Senior Army leaders this week loudly voiced concerns about the scale of planned cuts to the nation’s ground forces, citing instability in Eastern Europe, persistent threats from Islamic State militants in the Middle East, and the Ebola pandemic in West Africa as reasons to retain a larger Army.
“The world is changing in front of us,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said at a news conference Monday at the annual Association of United States Army conference.
His remarks and similar statements from Secretary of the Army John McHugh reflected a more urgent appeal to lawmakers to rethink a plan that would shrink the number of active-duty soldiers from a recent peak of 570,000 to fewer than 450,000 over the next few years. About 510,000 soldiers are in the Army today.
That drawdown is in full swing, reducing the Army’s footprint at bases around the country even as soldiers take up varied assignments on the ground in Europe, Afghanistan, Iraq and Liberia, and enhanced military partnerships in East Asia.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord so far has lost about 5,000 active-duty soldiers to the drawdown, giving it about 27,000 active-duty soldiers. The base south of Tacoma could shed up to 11,000 more, according to the Army’s broad assessment of how further cuts could play out.
JBLM’s current operations also mirror the mix of nontraditional assignments that are taking soldiers overseas this year.
It has about 800 Stryker soldiers serving on an extended series of exercises in Indonesia, Japan and Malaysia. The base also has hundreds of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and several hundred artillerymen stationed in the Middle East.
Odierno told reporters that staff from seven of the Army’s 10 primary division headquarters are deployed overseas.
The tempo is not as intense as it was at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but it’s a demanding pace for a smaller Army. Odierno said the varied assignments should prod lawmakers to rethink the Defense Department’s force reduction plan.
“We are witnessing firsthand mistaken assumptions about the number, duration, location and size of future force conflicts, and the need to conduct post-stability operations,” Odierno said, according to Stars and Stripes. “These miscalculations translate directly into increased military risk.
“And frankly as I stand here, military risk is accumulating exponentially.”
Forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration could compel the Army to cut even more soldiers, down to as few as 420,000. Lawmakers from both parties say they want to repeal sequestration and avoid those cuts, but they have failed to strike a budget deal that would take the pressure off the military.
Odierno called 2016 the “breaking point” for the Army, meaning severe cuts would have to take place if lawmakers cannot find common ground before that budget year.
"It will be very difficult for us to lead around the world” if the cuts are not repealed, Odierno said. “Fiscal year 2016 is a breaking point. I'm not seeing peace breaking out around the world in” 2016.
The AUSA conference is an annual event where senior leaders, veterans and defense industry representatives discuss trends and plans.
Two other announcements from the conference yielded news that likely would impact the Army at JBLM.
• Army Pacific Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks told a panel that the Army would remain active along the Pacific Rim despite budget constraints and instability in the Middle East. He said the Army likely wouldstep up temporary deployments
to the region for stateside units.
That matters to JBLM because soldiers here fall under Brooks’ command and would expect to receive those assignments.
“We have to have more faces, in more places, without more bases,” Brooks said. “That’s the opportunity and the challenge for us.”
• The Army announced plans torefit hundreds more eight-wheeled Stryker infantry vehicles
to give them the latest, blast-resistant design. Two of the Army’s nine Stryker brigades are based at JBLM. One of them has received the refitted “double v hull” Strykers. It’s not clear when the other local Stryker brigade will get the upgraded models.
The new funding will give the Army a total of four Stryker brigades with the strengthened hulls and five with the original design.