A budget squeeze stalled hundreds of Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers from hitting the high desert near Yakima for several weeks of training last summer and delivered a fresh reminder that inconsistent defense spending continues to drag on the Army.
The training pressure is compelling JBLM leaders to drive down costs. It’s also at least partly behind two Army proposals that would expand military exercises in Western Washington, where it’s cheaper for troops to train.
“We have to be efficient. We have to do at JBLM locally everything that we can,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas James, commander of JBLM’s 7th Infantry Division.
The new training cycles at JBLM contrast with the comparably flush years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, when military leaders had a seemingly open checkbook to get soldiers ready for combat deployments.
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Now they’re juggling a mandate to prepare troops for uncertain conflicts while also coping with tighter budget constraints coming out of Washington, D.C.
For James, that means figuring out exactly how much it costs to train each of JBLM’s two 4,000-soldier Stryker brigades so they’re ready for an unexpected mission on short notice.
Although JBLM has hosted Stryker brigades for 14 years, the Army does not have good numbers for that cost in an era when they’re not deploying to war every other year.
The financial cloud persists because lawmakers in Congress have not fully lifted the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration.
Last summer’s budget setback was not nearly as severe as the constraints JBLM faced two years ago, when it furloughed civilian workers. It also slimmed down the number of soldiers it sent to foreign military exercises that year and shaved costs on a large drill in Southern California by putting soldiers on buses instead of planes.
“We learned a lot from that, and we cannot allow that to happen again,” James said. “I really believe calmer heads will prevail and will make sure the best army in the world is resourced for the nation’s needs. The world certainly isn’t any safer.”
The financial cloud persists because lawmakers in Congress have not fully lifted the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration that have been on the books since 2011. They’ve also blocked other proposals from the Pentagon to cut military spending, such as commissioning a Base Closure and Realignment Commission.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, the ranking minority member of the House Armed Services Committee. “For five years they’ve had nothing but budget uncertainty.”
Last week, President Obama vetoed a $612 billion defense budget that passed the House and Senate, revealing another stalemate between the parties over how to fund the Defense Department. On Monday, however, several news agencies reported that congressional leaders were close to reaching a two-year budget deal that would provide some stability to the entire federal government.
“We owe it to the troops who are putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure they have the resources and training they need to do their jobs, stay safe, and protect our national security. We need to fix this—and this is another troubling example of why it’s so important that we end the constant crises and work toward budgets that allow our military to invest in and train for the future,” said Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, whose office learned about the summer’s rescheduled training for JBLM soldiers.
Smith has heard concerns from military leaders that they lack funds to train as often as they believe they should, though they’ve not put a number on it. He cited former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that blasted Congress for missing budget deadlines and cobbling together short-term deals.
“Without proper and predictable funding, no amount of reform or clever reorganization will provide America with a military capable of accomplishing the missions assigned to it,” Gates said.
Smith’s office learned about last summer’s delayed training for JBLM’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment and sought a description of the funding shortfall from the Army headquarters that oversees all domestic forces.
U.S. Forces Command told Smith’s staff that money for the battalion’s rotation to the Yakima Training Center “was not available” because of unexpected maintenance and training costs for other units at JBLM. Forces Command steered several million dollars to the division to cover those costs, but it had to postpone the battalion’s time in the field into the fall.
The battalion is on a course to join its parent brigade at a large exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, in January.
James also stressed, “We’ve got the resources we need to train, and we’ve never stopped training.”
To be sure, James’s soldiers have a busy schedule ahead of them in 2016.
Soldiers from both of his Stryker brigades are expected to participate in large exercises with U.S. allies in East Asia. The division’s aviation brigade this month also is carrying out a large exercise in Idaho. A portion of the division headquarters, meanwhile, has half a year to go on its Afghanistan deployment advising leaders of local forces.
JBLM also is trying to trim training costs by doing more closer to home. It has submitted two proposals that would allow more training in Western Washington.
We have to make sure it’s safe and the community around JBLM embraces it.
Maj. Gen. Thomas James, 7th Infantry Division
One would give Army helicopter pilots new routes and training zones over public land in Southwest Washington and in the North Cascades as an alternative to a site in Colorado. The other would allow two battalions to fire rocket training rounds in JBLM’s artillery impact area instead of limiting their exercises to the Yakima Training Center.
Both proposals are under consideration by the Army, and both are billed as cost-effective ways to improve training.
“These are things we can do at JBLM to maximize our nation’s resources,” James said. “We have to make sure it’s safe and the community around JBLM embraces it.”