Guard faces cuts as deficit battle looms

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Guard faces cuts as deficit battle looms

The Ohio Air National Guard is slated to lose more than 1,000 jobs within a year to budget cuts, including more than 45 in Springfield.

The base in Mansfield will close, planes in Columbus will be retired and Springfield’s mission of feeding real-time intelligence to troops in harm’s way will find itself with a leaner staff.

That’s all just part of the president’s fiscal-year defense budget.

The second part of a one-two punch could come on Jan. 2, and all bets are on that leaving an indelible mark.

That’s when the nightmare scenario known as sequestration — one in which $1.2 trillion in government cuts will be unleashed automatically because of failings to deal with the national debt — may actually come true. Under the sequester, defense alone will take a $492 billion hit, possibly resulting in the smallest ground force since 1940 and the smallest Air Force ever.

But the one thing that could snap lawmakers out of it is a groundswell of public outcry, according to a former Pentagon official.

“One of the things that might do it is what could happen to the Guard,” said Steven Bucci, the nation’s former deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense.

It’s one thing to “hollow out” the active-duty force, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned. It’s another to eliminate guardsmen in your own backyard — the citizen-soldiers who not only help fight the nation’s wars, but who respond to catastrophes at home.

“That then becomes an issue for all of us,” said Bucci, senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

In Springfield alone, the Guard has a huge footprint. The Air Guard base at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport has an annual economic impact of $95.2 million, according to the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m very concerned that, given the extent of the cuts the active force has already absorbed … now they’re going to look and say, ‘Our half of the rock has already been squeezed dry,’ ” Bucci said.

Bucci will host a panel discussion this week called “The Price Every State Must Pay: The National Guard and Sequestration.” It can be watched online, at heritage.org, at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

“The Army and the others have already cut way back,” he said. “They’re going to look to push some of those personnel cuts to the Guard. The Air Force has been the most open about it.”

Already, the military is having to accommodate $487 billion in spending cuts over the next decade. Sequestration would trigger an additional, $492 billion cut.

“The Ohio National Guard would certainly be negatively impacted by sequestration,” warned U.S. Rep. Steve Austria, R-Beavercreek. “There would certainly be cuts.”

In Ohio, the Guard has a total force of 16,060 personnel — 11,359 in the Army Guard and 4,701 in the Air Guard. Of those, 3,264 are full-time employees, and 3,515 are deployed in some capacity in the war in Afghanistan.

“Their capability today is the best it’s ever been,” Bucci said of the Guard. “They are absolutely essential to the defense of this nation.”

The Guard has proven itself essential, according to Bucci, in fighting a long war abroad and in meeting the needs of the states.

Col. Gregory Schnulo, commander of Springfield’s 178th Fighter Wing, declined to comment about either the looming loss of 47 intelligence positions locally or the possible impact of sequestration.

“Since they are just possibilities right now,” Schnulo wrote in an email, “it wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”

The 178th, which employs close to 800 people, lost its F-16s as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission. But it gained a twofold new mission: Providing intelligence for the National Air and Space Intelligence Center and remotely piloting the MQ-1 Predator.

The wing now is engaged on a daily basis in the War on Terror.

From a ground control station at the Springfield Air National Guard Base, the unmanned Predator is flown around the clock overseas on armed reconnaissance missions — in other words, lookout missions with precision-strike capabilities.

But, this summer, members of the 178th also went door-to-door in Southwest Ohio, checking on people in the wake of the freak wind storm that left thousands without power.

“The governor of Ohio will have fewer assets to address disasters that may come up,” Bucci said of sequestration.

The Air Guard already is bracing for those fiscal-year budget cuts that could eliminate more than 1,000 jobs statewide.

“It’s time for the president to lay out a detailed plan for how to save the nearly 1,000 jobs that are at risk of being lost as part of his budget,” Austria said.

It doesn’t make sense to cut intelligence jobs in Springfield, he said, calling them “the way of the future.” The local base as a whole, he said, is “performing missions that are critical to the future of our defense.”

In addition to the intelligence jobs in Springfield — jobs Austria calls “the way of the future” — the president’s budget calls for the 179th Airlift Wing at Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport to lose the C-27J Spartan.

The loss of the mission, according to Austria, would shutter the base, eliminating 800 jobs.

Also at risk are six KC-135 tankers at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus. Retiring those planes, Austria said, will eliminate 200 jobs.

In a letter to Austria, the White House defended the cuts at Rickenbacker, noting that the unit will remain open with about 1,300 personnel intact.

The White House also pledged to find Mansfield a new mission after Air Force One landed there this month on an Obama campaign swing.

The president, Austria said, has landed at both bases this year, but didn’t meet with base personnel either time.

“There seems to be a disconnect,” he said, “between this administration and the negative impact of such cuts.”

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