TAMPA — More than 1,200 jobs could be lost at MacDill Air Force Base's two combat commands starting in late 2014 under a tentative plan to downsize the military with $500 billion in looming automatic budget cuts.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel provided a dire warning Wednesday that unless Congress and President Obama compromise on averting across-the-board cuts — so-called sequestration reductions — military readiness will be imperiled.
Hagel said 20 percent cuts at combat commands may prove necessary. For U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command at MacDill, that would total at least 1,200 jobs lost.
Hagel's tough talk comes even as MacDill is coping with furloughs of much of its civilian workforce imposed by fiscal 2013 sequester cuts. Local business leaders, who point to MacDill's $4.9 billion economic impact in the Tampa Bay area, worry about the long-term hit to the local economy.
"It's huge," said Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, who said the chamber and business leaders must lobby lawmakers to avert cuts.
"We view MacDill as one of the commerce drivers in the market. … If you wait until they say, 'Hey, you're being cut,' then you're at (the Pentagon's) mercy," he said.
Several members of the local congressional delegation, including Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Starting last month, about 2,200 civilian workers at MacDill began furloughs of one day a week for 11 weeks. The 6th Air Mobility Wing initially reported 3,500 furloughs across MacDill but later lowered the figure.
"I know there's politics in all of this," Hagel said. "But what we're trying to project here is not crying wolf or not trying to overstate or over hype."
Officials at CentCom and SOCom, the commands that spearheaded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said it was premature to discuss cuts that, if approved, would be implemented Oct. 1.
"We don't have enough detail at this point," said CentCom spokesman Mark Blackington. "We don't want to guess."
SOCom currently has 2,500 military and civilian employees at MacDill, CentCom 5,000. CentCom, however, already planned to cut 1,100 workers next year with the end of operations in Afghanistan. It appears a 20 percent cut would be made on CentCom's reduced workforce.
Some contend the Pentagon's continued warnings about a reduced military are misplaced and argue the Pentagon has faced cuts after the ends of conflicts such as World War II.
"A $500 billion reduction from the current projection would be consistent with prior defense drawdowns, not a 'strategic miscalculation,' " Gordon Adams, a professor at the School of International Service at American University, said in a ForeignPolicy.com essay.
Hagel's proposed cuts, he said, barely touch the Pentagon's bloated bureaucracy.
"Where once we had twice as many active-duty combat forces as civil servants, we now have more civil servants and 'ghost' civil servants than we have soldiers, sailors and pilots," he wrote.
Four years after World War II, Adams said, the Pentagon had cut its Civil Service force in half.
Military analyst Winslow Wheeler told the Tampa Bay Times that Hagel's cuts become more severe several years after reductions begin.
Cuts, he said, are "biased toward the out years — the ones that never happen as presumed."
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.