Since Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel detailed his proposal for deep military cutbacks Monday, officials in Watertown have been trying to divine what that could mean for Fort Drum. They believe the Army post is well-positioned - but that doesn't mean it won't take a hit.
The military is already in downsizing mode as the war in Afghanistan winds down. But Hagel’s plan calls for deeper cuts, including shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War Two.
The Army has already been working to reduce its numbers from a current 520,000 to around 490,000 by the end of 2015. But Hagel’s plan would cut to as low as 440,000 troops.
“I don’t think the Army is going to move away from expeditionary forces, of which the 10th Mountain Division is one of the more prominent,” said Tony Keating, a civilian aide to Army Secretary John McHugh based in Watertown.
He says good news for the post is unlikely. But the north country is likely to escape the kind of massive cutbacks that could cripple economies in other military communities.
Keating said Hagel’s talk of a smaller, agile force – including more Special Forces – gives Fort Drum and its light infantry division a leg up.
“The history of the 10th Mountain Division being deployed and redeployed, and the capability and competence of the garrison there in doing that – all of that, I think, is an asset, and would be a very strong talking point in defending Fort Drum,” he said.
Keating said one likely scenario is the loss of all 3,500 soldiers in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. The brigade is already slated for disbanding after it returns from its current Afghanistan deployment, but two of its battalions were going to be assigned to other brigades on Fort Drum. Keating thinks that might not happen now.
Carl McLaughlin heads up the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, which advocates for the post and strengthens the relationship between civilian and military leaders here. He said he’s planning to make the case to the Pentagon that among Fort Drum’s assets is the strong support of its civilian community.
“Our hospitals have all expanded, our schools have created capacity, we’ve built houses, we’ve done major things with transportation,” McLaughlin said. “That’s the story we need to tell.”
Keating said it’s unclear exactly how Hagel’s proposal would be implemented. It’s already facing stiff opposition in Congress.
Hagel’s defense spending plan will be part of the 2015 budget the president will send to Congress next week.