When the Army released a proposal last summer to cut as many as 11,000 more soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, hundreds of people from the South Sound spoke up about how the drawdown would hurt the local economy.
So did thousands of others from military communities around the country. They, too, are bracing for another round of deep reductions in the size of the active-duty Army.
Every domestic Army post — from Fort Wainwright in Alaska to Fort Benning in Georgia — has something to lose from budget cuts planned to start in 2017. Military spending is expected to be slashed by $47 billion a year on top of a previously announced post-war drawdown.
As a result, severe cuts to active-duty forces at JBLM are still on the table in a study the Army released late last week. It’s an update to a report released in June that invited to the public to weigh in on how military cuts might impact local communities.
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“We’ve met all the requirements. We’ve been very supportive of (JBLM). It’s just a matter of the cuts are the cuts,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Bellevue, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
The Army has not pinpointed exactly how many soldiers it plans to take from each installation. That decision won’t come until sometime next year after bases hold community listening sessions to gather more feedback from residents. JBLM’s is scheduled for Jan. 21 at the Eagles Pride golf course in DuPont.
The report released last week projects that large Army posts would each drop by 16,000 soldiers and Army employees from the numbers they employed in 2012. However, it’s unlikely that any post would actually lose that many positions.
The numbers are meant to give options to Pentagon planners as they draw up proposals for what the Army should look like as it shrinks from a wartime force of 562,000 active-duty soldiers to as few as 420,000. Today, the active-duty Army has a total strength of about 510,000 soldiers.
JBLM has already shed about 5,000 soldiers in a first round of forced reductions, leaving a worst-case cut of 11,000 more in the next phase.
Officials say losing that many jobs could depress the local economy and lead to about 5,000 more layoffs among military contractors and others who do business with the base. The region could lose $1.2 billion in annual payroll and about $17 million in annual sales tax, according to the Army.
“If this thing were to play out in the worst case scenario, it would be no less than recession-inducing to the South Puget Sound,” said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, whose district includes the base.
JBLM is the South Sound’s top employer. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it grew from a base with about 18,000 soldiers to one with as many 36,000 active-duty soldiers. Those numbers do not include airmen stationed at McChord Air Field, or the Reserve and National Guard soldiers who use the base.
If the full cuts unfold, the Army says JBLM would have about 20,000 active-duty soldiers and full-time Army employees. It would still be the Army’s third largest installation, behind Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas.
The updated report released last week looked at how the Army personnel cuts could impact the environment and the economy around military bases. Not surprisingly, the Army found that reducing its footprint would be good for the environment but bad for local economies.
JBLM stood out in one way: It was the only installation among 30 in which the Army indicated that maintaining its present size could negatively impact the environment. It said that retaining large numbers of soldiers here would stress vehicle traffic, air traffic and noise
That’s a red flag, said Kristine Reeves, military affairs director for the state Commerce Department.
“They’re saying ‘if we downsize, we’re doing you a favor,’ ” said Reeves, who is working with the state’s defense industry and military communities to prepare for budget cuts.
Total defense spending has not slowed much since the peak war years. It has held steady around $495 billion for the past three years, with an additional $60 billion to $80 billion a year for the war in Afghanistan.
The additional proposed cuts, known as sequestration, would slice a total of $487 billion in defense spending over a decade. Federal lawmakers have eased some restrictions on Pentagon spending from the original 2011 sequestration plan, but they have not repealed the full cuts.
With lawmakers refusing to budge, Smith said military communities should prepare for the full impacts of sequestration.
“We are in the same jam we have been in since 2011,” he said. “I don’t see how we get out of that.”