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The Naval Air Systems Command is bracing for $3.5 billion in cuts this fiscal year alone, according to a message released Wednesday by NAVAIR and sent via email to its employees.

Those reductions could mean revisiting the ways NAVAIR supports sailors and Marines, reducing its contractor workforce and furloughing its own civilian employees as early as mid-April, if Congress fails to identify 2013 spending levels for government agencies and address potentially debilitating budget cuts known as sequestration. Unpaid furloughs, if enacted, could amount to 20 percent of federal workers’ salaries, putting them on a 32-hour work week for up to 22 weeks.

To reduce spending immediately, NAVAIR has issued a hiring freeze, postponed conferences, canceled non-mission-essential training, limited overtime and reduced supply purchases.

“We will have tough decisions to make in the coming weeks,” Vice Adm. David Dunaway, NAVAIR’s commander, said in his written statement. He promised to “do whatever I can within my authority to minimize impacts on our people, programs and customers.”

Patuxent River Naval Air Station, home to NAVAIR employees and other civilian workers who would be affected by the budget crisis, employs about 22,400 civilian, contractor and military workers.

NAVAIR’s decisions, Dunaway said, would be made “in close coordination” with its customers and all of its major departments, known as competencies, including engineering, test and evaluation and contracting. “This will enable us to provide Navy and [Department of Defense] leadership with a clear picture of impacts and risks to both readiness and personnel,” he said.

If they take effect, the $3.5 billion in budget reductions would include $3 billion from critical areas, called “investment accounts,” such as research, development and purchasing for major programs supporting naval aviation. Another $520 million could be taken from operations and maintenance efforts, including aircraft and fleet support, and NAVAIR headquarters, which shapes the direction of U.S. naval aviation globally.

Because Congress cannot agree on a current budget, government agencies are temporarily operating under a continuing resolution that has frozen spending at the fiscal year 2012 level, with limitations on transferring funds across budget areas. Meanwhile, NAVAIR has reported that expenses are rising, due to higher fuel costs, unexpected repairs and a presence in the Middle East.

“Like every other DoD entity, NAVAIR is working feverishly to continue planning for the many different scenarios that may unfold,” said Glen Ives, president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, an executive with a defense contracting company and a former commanding officer of Pax River.

Planning for the unknown with significantly fewer resources has possibly been the most difficult part of this budgetary crisis, Ives said. But, no matter what happens with sequestration, budget cuts are already in motion and the continuing resolution situation “will have very adverse impacts on all of our military,” he said.

The Navy has said that ship and aircraft maintenance could be stopped several months this year, that some military deployments could be canceled and that a range of Navy base operations could suffer.

“This is the most serious, threatening situation we have faced in terms of our nation’s security readiness, the Navy’s mission here at Pax River, the future of government and industry jobs and the potential adverse impacts to our economy and community,” Ives said.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats have been in high-stakes, long-term battles over whether to address the budget crisis through raising taxes or cutting program funding. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) has met with Dunaway and other local defense leaders.

“I will continue urging both parties to work together on a balanced solution to the deficit so that we can avoid these irrational cuts, and will continue working with Vice Admiral Dunaway and others to strengthen national security, provide certainty to our businesses, and protect local jobs,” Hoyer said in a statement. People in his district, and all communities affected by defense spending, “cannot afford political games,” Hoyer said.

Sequestration, which would bring deep, automatic spending cuts to military spending, will take effect March 1, unless Congress agrees on an alternate solution.

“I think it’s the scariest part of my life since I’ve ever been here in St. Mary’s County,” said Keith Fairfax, who said his mother brought him to St. Mary’s in 1957 so he could learn to be an engineer. He has worked for decades in defense, served as a Southern Maryland Navy Alliance president and has volunteered in the county 55 years as a firefighter.

“Steny Hoyer is usually really upbeat, pro-business, pro-Navy. You can see and feel the concern that he has,” Fairfax said. “When you take somebody of his caliber and he’s genuinely concerned, then we have to be concerned.”

But all isn’t lost, Fairfax said. “The contracting community, the civil service community, uniformed military, we all have to pull it together.” If the country could survive the Great Depression and two world wars, “when the [Japanese] and the Germans were beating the crap out of us,” it can survive this budget crisis, he said. “We just did what we had to do. This community will just have to do the same thing.”

nclark@somdnews.com