Don’t pull that trigger

Published 9:01 pm Saturday, October 20, 2012

In these days of fiscal cliffs and sequestration and trillion-dollar annual deficits, residents and officials have good reason to worry about the future of the military presence in Hampton Roads — and the potential repercussions to the local economy if that presence were significantly diminished.

It’s a worry that has grown afresh with every round of meetings by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, with every congressional hearing on the purported need to diversify East Coast naval installations and with every new initiative to cut the federal deficit by cashing in on “peace dividends.”

Make no mistake — whatever else it might be to the nation at large, the military is big business in Tidewater. Just Thursday, officials with the U.S. Navy announced the results of their annual study of that service’s impact on Hampton Roads, and the numbers are staggering, even taken alone, without considering the local presence of other branches of the military.

Email newsletter signup

According to the study, $14.9 billion worth of the local economy springs directly from the Navy’s presence here. Somewhat surprisingly in the midst of all this talk of budget cuts and the Great Recession, that number grew by about $1.5 billion from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2011. And military and civilian payrolls account for about $8.5 billion in the region.

In short, there’s a lot for Hampton Roads to lose from major cuts to the Defense Department’s budget or realignments of bases and units. And the losses would surely be felt right here in Suffolk, which has groomed a high-tech little corner of the city into “Pentagon South,” hosting top military commands and many of the independent contractors that support them.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, visiting Norfolk on Friday to speak to members o the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, gave area leaders reason to believe there’s powerful support in Washington, D.C., for the area’s continued role in the military, though many may have left the Chamber’s inaugural State of the Military Forum still concerned about the antics of their elected officials in the nation’s capital.

Panetta called Hampton Roads part of the “leading edge” of the nation’s military facilities, and he said the area’s shipyards “are national treasures, and they are the backbone of this country’s naval power.” He vowed he would fight to help the area maintain the imprint of the military, even in the midst of a worrisome economic climate.

However, the secretary of defense was also very direct about at least one of the threats facing the area’s military presence: sequestration, the automatic $500 billion worth of spending cuts facing the military if Congress fails to come to some sort of bipartisan deficit-reduction strategy by January.

“If we don’t do what’s right, it’s going to blow our heads off,” Panetta said of the scheme U.S. House and Senate leaders agreed to pursue if they were unable to reach agreement on the deficit. “And now the damn gun is cocked.”

Quite so. And if Congress is intent on pulling that trigger, not even Leon Panetta’s support for Hampton Roads will be sufficient to stop that bullet.