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Fort Drum faces cuts as DOD budget calls for massive Army soldier reductions

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WATERTOWN - The looming possibility of the smallest Army force structure since World War II, to about 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers, could mean more cuts at Fort Drum.

The post is scheduled to see the inactivation of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team by the end of the 2015 fiscal year, which will mean the loss of about 1,500 soldiers when combined with other unit increases. That change was a part of a prior plan to drop the number of active-duty soldiers from about 570,000 to 490,000.

“Before that situation comes to fruition, now we have another number we’re shooting at, and it’s much lower,” said F. Anthony Keating, civilian aide to the secretary of the Army. The Army now has about 522,000 active-duty soldiers.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined his vision for the nation’s military Monday in a speech at the Pentagon, a week before President Barack Obama is to submit his 2015 budget plan to Congress.

Mr. Hagel said that U.S. forces must adjust to the reality of smaller budgets, even as he asserted that the United States faces a more volatile, more unpredictable world that requires a more nimble military. Hagel described it as the first Pentagon budget to fully reflect the nation’s transition from 13 years of war.

“We are repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future: new technologies, new centers of power and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable and in some instances more threatening to the United States,” he said.

He also outlined a gloomy future with sequestration. If the cuts return at full levels in 2016, the Army could shrink again, to 420,000 soldiers.

Locally, Mr. Keating said the new soldier level goal could mean planned battalion additions to the post’s remaining 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams, meant to soften the pain of the brigade loss, would be scrapped. The Army-wide cuts, he said, appear to be happening without a connection to the service’s needs on the ground.

“It all seems to be driven by dollars. That seems a bit scary,” he said. “Very scary, not just a little scary.”

Despite this planned reductions, Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said it may not be all bad news locally. He pointed out that Mr. Hagel recommended a “smaller and more capable force” that could rapidly deploy.

“I think what we’re hearing is a description of the 10th Mountain Division,” Mr. Owens said.

He said if such a vision remained, the post could maintain similar soldier levels into the future. Another plus for the post is the looming end of major operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, meaning the post could have more soldiers locally than usual.

Carl A. McLaughlin, executive director of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, said the looming cuts will put local supporters of the post on alert to advocate hard for the community.

“The assumption until I’m told differently is that they’ll be looking at everything, and everything includes Fort Drum,” he said.”

Mr. Hagel said Obama’s budget proposal will include a government-wide “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative” that would provide the Pentagon with $26 billion on top of the $496 billion it is due to receive in 2015 under terms of the budget deal passed by the Congress two months ago.

Among the bolder moves in Hagel’s proposal is the elimination of the Air Force’s fleet of A-10 aircraft as well as its venerable U-2 spy planes, a reduction in the number of active ships for the Navy, and reductions in the size of the Army National Guard. Those moves are expected to draw some opposition in Congress.

Mr. Owens said he recently spoke to Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, Adjutant General of New York, and would continue to remain in contact with him through the budget process.

Other changes would affect service member benefits, including smaller pay raises, a slowdown in the growth of tax-free housing allowances and a requirement that retirees and some families of active-duty service members pay a little more in health insurance deductibles and co-pays. Subsidies to domestic commissaries will also go down, which could increase prices at the on-post grocery stores.

Mr. Hagel said the administration will propose a new round of domestic military base closings in 2017, while noting that Congress have rejected such requests in recent years.

Army leaders have been saying for months that they expect their service to shrink as the nation prepares to end its combat role in Afghanistan this year.

The last time the active-duty Army was below 500,000 was in 2005, when it stood at 492,000. Its post-World War II low was 480,000 in 2001, according to Army data. In 1940 the Army had 267,000 active-duty members, and it surged to 1.46 million the following year as the U.S. approached entry into World War II.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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