A smaller Army at Joint Base Lewis-McChord could be a louder one.
The same postwar cost-cutting pressures that are leading the military to shrink the number of uniformed troops are also driving it to do more complex training closer to home.
That means South Sound residents might notice explosions from artillery and rockets that JBLM soldiers in recent years predominantly have fired at the Yakima Training Center in Central Washington.
“We’ve changed the way we train at home station. There are things now we can do at JBLM that I don’t have to do in Yakima,” said JBLM’s senior Army officer, Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza. “That’s really important. If I don’t have to drive that 160, 170 miles to Yakima, I can save a lot of money by training better at home station.”
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A March 11 “combined arms” exercise gave a preview of the level of training JBLM may conduct more often in the South Sound. It centered on an infantry captain coordinating simultaneous fire from mortar launchers, Howitzer cannons and Apache attack helicopters equipped with Hellfire rockets.
Training like this is one of the capstone tests of junior-grade officers that JBLM traditionally has carried out amid the sagebrush of Eastern Washington. It’s a rehearsal for one of the most complex assignments a soldier might have in battle.
Last month’s exercise was a special occasion. The Army hosted it not just for training but also to present a demonstration for officials from the Indian military who were visiting JBLM. It was attended by three U.S. Army generals and one from India.
It also conveyed to JBLM leaders that they can safely conduct a live weapons exercise involving infantry, artillery and Army aviation on a local range.
“It was a demonstration that we have a capability to do it here,” said I Corps Col. Scott Halverson, who coordinates training events for Army units at JBLM.
Lanza and other JBLM leaders have been putting the word out about their intent to make more use of local training areas in their regular discussions with South Sound local government officials.
So far, neither cities nor the base are reporting an increase in formal complaints about training noise, according to Army and Lakewood officials.
“We don’t see it as something that is going to change the basic understanding and relationship between JBLM and Lakewood,” said city spokesman Brent Champaco.
He said Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield was aware that the Army wanted to do more local training.
“It’s not a big deal. We don’t see things changing much,” Champaco said.
In some ways, the renewed local training is a return to the way the Army used Fort Lewis in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was a home to large tank and helicopter units.
“There used to be tanks here,” said 7th Infantry Division Commander Maj. Gen. Terry Ferrell, who like Lanza is enthusiastic about making greater use of local training areas.
The Army used local training grounds for complex drills less frequently during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
JBLM’s 4,000-soldier Stryker brigades tended to deploy to the wars every other year, meaning they would be away from the base for extended periods. They would prepare for overseas missions with large-scale exercises in Yakima and at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif.
Now JBLM’s Stryker brigades are not going to combat zones in large numbers. Instead, they’re home and competing for space to maintain their readiness. JBLM’s roughly 3,000 Special Operations soldiers also have to make use of the same areas.
That’s why the slowdown in deployments should make more for more noticeable training at home even though JBLM has about 7,000 fewer active-duty soldiers today than it did in 2011 before the Army began its drawdown, officers said.
“As part of that plan and just our requirements to get our units to be the most ready as they can be, we’re going to be using all the resources we have both at JBLM and at Yakima,” Halverson said.
Some residents have been noticing both louder booms and more frequent gunshots from the rifle ranges that circle JBLM.
“One day I’ve noticed there was like a war zone. It was unbelievable and it was all day. It was pretty incredible,” said Cliff Gilbert, who has lived near Sprinker Recreation Center in Spanaway for more than 20 years.
He was irritated by the loud explosions that accompanied the March exercise JBLM hosted for the Indian army.
“You can’t just move into a neighborhood and all of a sudden have the Western Front going off,” he said.
JBLM issued a public notice in early March alerting residents to the combined arms event that caught Gilbert’s attention. The base publishes those notices whenever it plans to host a drill that might involve unusual or after-hours explosions, said base spokesman Joe Kubistek.
Usually the base does not hear many complaints about noise as long as it publishes those notices. It has a phone line to collect noise complaints. It tracks them whenever residents file a formal, written complaint.
“A lot of times people tell us ‘If we know about (the firing) we can put our dog in the pen. If we know about it, we can take measures to prepare for it,’ ” Kubistek said.
Since 2012, JBLM most often has upset residents with unannounced helicopter flights. It added a new helicopter brigade that year and established regular routes over Lacey, Lakewood and Olympia without telling residents. JBLM has since eliminated those off-base routes and complaints have declined.
Last year, most of JBLM’s active-duty Army helicopters were deployed to Afghanistan. They’re home now and moving into a training period, which means they also may be more noticeable to residents than they were in 2014. In addition, JBLM this summer is expected to add 24 Apache helicopters from a unit that is moving here from Colorado.
The renewed use of local training ranges comes at a time when the Army is drastically cutting the size of its active-duty forces from the Iraq War peak and considering deep cuts to every installation.
Military communities all over the country have been lobbying their local governments and federal representatives to argue that bases near them should not be slashed. The Army’s ability to train at a certain location is one of the criteria it’s using to decide where it should cut.
“We’ve gotten great support from our community,” Lanza said. “That comes at a little bit of a price. We try to explain to them that a little bit of frustration is really helping us build our readiness. The more we can do at the base, the better it is for everyone.”