By Drew Brooks
The local defense community is likely to avoid deep cuts, but uncertainty is still having an impact on the economy.
That’s one of the messages taken Friday from a Fayetteville Regional Chamber program meant to bring clarity to the local discussion of a constrained defense budget.
U.S. Rep. David Price, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, was among the chamber’s guests at the event titled “Federal Budgeting and the Military: What You Need to Know.”
Chamber officials said the meeting, held at the Cape Fear Botanical Garden, was the first in a series of community discussions under the Grassroots Action Insight Network.
Price was joined by Lance DeSpain, executive director of the N.C. Military Foundation, and Ben Freeman, national security policy adviser at the think tank Third Way.
The three men painted a picture that has Fort Bragg and the surrounding region avoiding the deepest possible cuts that have been outlined by Army officials.
Fort Bragg is a critical component of the Army’s mission, DeSpain said, pointing out several key commands based on the post.
“Fayetteville and Fort Bragg are very well placed and very well suited to ride out future budget constraints,” he said.
While Fort Bragg is likely to be affected in some ways, it won’t be as bad as defense communities in other states, DeSpain said.
“This is the last place the Army wants to remove a brigade from,” he said.
“What we have here at Fort Bragg is a supercenter,” DeSpain said. And any cuts to that supercenter could be offset by growth in Army special operations forces, which count Fort Bragg as their home.
But that doesn’t mean the Fort Bragg community is insulated from defense budget uncertainty.
The defense industry makes up more than 40 percent of the local economy, officials said. And more than 50 cents of every dollar earned in Cumberland County comes from service member and defense civilian wages.
The uncertainty of budget cuts also can affect businesses, the panel said.
There have been cuts to some service contracts, which make up a large portion of the total Department of Defense budget.
Defense contractors from BAE Systems to Fayetteville-based Combat Medical Systems are having difficulty hiring, forming business plans or setting budgets while Congress bickers over the defense budget.
“Everyone is kind of stuck at a standstill,” DeSpain said.
Price said budget negotiations in Congress are contentious and clogged by partisan arguments.
While “a dose of realism and very tough choices,” are needed, Price said “one side of the aisle” has been unwilling to compromise.
Instead, even noncontroversial bills are often hijacked for political means, he said.
“We’re struggling to do the basic things,” Price said.
The Democrat said the economic questions surrounding the Department of Defense not only entail less money, but shifting priorities.
It doesn’t help that Congress has thwarted some shifting priorities, forcing the military to make other cuts.
“Political pressures are pretty severe and not entirely productive,” Price said.
They also may lead to a hollowing of the force, as Army officials are forced to make cuts to training and other areas that affect readiness.
Freedman said the end result may be a military with a lot of personnel and “a lot of great toys,” but no gas to take them to battle.
A “big bad looking military without training it needs,” would be the definition of a hollow force, he said.
Freeman said there has to be tradeoffs in the budgeting process.
DeSpain agreed and said training and readiness were the top priorities for military leaders