The highest ranking officer in the U.S. Army said Thursday that Fort Jackson “is in good shape” in the face of an expected new round of base closures and realignments, perhaps in 2021.
Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley, a four-star general, made the assessment following the graduation ceremony of about 700 soldiers of the “Centennial Battalion” on Thursday at the fort. The battallion is so named because it marked the culmination of a year-long observance of Fort Jackson’s 100th birthday celebration.
Milley, who gave the ceremony’s keynote address, said he is pushing for another round of base closures and realigments, called BRAC, although that decision must be made by Congress. He said in a news conference following the ceremony that the Army has $500 million in excess infrastructure domestically and globally “that we need to divest ourselves of because it costs money to maintain.”
But Miley added Fort Jackson, because of its long history and tradition of training soldiers, is a priority installation. He noted that the fort graduated its 5 millionth soldier on Thursday, and each year it turns out more new soldiers than the entire British army.
“Fort Jackson has been here for 100 years ... it is a major training base. The largest we have,” he said. “It produces an incredible amount of soldiers for the United States. So I think Fort Jackson is in good shape.”
Fort Jackson was established in 1917 to train soldiers for World War I. It has trained soldiers ever since. Each year it turns out up to 50,000 new soldiers and is adding an 11th training battalion this summer.
Under the Barack Obama administration, the Army was set to shrink from 476,000 in 2016 to 460,000 by the end of this year. But President Donald Trump has advocated increasing the size of the Army to 540,000. The highest level of troop strength in the Army since 9/11 was 566,000 during the surge in Iraq in 2011.
In April, Milley testified before Congress that training at Fort Jackson would come to a “screeching halt” if a new budget wasn’t passed and the Army had to operate under a continuing resolution that would freeze funding at the current levels.
But on Thursday Milley, on his first visit to Fort Jackson, said he was “hopeful, a cautiously optimistic kind of thing” that a budget friendly to the military would be passed by a Republican-controlled Congress.
As a result, the Army plans to add 28,000 new soldiers by the end of the year and is offering generous bonuses to soldiers who re-enlist. “But right now the ball is in Congress’ court,” Milley said.
A surge in new soldiers would likely be a boon to Fort Jackson.
It presently has 10 battalions of up to 1,000 new soldiers in constant 10-week training cycles. It also operates other training missions from drill sergeants, to chaplains to non-commissioned officers.
The fort also is vital to the Midlands, with an annual economic impact in the region of about $2 billion, according to a study by economists at the Darla Moore School of Business at USC.
The fort’s commander, Maj. Gen. Pete Johnson, told The State on Thursday the installation could handle any growth the Army might dictate. In addition to the 11th battalion, the fort can increase the size of existing companies and battalions.
“We’ll continue to be the place the army will look to if they ever have to increase further,” Johnson said.
Should a BRAC occur, local Fort Jackson boosters have said a push might be made to pick up smaller missions from the other three installations that conduct basic training – Fort Benning, Ga., for the infantry; Fort Sill, Okla., for the artillery; and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for military police.
On Thursday, Johnson echoed Milley’s assessment of Fort Jackson’s future.
“That’s the army’s ranking officer, so I absolutely feel confident,” he said. “Our history says it all. That history will continue. We’ve invested resources, leadership and partnership with the community. You can’t build that overnight.
“I believe what we have here at Fort Jackson is special,” he said. “I think it’s at a national-treasure-level of special. I think Fort Jackson is in a good place.”