March 06, 2017

By Craig Schneider and Tamar Hallerman

President Donald Trump’s plan to boost defense spending by $54 billion has lit a fuse of optimism around Georgia’s military bases, contractors and other interests, stirring hope for proposals shelved during the belt-tightening of recent years.

“After years of endless budget cuts that have impaired our defenses, I am calling for one of the largest defense-spending increases in history,” Trump said last week in Virginia. “We will give the men and women of America’s armed services the resources you need to keep us safe.”

Trump’s proposed military buildup, which would constitute a nearly 10 percent increase, is no simple political undertaking. But it could prime a pump that sends millions of dollars into Georgia bases, which in turn employ tens of thousands and often drive the economies around them. The plan could also rain dollars on Georgia’s military contractors and universities that perform defense research.

Georgia is the sixth-largest military state in terms of personnel, with eight major bases and more than 118,000 active-duty, reserve and civilian personnel, according to Pentagon figures. In recent years, advocates say they’ve seen fewer dollars flowing due to a national retrenchment in military funding.

“It’s really nice to see this reversal in thinking about the military,” said David Connell, president of the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce. Cobb is home to Dobbins Air Reserve Base, the headquarters of the Georgia National Guard and the defense contractor Lockheed Martin.

But major challenges remain for Trump to realize his military blueprint, which he long promised on the campaign trail.

Democrats are furious that Trump wants to offset the buildup by slashing funding for domestic-focused agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. In the past, many Democrats have opposed Pentagon increases without an equal funding boost for nondefense programs.

“I’m not in favor of this proposal to plus-up defense spending at the expense of nondefense discretionary spending,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

Republicans have their own differences. Some disdain such spending as adding to the deficit, and many are upset that Trump’s initial budget proposal does not address entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, which collectively eat up two-thirds of the annual federal budget. Hawks such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., want even more spending on the military.

The reality is that Trump’s initial budget proposal is nothing more than a starting point for negotiations on Capitol Hill. The final plan Congress approves will likely look very little like this proposal since lawmakers – even those within the state of Georgia – have their own parochial concerns.

Excitement for metro Atlanta

Georgia officials express broad optimism that a rising tide of defense spending nationwide will bolster the state’s military complex.

“We’re in perfect position to be able to receive enhanced military funding because we have the facilities in place to deliver,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

Georgia has a history of support for the military as well as powerful advocates in Washington, such as Isakson and U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, who sits on the House subcommittee that funds the Pentagon.

Moreover, boosters say numerous bases here have the capacity to expand, along with proposals already on the back burner. Adding personal, equipment and responsibilities can enhance the value of these bases, as well as insulate them from future base closures, a prospect that’s long been on the horizon.

Georgia’s military towns often rally around their bases, knowing that more soldiers can mean more restaurants, convenience stores, banks and bike shops. Expansions can mean more taxes to help fund schools and other municipal priorities.

“When we have more soldiers in town, we have more business,” said Bruce Sellers, a sales associate at Ride on Bikes in Uptown Columbus, not far from Fort Benning. He estimated as much as half the store’s business is tied to the base.

Dusting off wish lists

Georgia’s congressional reps, several of whom serve on defense committees, often galvanize around major military projects in the state. In the past, they have collectively promoted the importance of cyber-defense work at Fort Gordon near Augusta, and extending the life of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to a half dozen Georgia military bases, but none would comment, some saying it was premature to speculate before Congress acts. The Pentagon did not respond for comment.

Nonetheless, economic development officials in military towns, who work hand-in-hand with bases, were already dusting off their wish lists. For them, such proposals transcend any national debate. Instead, they are seen as engines for economic development.

Metro Atlanta, in particular, could benefit from an infusion of military spending, as it contains a military base, defense contractors and research universities.

Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Cobb County has suffered cuts that resulted in fewer hours for training flights and target practice, said Connell of the county chamber of commerce.

Now, a more optimistic Connell sees a shot at the base receiving a new group of C-130J planes. The plane could well be produced by nearby Lockheed, which manufactured its predecessor, and could be located at Dobbins, long home to the C-130 line. All tolled that could bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the area, he said.

Officials at Georgia’s Army National Guard, based at Dobbins, want to add another thousand soldiers to its ranks of 11,000.

Lockheed Martin already receives $2.6 billion a year in defense contracts. The company has been engaged in a high-profile public negotiation with Trump over the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. After Trump attacked Lockheed’s price tag, the defense giant brought down the costs.

“We support President Trump’s commitment to strengthening our military,” Lockheed spokeswoman Maureen Schumann told the AJC. “We are looking forward to continuing to work with the administration to deliver the best capability to our men and women in uniform, and the best value for U.S. taxpayers.”

Metro Atlanta is home to several universities that work in defense. Georgia Tech received $320 million last year in military dollars for research ranging from missile defense systems to sensors for chemical and biological weapons.

Boosters see a sea change

Elsewhere in the state, Fort Benning has been hoping for another brigade of 3,400 soldiers, said Gary Jones, a representative of the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce, who happens to be the former garrison commander at the base.

These soldiers often come with families, and Jones estimated their salaries, buying power and service needs could have a regional impact of $400 million a year.

Fort Stewart near Savannah, already the largest Army base east of the Mississippi, is hoping to attract another battalion with a few thousand soldiers.

Rep. Austin Scott, whose 8th Congressional District follows I-75 from Warner Robins to Valdosta, said he wants to see Congress extend the lifetime of the A-10 “Warthog” fighter jet. Many of them are stationed at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta. He also backed an effort last year to study bringing back the F-22 Raptor jet, once built by Lockheed Martin in Marietta.

Boosters for many military bases said they suffered under the 2013 spending cuts known as sequestration. In reality, some bases that saw cuts in personnel found ways to bring in others, and dollars cut in one budget were often partially offset by funding bumps elsewhere.

Fort Gordon, however, has its own very distinct success story. It’s been growing since it was named the Army’s Cyber Command Headquarters in 2013. The base has some $780 million worth of already funded projects that stretch into 2025, according to a report last year by the state House Study Committee on Military Affairs.

Isakson indicated that increases to cyber-security spending would most likely filter down to Fort Gordon. Augusta is already home to many functions of the National Security Agency, and local officials hope the Trump money would hasten their vision of becoming the Silicon Valley of the East. They pointed to the increasing role of cyber-warfare in world affairs.

“The need for cyber security will never go away,” said Walter Sprouse, executive director of the Augusta Economic Development Authority. “There is going to be increased spending here.”

For all the doubts about Trump’s proposal, military spending is still widely popular given its national profile. If there’s one thing Congress has a proven ability to unite over, it is funding for defense.