Defense spending cuts worrisome for local military communities

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw to a close, the Department of Defense plans to trim more than $480 billion from the budget in the coming decade. Tough choices will be made, and communities that rely on military spending are on edge.

On Massachusetts' Cape Cod, 170 positions have been cut from the Otis Air National Guard Base, mostly jobs in the Air Operations group.

"Everybody realizes that everybody has to be part of the solution as we try to get our national debt down," said Col. Anthony Schiavi, the commander of the 102nd Intelligence Wing based at Otis. "We look to make sure we take care of our airmen and their families in whatever way that we can, as well as continuing to have dialogue about other missions we think we can be well-suited for that the Air Force says we still need capability there."

Flexibility and a multiskilled pool of talent has been the key to keeping Otis Air National Guard Base relevant over the past decade.

On Sept. 11, 2001, several jets were scrambled from the base and sent toward New York City when pilots were notified about the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11 out of Logan Airport in Boston.

In 2005, the Otis base was on the chopping block during base realignment and closure, or BRAC, discussions. The F-15s ultimately were transferred, and a new intelligence mission took center stage. Now roughly 900 personnel serve in the 102nd Intelligence Wing, bringing military commanders around the world critical information regarding threats of terrorism and the locations of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Coast Guard aircraft still use the base, and the runways are ready for action.

And on Thursday, two F-16 jets heading to Afghanistan experienced engine problems and the pilots were forced to make emergency landings at the base.

The surrounding business community, which relies heavily on tourism during the summer months, is not taking the cuts lightly, especially as the news comes during the slower spring and winter off-season.

"Of course, we're distressed by it. The military reservation is integral to all of the communities that surround it," said Jay Zavala, the president of the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce. "Not only Falmouth, but Mashpee, Sandwich and Bourne and by extension it goes on beyond the Cape and onto the rest of Massachusetts, so it's very important to us."

Dimitrios Arvanitopoulos, the owner of Two Brothers Pizza & Mexican in Sandwich, Mass., says the base and its soldiers helped his restaurant survive the economic slowdown.

"Over the last five years, they've been huge," Arvanitopoulos said. "There's days where we don't have a lot of other costumers other then the guys from the base, and we say thank God for the military."

Proposed cuts will hit other bases in the Bay State, including the loss of hundreds of positions and a reduction of cargo planes.

Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who served in the state's National Guard for more than 30 years, says the mission, providing safety and security, comes first, but the fiscal impact can't be ignored.

"That's huge, especially here in this part of the region. There's over 5,000 people serving, and then you throw in the ancillary jobs and the supporting civilian work force, it's hundreds of millions of dollars," Brown said. "It's critically important, and I'm not satisfied the proposal makes any sense."

Nationwide, the Air Force plans to cut active, reserve and guard personnel by 9,900 troops by the end of September next year.