGinnis-Wickham Hall in this 2012 photo.
Soldiers from across Fort Benning, Ga., 113 strong, take the reenlistment oath in front of McGinnis-Wickham Hall in this 2012 photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — A new Army report says Georgia could lose thousands of additional military jobs beyond current downsizing plans if Washington imposes future automatic budget cuts, though officials who keep a close watch on the state's bases say they doubt such severe cutbacks will actually happen.

The report issued Thursday outlines the Army's hypothetical, worst-case predictions for job losses at 30 bases across the U.S., including three in Georgia. It shows Fort Stewart near Savannah could lose up to 16,000 soldiers and civilian workers -- more than three-fourths of its current workforce. In addition, Fort Benning in Columbus could shed as many as 10,800 jobs, and Fort Gordon in Augusta faces up to 4,600 positions being axed.

All combined, the Army said the cutbacks could cost Georgia $1.7 billion in lost annual income.

State and local officials who work to protect Georgia's military interests said they're not too alarmed. While the Army is downsizing from about 570,000 troops to a projected 450,000, its report was written to show how severe reductions could become if the Pentagon faces more automatic, across-the-board budget cuts because the president and Congress can't agree on future budgets.

"While we, of course, take the Army processes seriously, this exercise seems to be built around worst-case scenarios not likely to pass muster in Congress," said Will Ball, a former Navy secretary who heads a lobbying initiative launched by Gov. Nathan Deal to advocate for Georgia's military bases.

Army commanders have warned Congress that more automatic cuts could force them to shrink the total force to 420,000 soldiers -- a number they insist is too low to meet U.S. defense needs. The new base-by-base report essentially puts the cost in economic terms on a local level, showing policymakers and their constituents how painful the cuts could become in their home communities.

While it's possible Georgia could face deeper military cuts down the road, restructuring plans being carried out now look far less threatening than those outlined in the Army's worst-case report.

Fort Stewart is scheduled to shut down one of its combat brigades of 3,500 soldiers next year. But the estimated net loss is only 1,600 troops, with the rest being assigned to other units. In Augusta, Fort Gordon is actually gearing up for a growth spurt after the Army announced in December plans to move its Cyber Command there.

Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas, whose city sits outside Fort Stewart's front gate, said backlash after automatic cuts were allowed to kick in last year should make Washington less eager to try it again.

"I think Congress learned you can't take the active force down so low that it becomes ineffective," Thomas said. "I think cooler heads will prevail."

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