A decade of war-driven growth at Joint Base Lewis-McChord is coming to an end.
The Army on Tuesday announced plans to trim the ranks of active-duty soldiers at Lewis-McChord by 4,500 troops over the next few years, mostly by eliminating one of its three marquee Stryker brigades.
The news stings among civilian communities that advocated for the Army’s expansion in South Sound even as they celebrate the diminishing demand for troops to serve in Afghanistan.
“Of course we hate to see them go,” said Lacey Mayor Virgil Clarkson, whose city estimates that 10 percent of its residents are active-duty military service members.
Lewis-McChord is not alone in learning of local force reductions this week.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno disclosed plans to cut combat brigades from nine other domestic installations as part of an effort to reduce the number of active-duty troops from a peak of 570,000 in 2010 to an end-strength of 490,000 by 2020.
The Army previously cut two of its Europe-based brigades. Now it’s culling from the likes of Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Campbell in Kentucky, in addition to Lewis-McChord, the military’s largest West Coast installation.
The goal is to help the Pentagon cut $487 billion in long-term spending, as called for in a 2011 law.
The Army’s financial straits could worsen if Congress fails to eliminate another $500 billion in defense cuts outlined in forced federal spending reductions known as sequestration. In that case, the Army would cut even more active and Reserve soldiers, Odierno said.
“If we go through full sequestration, there’s going to be more reductions. There’s no way around it,” Odierno said at a Pentagon news conference before he traveled to Lewis-McChord on Tuesday. He had no public events scheduled in South Sound.
Under every scenario barring sequestration, Lewis-McChord would still retain thousands more soldiers than it had at Fort Lewis prior to the Iraq War. It also will remain Pierce County’s largest employer with more than 55,000 civilian and military personnel.
Today, about 33,600 active-duty soldiers are stationed at the joint Army-Air Force base. Before the wars, Fort Lewis had about 16,000 soldiers. It could wind up with between 26,500 and 29,000 soldiers in 2017 under different projections released by the Army. (The two numbers could not be resolved Tuesday by Army or congressional sources.)
The cuts at Lewis-McChord mostly will come from its 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. That unit of more than 4,000 soldiers gained fame in 2010 as the last U.S. combat brigade to fight in the Iraq War.
About 1,000 of its soldiers are in Afghanistan finishing up a deployment in Kandahar province. They’re due home in August, closing out what is expected to be the last Stryker brigade deployment from Lewis-McChord in Afghanistan.
Army I Corps spokesman Col. Dave Johnson could not say when the brigade would be deactivated. It would lose soldiers through natural attrition as troops move on to new assignments, retire or leave the service.
“It’s not something that’s going to be immediately felt,” said Dan Penrose, who has followed the Army plans closely as a project manager for the South Sound Military and Communities Partnership. “It’s a slow drawdown.”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, said he was disappointed that the Army chose to cut Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade. He said Odierno’s announcement highlights the urgency lawmakers should feel in eliminating the mandatory cuts of sequestration.
“Given the drawdown in Afghanistan, the Army can manage this reduction in troops, but the real hazard to military effectiveness will persist as long as Congress fails to act on sequestration,” said Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Lewis-McChord swelled over the past decade as it became a major platform deploying troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. It also benefited from the Army’s widespread adoption of Stryker infantry vehicles, the eight-wheeled troop carriers that first saw combat in Iraq. Lewis-McChord has more Stryker units than any other base, with 12,000 soldiers in Stryker brigades.
The Army spent more than $2 billion on construction improvements to Lewis-McChord during the wars, and last year it opened a new two-star division headquarters. It also added an aviation brigade in 2012.
Lewis-McChord got crowded in recent years, a trend that civilians likely noticed with increased traffic on Interstate 5. Cutting a Stryker brigade could reduce needs for new construction and alleviate some stress on training grounds.
DuPont City Councilman Mike Courts, a retired colonel and former I Corps chief of staff, believes Lewis-McChord likely is safe from more cuts unless Congress demands more from the Pentagon. It has a desirable location that military families enjoy, and useful access to ports and airstrips.
“With our location, with our wonderful facilities and training environment, we probably gave our donation with the 4-2,” Courts said.
Lewis-McChord soldiers this year are turning their attention from the Middle East to alliances with Pacific allies. That mission won’t change, lawmakers said.
“Joint Base Lewis-McChord will retain its status as the U.S. Army’s main West Coast force projection base,” said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia. “The base will continue to play an important role in the decades ahead as our national security strategy pivots to the Asia-Pacific region.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646