JBLM could lose 8,000 soldiers within decade, new Army study says

Joint Base Lewis-McChord could lose some 8,000 soldiers by the end of the decade, according to an Army study released Friday.

The study is based on a proposal that lays out how the Army could meet Pentagon goals to reduce ranks over the next seven years.

Army officials stress that the numbers are preliminary and no decisions have been made.

But local eyes will watch closely any possible setback for the South Sound’s largest employer, which has grown steadily during the Iraq and Afghanistan war years.

The worst-case scenario of Lewis-McChord losing more than 20 percent of its active-duty soldiers would ripple across Pierce and Thurston counties, causing more than 20,100 military family members to leave the area, according to the study from the Army Environmental Command.

It could lead to an additional loss of 9,000 military contract jobs and 1,150 other jobs in the region, the study says.

The report takes a broad brush to examine the most extreme cuts that could unfold at 21 U.S. Army installations. In fact, it analyzes a total force reduction of 125,800 soldiers — far more than the Army is considering.

It looks at a scenario in which every Army installation with multiple combat brigades would cut at least one brigade and then trim 30 percent of soldiers from all other units. Lewis-McChord has three Stryker brigades, one artillery brigade, one combat aviation brigade, one combat engineer brigade, one sustainment brigade, one surveillance brigade and a mix of smaller units.

The report emphasizes that the Army has not made any decisions about where to shrink its forces. Instead, it examines how force reductions could play out when the Army executes its directive to cut overall troop strength from 562,000 to 490,000 through the year 2020.

A spokesman for the I Corps, the top Army unit at Lewis-McChord, stressed Friday that the Pentagon has not given any specific orders.

“From an I Corps perspective, as far as any force structure realignment decisions, those decisions haven’t been made,” said Col. Dave Johnson.

“You have to look at this holistically in that it involves 21 bases,” he said. “It involves very, very large bases, and it’s over a span of eight years.”

The report was released as anxiety mounts about how Defense Department budget cuts will unfold in the coming year, specifically the threat of immediate cuts if Congress doesn’t find a compromise by March.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno cited their uncertainty about spending in a memo obtained this week by the Federal Times newspaper. It calls for a civilian hiring freeze, layoffs of temporary employees, an overall budget reduction of 30 percent from operations support spending and the cancellation of training events that do not support the war in Afghanistan or deployed units in South Korea.

“Given the magnitude of our budgetary uncertainty,” the memo says, “the Army must act now … to avoid even more serious future fiscal shortfalls.”

Army force reductions have been a hot topic in the South Sound lately, in part because Lewis-McChord’s growth helped sustain the economy during the recession.

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire assembled a Washington Military Alliance to help the state put forward its best case when lawmakers and Defense Department officials get serious about cutting spending. She included money in her budget proposal to hire a military affairs director.

Local congressmen have been saying they expect Lewis-McChord to fare well as the Defense Department pares its budget; they say forces at the base south of Tacoma line up with President Obama’s call to shift to Pacific threats as the war in Afghanistan ends.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, and Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, were not available for comment Friday. Both are members of the House Armed Services Committee.

I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, meanwhile, has been telling community groups at recent public events that he anticipates Lewis-McChord losing some troops over the next few years, but generally remaining about the same size.

All together, Lewis-McChord has more than 46,000 service members and an additional 15,000 civilian employees.

Of those, about 36,000 are active-duty soldiers who are under consideration for cuts in the Army Environmental Command study. Lewis-McChord (formerly Fort Lewis) held just 19,000 active-duty soldiers 10 years ago. It swelled as the Army grew to fight two wars.

The Environmental Command report pegs the base’s strength in 2020 at 28,000 active-duty soldiers, less than today but still far more than the Army has typically stationed there.

The study might provide some cold comfort to local communities that have been struggling to accommodate Lewis-McChord’s recent rapid growth.

The report notes, for instance, that traffic on Interstate 5 would be alleviated if the Army trims 8,000 active-duty jobs.

It also says the base would generate less noise from training exercises, and put less stress on the Puget Sound environment.

The cuts would not unfold immediately. Instead, they likely would take place through attrition and reassignments.

If they happened as the report projects, state sales tax revenues could plummet by nearly $70 million, factoring in military job cuts as well as civilian and other job losses that could follow.