Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel likely faces a tough uphill climb as he pushes the Pentagon and Capitol Hill to cut billions of dollars from the U.S. defense budget — but the terrain ahead could be even tougher for the millions of ordinary Americans caught in the crossfire.
The looming cuts won't just shrink the size of the Army and shutter military programs. They may also rupture economies and upend daily lives in the scores of communities dependent on Defense Department activities.
Communities like Tucson, Ariz., home of the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, will likely be hit hard by one of the key proposals in the Defense plan: the elimination of the nation's fleet of A-10 "tank killer" aircraft.
"It's very serious," said Shirley Scott, Tucson's Vice Mayor and a Council Member for Ward 4, which includes Davis-Monthan, the primary training base for the A-10. She said the cuts could leave a deep wound.
The sprawling 10,589-acre air force base's estimated total annual economic impact for the community during Fiscal Year 2012 exceeded $1.1 billion, Scott said.
But that value may wither if the A-10 jets are retired, ousting thousands of base personnel and starving local businesses of revenue.
The base itself is the third largest employer in Tucson, according to Chris Kaselemis, the program director of the city's economic initiatives.
There were 10,869 personnel assigned and employed at Davis-Monthan in Fiscal Year 2012, with a combined payroll totaling upwards of $643 million, according to Scott. The base's estimated number of indirect jobs totaled 4,687, with an estimated dollar value of over $200 million, she added.
The country's full fleet of A-10 “warthogs” would be eliminated and replaced by the F-35, Hagel said at a Pentagon briefing Monday afternoon. The aircraft is not nimble enough and too expensive to maintain because of its age, he added.
Cutting the fleet would save $3.5 billion over five years. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., whose husband was an A-10 pilot, has already vowed to fight plans to scrap the fleet.
The aircraft arrived in the Tucson desert in 1975 — just two years after Suzanne Elefante's family opened Mama Louisa's Italian Restaurant just minutes northeast of Davis-Monthan.
Elefante, the former proprietor of the restaurant who is still something of an honorary boss, said the eatery has been hit hard by previous Defense cutbacks.
Amid the sequestration of 2013, for instance, Mama Louisa's was slammed by a 25 percent decrease in business, she said.
"Anything that affects the base affects the businesses around it, and families around it, and ordinary people around it," Elefante said.
She added: "You're talking about a base that employs a lot of people with spouses and kids who will stop going to restaurants and stores."
Elefante fears that a leaner, less populated base will mean fewer Tucson transplants and tourists.
"People retire to Tucson because there's things like the base here," she said. "But maybe that won't be the case going forward."
A big tourism draw near the base is the Pima Air & Space Museum, one of the world's largest non-government-funded aerospace museums.
Spokeswoman Mary Emich said the museum, which is directly south of the Davis-Monthan, would "definitely notice if base personnel were not here."
"These cuts would certainly hurt deeply," Emich said.
First published February 24 2014, 12:28 PM