Fairbanks already has dodged one economic bullet with regard to the Army’s presence; in two weeks, the community will be faced with another. As the military scales back from its wartime peak, it’s looking at substantial active-duty personnel reductions at bases nationwide. Here in the Interior, that translates to the potential loss of up to 5,800 troops from Fort Wainwright — essentially the 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
The same process is playing out in communities across the country. The force strength of the U.S. Army peaked at 570,000 during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that U.S. involvement in those countries has substantially waned, the Army is drawing back from a force size it no longer needs nor can sustain in peacetime. By 2017, it plans to reduce overall soldier numbers to 450,000. By 2019, that number will be 420,000 — an overall reduction of more than 25 percent.
Fort Wainwright already faced a potential brigade-level reduction once in recent years. In 2013, the Army was looking at a less pronounced version of the nationwide reorganization and reduction — at that time, it was projecting a drawdown to 490,000 soldiers by 2019. Fort Wainwright not only survived that round of cuts but would have seen a slight increase in active-duty numbers. But federal sequestration cuts tightened the Army budget further, leading to its current process.
The question of whether Fort Wainwright will be spared from cuts or see the full 5,800 lost is likely to be an all-or-nothing question. Army officials have repeatedly said they are looking to preserve force strength as much as possible despite reduced numbers, and that means cutting whole brigades rather than a percentage of each brigade. Reducing the number of soldiers in each brigade would lead to a “hollow Army” that would have many units on paper but would be less effective overall than if some brigades were deactivated entirely while others maintained their entire force strength.
It’s important to note the substantial cuts the Army is undergoing — while painful for the force itself, the communities involved and the soldiers who will face a potentially involuntary end-of-service date — are necessary. To return federal spending to more sustainable levels, as was forced into effect by the sequestration process, departments across the government are scaling back. The Army is not and should not be exempt from those requirements, nor should the Interior be exempt from consideration for cuts despite the 2013 decision Fort Wainwright’s brigade would remain intact. The end goal of all involved, from the Army to communities involved and individuals affected by the process, should be to come away from the troop reduction with minimum reduction in military readiness.
That said, there are plenty of reasons to support the retention of Fort Wainwright’s brigade, from cold-weather readiness to training opportunities to access to massive range space south of the Tanana River opened up by the rail bridge recently built in Salcha. If history is any guide, Interior residents are likely to turn out in force to fight to keep troops here. The hearing at which the Army will seek public comment on its action will take place at 6 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Carlson Center. If you’re inclined to keep Fort Wainwright’s soldiers where they are and have something to contribute to the discussion, it would be worth your while to make the trip.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,