By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - South Carolina's military bases, civilian employees and defense contractors will all feel the impact this year if the Pentagon moves ahead with plans to slash $46 billion from its budget.
The cuts are part of automatic "sequestration" spending reductions that will slash defense and non-defense spending nationwide by about $85 billion between March 1 and the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Army officials project an overall $156 million economic hit statewide, with unpaid furloughs, canceled maintenance projects and fewer contracts.
The Air Force says furloughs could cost 2,275 civilian employees across South Carolina up to $17.7 million in wages.
And contractors such as Michelin North America are worried the military will buy fewer tires.
The sequestration cuts, $1.2 trillion over nine years, were designed to be so onerous that Congress and the White House would feel compelled to avoid them by agreeing to a less drastic long-term deficit reduction plan.
Lawmakers did approve delaying the cuts from January 1 to March 1, but no long-term plan has emerged.
Pentagon officials recently began detailing specific impacts on bases and states around the country. They say every installation will be affected and national security will be weakened.
"The wolf is at the door," Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress last week.
Military personnel are exempt from the cuts, which increases the burden on civilians, contractors, operations, maintenance and construction.
The sequestration cuts are expected to trim more than $34 million from wages paid to more than 10,000 civilians employed by the Defense Department in South Carolina, according to documents provided to members of Congress.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that employees will get 30 days notice of any furlough.
"There is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force," Panetta said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, has been especially critical of how the cuts will affect military readiness and has suggested alternative cuts.
"I'm hopeful that once sequestration starts, that the effects on our military in particular will wake us up and we'll get on with solving this problem," Graham said Tuesday in Easley. "Cutting $1.2 trillion is very achievable, and you can do it without destroying the Defense Department."
The Air Force said it will have to delay $18.8 million of planned maintenance and improvement projects at Charleston Air Force Base and Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. The largest is a $11.7 million project for runway work in Charleston.
Shaw Air Force Base won't get F-35s, which Graham said could mean the end of growth at the base.
"When it comes to Sumter County's economy, it would destroy that part of the state," he said.
The automatic cuts were part of an August 2011 deal to increase the nation's debt limit.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, voted against the deal. But on Wednesday, he said through a spokesman that the cuts may have to go through.
"The cuts set to take effect represent one-fifteenth of just one year's deficit - one-fifteenth," he said. "If we cannot be trusted to follow through on that, there is little to no hope for a long-term solution to our fiscal irresponsibility."
Michelin North America in Greenville has several contracts with the Defense Logistics Agency and the Navy for tires for ground vehicles and aircraft. Those contracts will be honored, but the military may cut back on the tires it buys, a company spokesman said Wednesday.
"We don't know the level we're going to be affected from a volume standpoint," spokesman Tony Fouladpour said. The company's plant in North Carolina would be most affected, he said.