When post-Iraq War defense cuts hit the Pentagon, Congress took steps to protect a jet that the Air Force said it could do without.
Lawmakers also blocked cuts to the perks troops receive for joining the military.
And they forbade the Defense Department from closing a single domestic military installation.
But so far, Congress has not stopped a plan that could result in the loss of up to 11,000 soldiers and civilians at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, on top of 5,000 already gone. It’s a part of steep drawdown in the size of the active-duty Army that could slash as many as 90,000 more soldiers from today’s force of 510,000 active-duty troops around the world.
That looming force reduction is the reason military officials are hosting a town hall in Lakewood this week. They want to hear from residents about how the cuts could impact local communities so the Army can decide what steps to take next and how to meet its budget.
Lawmakers and military officials say some losses are inevitable unless Congress repeals the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration. It would slash about $500 billion in planned military spending by 2021 and could start to compel more force reductions next year.
The broad cuts to Army personnel, though unpopular in military communities like the South Sound, represent the “path of least resistance” for a Congress that wants post-war defense savings but won’t commit to reducing any specific military program, said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee.
It’s easier to allow general cuts to the size of the Army than it is for lawmakers to condone distinct programs being canceled in their home districts, Smith said.
“Since Congress is not allowing those things to happen, then the Army’s got do to what it’s got to do,” said Smith, who voted against the 2011 budget compromise that set the stage for the Army force reductions.
Lawmakers of both parties say they deplore sequestration, and that’s no surprise. It was designed in the Budget Control Act of 2011 to be so unappealing that political leaders would feel compelled to strike long-term deals.
Yet the cuts are still in play.
Democrats want to protect social services that also are subject to sequestration, while Republicans have declined to consider raising taxes to offset the cutbacks.
“There’s no question that we’re going to be downsizing; it’s just a question of, ‘Are we going to be downsizing in a smart way?’ ” said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, whose district includes JBLM.
Sequestration, he said, is “a blunt instrument. It’s a stupid instrument. It’s not a strategic instrument.”
Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, used similarly strong language.
“I’m pretty sure that sequestration is a Latin word for ‘stupid,’ ” said Kilmer, who this month was given a seat on the House committee that makes major decisions about spending. “Making deep, across-the-board cuts without any thoughtful prioritization or strategy is another example of Congress failing to make the tough decisions.”
Smith and his counterpart, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, Republican of Texas, will be key players in figuring out a way to stave off the cuts. Both oppose sequestration and say at least a short-term fix is possible in the new Congress.
“I think Republicans and most Democrats in Congress believe the current law needs to be changed, and I think there is a clear majority in both parties to do that,” Thornberry said. “Then the question is how you do it.”
Two years ago, a budget deal negotiated by Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan bought some time for the Pentagon by delaying some of sequestration’s most immediate cuts.
Now the Army is getting ready for that grace period to lift.
The path to Wednesday’s town hall for cuts to JBLM began in 2012 when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta proposed shrinking the Army from its peak in 2011 of 570,000 soldiers to a force of 490,000.
The Army in 2013 published a report on how to reach that target, largely by taking roughly one combat brigade from every major Army installation while drawing down units stationed overseas.
That plan has already cost JBLM about 5,000 soldiers who were assigned to now-inactivated Stryker, artillery and aviation units.
Last year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called for an even smaller force of 450,000 active-duty soldiers. If the sequestration cuts persist, Hagel said last year, the Army would have to drop to a force of 420,000 soldiers by 2020, which in a worst case could mean as many as 11,000 positions cut at JBLM.
That is the plan up for discussion at this week’s forum in Lakewood.
JBLM now has about 27,600 active-duty soldiers assigned to it, down from a peak of about 34,000 in 2011. The base could have as few as 16,000 soldiers if it’s hit with the full cuts now under consideration.
Since Hagel announced his budget proposal last year, Congress blocked a number of his other budget-saving recommendations, such as:
• Retiring the Air Force’s A-10 jet. It’s an aircraft popular among ground forces because it is used to support troops in close combat.
• Forming a Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission to close some military installations.
• Making significant cuts to housing allowances and spending on commissaries at defense installations.
Lawmakers rejected or significantly reduced each of those proposals in a process that Smith argues will prevent the Pentagon from properly managing necessary spending cuts.
“This is the way the Army is likely to be cut, given the way Congress acts,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t say this is the way Congress wants it to be done, but if we don’t start allowing some of the other cuts that have been proposed, it’s what will be done.”
Thornberry said Congress was right to question Hagel’s recommendations. He pointed out that the Pentagon has sent A-10 aircraft to Iraq to help against Islamic State militants.
“(Defense officials) recommend retiring the A-10 and then, lo and behold, they have sent the A-10 to participate in the military actions in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “Sometimes congressional judgment is right.”
Thornberry also said he’d prefer to wait on significant changes to service members’ pay and benefits until Congress receives an expert report on military compensation, due this month.
Meanwhile, as complicated world events continue to unfold, military units keep preparing to respond.
At JBLM, a division headquarters is adding staff to prepare for a possible overseas deployment, other units train for operations with Asian allies in the Pacific, and still others deploy in small numbers to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Our mission is not over,” said retired Brig. Gen. Oscar Hilman of Tacoma, an Iraq veteran. “We’re going to a post-war world when we’re still at war.”