WASHINGTON -- With the U.S. Army's formal announcement Thursday it will cut 2,631 troops from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the Pentagon gave a glimmer of hope to those who would want to reverse the cuts: Congress could step in.
Before the decision to cut troops at JBER is final, the Defense Department must notify Congress of its plans and give lawmakers 90 days to think on it, Brig. Gen. Randy George, the Army's director of force management, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing Thursday.
With a few breaks -- and if Congress can manage to pass a budget in September -- the decision could be reversed, George said.
The Army announced some of the details of its plans to cut 40,000 troops around the globe Thursday, but questions remain about how the whole thing will play out.
"We are reducing brigade combat teams, headquarters, generating forces and enabler forces such as signal, logistics, civil affairs, and military police," George said.
JBER will take a major cut -- 2,631 troops, 59 percent of its brigade combat team installation. Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, which also has a brigade combat team, will lose 73 soldiers, the army said Thursday.
Brigade combat teams are the main deployable maneuver units in the Army. The one at JBER, the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, was created in 2005 in the post 9/11 buildup. The Army said Thursday the 4-25th will be converted into a "maneuver battalion task force" by the end of fiscal year 2017. Instead of about 4,600 soldiers, the brigade will have 1,895 soldiers.
Twenty-six brigade combat team installations will see cuts to their forces between now and 2018, and four will add 426 soldiers between them.
JBER was hit with by far the largest percentage cut among brigade combat teams. Two bigger bases -- Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Benning in Georgia -- will take larger force-number hits, 3,350 and 3,402 soldiers, respectively. The Schofield Barracks in Hawaii will lose 1,214 troops, with a brigade combat team converted in a manner similar to the changes at Fort Benning and JBER.
The cuts are part of an ongoing effort to reduce the Army's force size after the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, closer to pre-9/11 levels. With these cuts, the Army will have cut 120,000 troops, or 21 percent of the total force, since 2012, George said.
The current force reduction, a process to begin in October and continue for several years, "will also be accompanied by approximately 17,000 Army civilian employees. These cuts will impact nearly every installation, both in the continental United States and overseas," George said.
But the Army has released no information yet on just how and where civilian employees will get the ax. George said the Army plans to release that information after further analysis in the next 60 to 90 days.
He noted that a significant amount of cuts -- about 25 percent -- will come from headquarters.
"As you know, these are incredibly difficult choices," George said, noting the Army followed a "long and deliberate process" and based its decision "on the threats we faced and the current fiscal environment we must operate within."
Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, expressed dismay over the decision after getting an early heads up on Wednesday, and vowed to do whatever they could to move the Army in a different direction, while seeking additional information about the decisions at hand.
"The decision to reduce troop strength was made at the Pentagon level at a time when perhaps we didn't have Mr. Putin in his very aggressive mood," or "the situation in Ukraine," or difficulties with Islamic State, or ISIL, Murkowski said. "When you make a decision at a point in time and then the facts on the ground change," it's time to reassess, she said.
On Wednesday, seeking new negotiating power, Sullivan put a hold on a nomination before the Senate for Stephen Hedger to be Assistant Secretary of Defense and began forming plans to get more information about how the decisions were made, through his position on the Armed Services Committee.
On Thursday, Sullivan questioned Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., who is nominated to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the appropriate relationship between military and Congress, suggesting the Army hasn't been following the will of the Senate's guidance in recent defense authorization bills.
"How important is it that the military follow the defense guidance of the Senate or the Congress?" Sullivan asked.
"I think it's very important given how explicit the Constitution is on what the responsibilities of Congress are in that regard," Dunford said.
In response, Sullivan pointed to an amendment that recommended increasing Pacific-focused troops.
When it comes to the Arctic, the Department of Defense is "asleep at the switch," Sullivan said. How could the Army know where to cut forces near the Arctic when it doesn't "even know what our plan is?" he asked.
The suggestion hinted at the sort of if-then order from Congress that comes in appropriations bills, such as telling the Pentagon it can't spend any funds on reducing troops until they've developed an operational plan.
Congress has been moving forward with appropriations bills that could come together as the first real budget since 2010, but it's unclear whether it would be killed by political infighting over a broad number of amendments that have drawn veto threats from President Barack Obama.
Dunford pledged to "develop an appropriate role for the military in support of our economic and political interests in the Arctic."