Arnold Engineering Development Complex testing facility feels pains of sequester

photo The main entrance to the Arnold Air Force base in Tullahoma, Tenn.

The steep budget cuts forced on the military by a federal sequester will knock the wind out of Tennessee's aerospace sector.

The defense spending cuts that are a part of the budget agreement hammered two years ago by Congress and President Barack Obama are now beginning to hit Tullahoma, Tenn. The budget changes will slash the military's ability to test new airplane and aerospace engines, a situation that Arnold Air Force Base spokesman Mike Walden called "the new normal." The cuts will hit the civilian work force the hardest, according to the prime contractor at the 40,000-acre Arnold Engineering Development Complex.

On Monday, the Aerospace Testing Alliance said it will cut 128 of 1,809 civilian jobs at Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma., on top of a 20 percent pay cut and weekly furloughs for workers at the propulsion research facility. Officials say the affected employees will have until April 19 to find a new job.

"This past week, ATA reached an agreement with the AEDC Air Force to reduce the work force by up to 128 personnel," said Steve Pearson, general manager for the base's civilian workers.

About 400 Department of Defense employees will also take a furlough day each week, for a total of more than 2,200 Tullahoma workers who will see take-home pay drop by 20 percent. The mandatory furlough of one day per week will last until at least September, when the federal fiscal year ends.

The cuts may come as a surprise for many employees.

As little as two months ago, the Aerospace Testing Alliance was hiring engineers and craftsmen in preparation for one of the busiest testing periods at AEDC in many years, according to a news release. The base conducts frequent tests of both military and civilian engines to increase safety and performance, and is required to test every single military engine prior to installation in a plane. NASA, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Air Force.

But the cost savings needed to satisfy the terms of the congressionally-mandated "sequester" will severely curtail much of the base's day-to-day testing operations, said Walton, deputy public affairs director at the base. In addition to postponed and canceled tests for NASA, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Air Force, civilian aircraft manufacturers will also have to wait longer to experiment with new technologies. To avoid more job cuts and furloughs, the base attempted to cut nonessential costs first, like temporary duty assignments, travel, seminars, and anything else that expended money, Walton said.

"If the engine doesn't work, the aircraft doesn't fly, and if the aircraft doesn't fly, we don't get to travel," Walton said. "A lot of the testing is something we can't just turn on and off. So some testing that we had scheduled, we'll have to postpone."

Outside of the safety implications of the test site cutbacks, the loss of millions of dollars in Tullahoma could ravage the local economy. Most base personnel live in the area, and a 20 percent loss in income for more than 2,000 residents will ripple throughout the region.

"For the person at McDonald's, now their hours have to be cut because they're not getting the business we would bring to that outlet," Walton said.

There's no guarantee that the escalating job cuts and furloughs will end anytime soon. New government regulations concerning the federal budget and budget sequestration are expected over the next few weeks, according to the ATA news release.

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