FORT STEWART, Ga. — As the military looks to shed 80,000 soldiers and endure another round of base closures, Army Secretary John McHugh said Friday he sees Fort Stewart as an “enduring facility” though he didn’t rule out the possibility of troop reductions at the largest Army post east of the Mississippi River.
McHugh, the Army’s top civilian official, spoke with reporters after joining Fort Stewart’s commanding general for lunch with the troops and a firing range tour in which he got to fire a live round from a tank. Earlier, he met with special operations units stationed at Hunter Army Airfield in neighboring Savannah.
McHugh said the Pentagon has yet to decide which Army installations in the U.S. would bear the brunt of troop reductions necessary to cut its budget by $487 billion in the next decade.
Two brigades of 3,500 to 5,000 soldiers stationed in Europe will be shut down, leaving at least six more to be identified, McHugh said.
“We have not, and I have not seen, any final briefs on what that will look like,” McHugh said. “It’s our interest to provide answers as quickly as we can so that people are not just worrying in the dark.”
The Army’s 3rd Infantry Division has an aviation brigade and three ground brigades based at Fort Stewart, plus a fourth brigade across the state at Fort Benning outside Columbus.
The division added one of its brigades during the Iraq war.
McHugh indicated that wouldn’t necessarily make Fort Stewart a target for losing a brigade.
“I look at Fort Stewart as an enduring facility,” he said. “But all of our 10 division and our maneuver bases are probably going to look a little different.”
Overall the Army is trying to shrink from 570,000 soldiers during the peak of the Iraq war to 490,000. The Pentagon says initial cuts have already reduced the Army to about 558,000 troops on active duty.
McHugh’s talk of Fort Stewart “enduring” seemed aimed at calming any local concerns that the post might be targeted in the next round of military base closures expected between next year and 2015.
Fort Stewart’s combat brigades deployed four times to Iraq and its troops are far from idle now that the war has ended. One battalion of nearly 800 soldiers recently deployed to Afghanistan and the division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Robert A. Abrams, is preparing to deploy with his headquarters battalion of the same size. Meanwhile, more than 100 of Fort Stewart’s senior officers and noncommissioned officers are training to serve later this year as advisers to Afghan security forces.
Abrams noted that McHugh and other Army leaders have given greater influence to commanders at the local level to decide which soldiers stay and which must go if forced to trim their ranks.
“’’This is about retaining the best,” Abrams said. “We’ve got the best Army we’ve ever had and the most combat experienced, but the truth is we’re only going to be able to retain a certain number.”