JBLM retains combat brigades, but loses 4 smaller units

The 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division is shown in a deployment ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Oct. 18, 2012.
The 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division is shown in a deployment ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Oct. 18, 2012. Staff photographer file, 2012

The Army on Thursday confirmed it’s cutting 1,250 positions for active-duty soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord over the next two years, making JBLM one of only six bases to lose more than 1,000 soldiers.

It’ll get there by cutting three explosive ordnance disposal companies, a civil affairs battalion and some headquarters staff.

This round of Army cuts might sting the South Sound, but new figures released by the military show JBLM’s significance to the nation’s ground force is increasing as a post-war drawdown unfolds.

The base in 2017 will be home to 25,100 soldiers, or 5.6 percent of the active-duty Army. That’s a higher share than 2001, when 16,000 soldiers were based here, representing 3.4 percent of the Army.

The base’s boosters say that larger share reflects the success of the Stryker brigades that were born at JBLM, and the military’s desire to retain a solid number of forces along the Pacific Rim while it reduces the number stationed overseas.

“Joint Base Lewis-McChord plays a pivotal role in our national defense and I am pleased to see the Army recognized that by keeping JBLM’s force structure largely intact,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

“This goes to show that we continue to be a global pivot point in the United States’ military strategy,” Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said.

The JBLM cuts are part of a plan to cut a total of 40,000 soldiers from the Army’s ranks during the next two years. That’ll bring the force down to 450,000 active-duty soldiers from today’s 490,000. The Army had 570,000 soldiers in 2011, when about 34,000 were stationed at JBLM.

An unspecific number of civilian jobs at JBLM are also expected to be cut. The Army won’t release those numbers until the fall.

The other five bases scheduled to lose more than 1,000 soldiers are Fort Hood, Texas; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; Fort Benning, Georgia; and Fort Bliss, Texas.

Generally, the Army was able to maintain numbers in its primary combat brigades, such as ones in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division and 101st Airborne Division. JBLM’s Stryker brigades in the 7th Infantry Division also are emerging untouched.

“What I believe the Army is trying to do is maintain combat capability. Fortunately, they were able to maintain combat power I was afraid that would be lost,” said retired Maj. Gen. James Collins of Steilacoom, a former I Corps deputy commander who is Washington state’s civilian adviser to the secretary of the Army.

He’s concerned that soldiers in a smaller Army will have intense demands placed on them because troops are deployed around the world. Last year, he said, soldiers touched down in more than 150 countries.

“To downsize in face of increased demand, our national military strategy is such that those who serve in the Army today and the systems we have today are pretty well-stretched,” Collins said.

State government officials, meanwhile, are preparing for the Army’s drawdown in at least two different ways.

One effort centers on helping find new careers for soldiers and JBLM civilian employees facing layoffs. Gov. Jay Inslee last month created a military subcabinet to boost programs for them. He’s anticipating more cuts to Washington military installations in coming years.

“I am committed to ensuring that every service member or family member impacted by today’s decision is provided the resources they need to transition seamlessly,” Inslee said. “We know there may be more in the future and our work isn’t done.”

The state also will prepare for the Washington National Guard receiving Stryker vehicles that the Army wants to move out of Hawaii.

Washington National Guard Commander Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty on Thursday confirmed that his 81st Brigade Combat Team would gain the new medium-weight armored trucks.

He’s been asking for several years, aiming to improve responses to civilian emergencies. The Guard’s tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles are designed for conducting ground invasions, not for responding to civilian communities recovering from natural disasters.

“The Strykers are a more mobile, versatile vehicle that will ensure the Washington National Guard can get out into our communities and perform its mission to save lives and protect property here at home,” Daugherty said Thursday.

JBLM is gaining a couple new units in the Army drawdown. They’re expected to be an engineering construction company and a battalion that responds to chemical, biological and nuclear incidents. The addition of those units gives JBLM a net loss of 1,250 soldiers.

Government and military officials remain worried about more cuts to Army ranks if Congress fails to repeal the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration. The Army says it stands to lose about $95 billion in funding over 10 years if those cuts stay on the books, compelling it to cut another 30,000 soldiers.

Collins said that because of ongoing conflicts around the world, it would be irresponsible for leaders to allow the “blunt trauma instruments” of sequestration. Troops are in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea, and the military is increasing operations in Europe because of fighting in Ukraine.

“Our adversaries would love to see (sequestration) happen, which puts the nation at more risk of requiring combat power as opposed to being able to move quickly and nip problems in the bud,” he said.