The Town Talk: As defense cuts loom, Fort Polk is poised to grow
Central Louisiana's Fort Polk will expand its footprint in mid-February when the Army completes the purchase of 4,900 acres on the base's southern end, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu announced Friday, a signal that the Vernon Parish Army base might be spared upcoming military cuts in funding and troop levels.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced Thursday that the Pentagon would reduce the Army's troop levels by about 72,000 soldiers and cut billions of dollars from its budget next year.
"This is currently the only land acquisition that the U.S. Army is actively pursuing in the country," Landrieu said.
"With the Pentagon's recent announcement to reduce troop levels in the Army and pursue two new rounds of Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC), this land acquisition demonstrates the important role that Fort Polk plays in keeping our military the best in the world," Landrieu said.
In addition to the Army troop reductions, the Department of Defense plans to reduce the number of Marines by 20,000. Currently, the Army has 562,000 active-duty members while the Marines have 202,000, according to the DOD's website.
Also, the DOD plans to shutter six of the Air Force's 60 tactical air squadrons, possibly affecting Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City.
But which U.S. bases will take hits won't be known for a while. President Barack Obama plans to ask Congress in February for authority to enact BRAC, which would begin the process of realigning or shutting down some bases in the United States and possibly Europe.
"The cuts announced by Secretary Panetta are a sobering reflection of our current economic circumstances," U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, said. "I don't believe these cuts will harm our national security, but I do believe they will require the Pentagon to be more responsible in how it spends the taxpayers' money."
U.S. Rep. John Fleming, a Republican from Shreveport whose House district includes Fort Polk, was more critical of the president.
"[Thursday] we began to learn more about how our military will bear the budget cuts that our president wants in order to cover for his liberal spending policies," Fleming said.
"This year, I will be working from my position on the House Armed Services Committee to ensure that the president's weakening of our military does not threaten our capabilities at Fort Polk and Barksdale Air Force Base," he said.
T.L. "Sonny" Berry of Leesville remembers the 1990s when England Air Force Base in Alexandria was closed and Fort Polk's soldier numbers were cut. The 72-year-old Korean War veteran was an aide to Army chiefs of staff and fought for Fort Polk's survival.
"I was right in the middle of it," Berry said.
In the early 1990s, Fort Polk had about 14,500 troops before the base realignment process, Berry said. After Fort Polk was "realigned," the base lost several thousand troops.
The base now has close to 10,000 soldiers, not including troops who rotate in to train at Fort Polk's Joint Readiness Training Center.
The Army's JRTC at Fort Polk is one of three in the United States where training for today's battles is enhanced with civilians playing the role of jihadists or other enemy combatants.
"It is little premature to discuss possible base closure and realignments, as no decisions have been made and it's unknown at this time if budget cuts will affect Fort Polk," said Brig. Gen K.K. Chinn, commanding general of the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk.
A Fort Polk spokesman said in a statement that the base "continues to remain relevant to today's Army as it has taken on two of the most high-profile DOD missions." Those are the Defense Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Response Force; and the training of Security Force Assistance Advisor Teams that will deploy to advise and assist Afghan National Security Forces.
Also, the JRTC and Fort Polk will see an increase in this year's training rotations from 10 to 11 with a surge of more than 9,000 soldiers training there in March.
Like Chinn, Berry said it's much too early to try to predict what will happen at Fort Polk.
"There are proposals out there, but you just don't know how many are going to really happen," Berry said.
In a letter to Panetta, released to The Town Talk on Friday, Landrieu stresses the relationship between Barksdale's 47th Fighter Squadron and Fort Polk.
"The 47th contributes to many missions, but one of the most important is to provide close air support to our Army soldiers at Fort Polk," Landrieu's letter reads. "This training will remain critical for our armed forces ... as we shift to a new defense strategy potentially posturing our forces in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific theaters."
Calls to protect military bases in the state by Landrieu and others in Louisiana's congressional delegation foreshadow what is sure to be an acrimonious process in Washington and across the country.
"My prediction is there is going to be a lot of pushback from both sides of the aisle in Congress," said Michael Walker, an aide to Alexander on military issues.