Even if a magic crystal ball existed, there still would be no surefire way to determine what the next 100 years might look like for Fort Benning and the Columbus area in which the U.S. Army installation has called home for the past century.
This much is all but certain, however. The world landscape will continue to be filled with unpredictable and dangerous threats from terrorists, rogue nations run by unstable dictators, and superpower nations seemingly just waiting for a weak link to develop in America’s overall defense, be it traditional military might or relatively newer specters such as cyberwarfare.
That volatile environment in itself would seem to guarantee that Fort Benning — with its training of Infantry and Armor soldiers, along with its role in developing new combat strategies and equipment — is positioned well to remain a major military player to be reckoned with on the global stage. And it also looks to remain a socioeconomic force in the west-central Georgia region surrounding the 182,464-acre Army post.
Of course, there will be challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the Fort Benning Maneuver Center of Excellence, its soldiers, family members, military retirees and the civilians and businesses that rely on the $4.8 billion economic impact generated by the installation’s payroll and spending in area communities.
Yet another BRAC round is expected
One of the most immediate challenges for all concerned is the distinct possibility that a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process could be approved by the U.S. Congress as soon as the year 2021, the same type of budget-cutting effort launched in 2005 that ultimately relocated the U.S. Armor School from Fort Knox in Kentucky to Fort Benning.
On the flip side, the Georgia installation lost the 3rd Brigade Combat Team and about 2,200 soldiers nearly three years ago during a separate “force reduction” of combat brigades by the Army as part of federal budget cuts. The losses would have been higher had the military not created a rapid-response task force of just over 1,000 troops, most of those individuals coming from the retired brigade’s existing ranks.
At the behest of the U.S. Department of Defense, both Presidents Obama and Trump have requested yet another Base Realignment and Closure for the last six years, although it has yet to be approved by Congress, said Gary Jones, executive vice president of military and government affairs at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
“As a result of that, we in this region must plan for the results of a future BRAC,” he said. “The earliest there could be a BRAC is 2021 and we’re working very closely with Benning to ensure that we have partnered with them to support them if there are any needs they have to prepare for BRAC.”
Why would the nation’s defense leaders want another major round of cuts? Jones said they realize there are excess facilities scattered worldwide that aren’t being used much, if at all, and that precious tax dollars could be used to bolster current critical defense needs rather than going toward maintaining those structures and land that are no longer of use to the military.
Jones, a retired Army colonel and former Fort Benning garrison commander, a position often referred to as city mayor, stressed that the chamber and regional leaders are only working to prepare for the possibility that the post will be impacted by a future BRAC in some way and that the goal is to add missions and units, not lose them. Ultimately, Georgia’s congressional leaders will be called upon to help support Fort Benning and other Georgia military installations during a round of budget cuts.
“I don’t think we have to trouble ourselves with losing Fort Benning. What we have to do is focus on the realignment piece of Base Realignment and Closure,” Jones said.
Fort Benning is one of the largest, most complex, demanding installations in the military inventory, diverse in its mission and focus, he said. It is a premiere training and logistics hub, with medical and dental facilities that supports tens of thousands active duty and retired personnel and their families. There’s a major airfield that, aside from training needs, is used by go-to-war units and Special Forces that include the 75th Ranger Regiment.
“There’s also a requirement for training and doctrine teams to pick up and launch anywhere in the world,” he said. “And there is space available for mission growth at Fort Benning.”
‘Your key is to stay off the (BRAC) list’
There have been four BRAC rounds since the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Act of 1990 was approved by Congress. That has led to the realignment of missions, facilities, units and, on occasion, full base closures at more than 350 military installations. Prior to that, cuts at air bases and Army posts were carried out when needed as wars and conflicts erupted and then wound down.
It was two years ago that the chamber of commerce brought in consultants to help political leaders from across Georgia understand the process, what was at stake, and how they might work to avoid as much damage as possible from a future BRAC.
Anthony “Tony” Principi, head of The Principi Group, bluntly told those gathered at the National Infantry Museum to not assume Fort Benning or any other Georgia military installation is safe from cuts or being realigned in some way. He urged them to stay on top of the matter and to proactively enhance bases and their missions where they could before a BRAC round is formally announced by the nation’s leaders.
“Once that list comes out, you can make improvements, but it’s not going to count whether your base stays open or closes,” said Principi, who was chairman of the 2005 BRAC round that brought the Armor School to Fort Benning, forming the Maneuver Center of Excellence.
“The history of the previous four BRAC rounds also reveals to you that if an installation in your state makes the Defense Department’s list of closure or realignment, there’s an 85 percent chance your base is going to be closed or realigned,” he warned. “So your key is to stay off the list.”
Entering the world of robotics a good possibility
One area that shows promise for Fort Benning moving forward in the coming years appears to be robotics, particularly the development and testing of technology aimed at bringing artificial intelligence, robotic devices and other autonomous, or unmanned, systems to the battlefield.
Efforts are under way at the state level to establish a Robotics Center of Innovation at the Army post, which would be somewhat of a formality in that much of what it would be tasked to do is already part of the mission at the installation’s Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate. It already does research and development for the Infantry, Armor and Cavalry.
“Robotics show great promise for everything from logistics to medical to taking some of the load off the soldier, to going in and being able to provide weapons systems to augment the soldier to make sure he has more and more lethality on the field of combat,” Jones said.
The bottom line, robots could be used to scout and clear areas for troops and military vehicles, particularly in urban areas where close combat is commonplace and deadly. Such promise was shown earlier this year when a test was conducted in Germany during which an unmanned robotic device moved through an area, checking for mines and other explosives in advance of large tanks and fighting vehicles, news organization Stars and Stripes reported.
“The casualty rate for a breach is expected to be 50 percent,” 1st Lt. Felix Derosin, an Army engineer and platoon leader, told Stars & Stripes. “Being able to take our guys away from that, and have some robots go in there, is a very positive thing for us. In the future, this can save engineers’ lives.”
Already popular drones also might be outfitted with new technology in various ways to help U.S. forces avoid not only bullets and bombs, but environmental dangers. There also could be systems that would literally carry heavy loads for troops moving toward and into hot zones, thus keeping them fresher, alert and more focused on the mission ahead of them — hopefully giving them a much better chance of not being wounded or killed.
National robotics conference, exhibition on the way
The evolving technology has shown such promise that it is now becoming more popular at defense industry shows and symposiums. That will be the case when the National Defense Industry Association holds its Robotics Conference & Exhibition in late April of next year, with that event taking place at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. It will be a mix of defense industry people, military personnel and government employees and officials.
The conference, according to the association, will provide a forum for “stakeholders to engage in honest dialogue to determine how to realize the robotics and autonomous systems vision across all services of the U.S. military.” It also will help “clarify where best to focus (research and development) efforts across all services and help government to provide an opportunity to see the latest and greatest in robotics and autonomous system problem solving.”
The gathering will be vitally important to Fort Benning as it works to add yet another mission to its arsenal for the next 100 years, the chamber’s Jones said. It also could help the post’s case that it could and should add other training and units as well as a future Base Realignment and Closure round plays out across the U.S. and abroad.
“The bottom line is we want to do everything possible to ensure that Benning continues to make even greater contributions to the Army and to our nation,” he said.
Georgia has the 5th largest military presence in the nation, behind California, Virginia, Texas and North Carolina, with an annual economic impact of more than $20 billion, according to a Regional Military Affairs Update provided by the chamber. That includes income and benefits for active duty and retired soldiers, as well as currently employed and retired Department of Defense civilians.
Fort Benning itself has a $4.8 billion annual impact on the Columbus region, which is second only to Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Air Field’s $4.9 billion in Georgia. Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins is next at $2.9 billion, followed by $2.1 billion at Fort Gordon in Augusta, and $1.5 billion at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany.
Those living and doing business for years in the Columbus area, for the most part, can’t see Fort Benning going anywhere, even in a budget-cutting climate that leads to a future Base Realignment and Closure that very well may impact some of the Georgia installations and their missions.
Fort Benning ‘good for many years to come’
Local commercial developer Ben Billings, who is among those who believe the 2005 BRAC process did not usher in quite the economic activity that was projected, said the right thing to do is to bring more overseas units and missions back to the United States, where they will benefit communities such as Columbus and Phenix City.
“Back when Ronald Reagan was president, he wanted to close these bases around the world. We’ve got so many bases and we’re paying for them to be there. He said we need to bring all of these people back home and when we go to fight, we’ll just float up an aircraft carrier,” Billings said. “I’m all for supporting our allies, but I believe that we need to close bases overseas. We need to bring them back to places like Fort Benning. It makes money sense, but it just doesn’t happen.”
Columbus-area homebuilder Dave Erickson said logic indicates Fort Benning should exist for decades to come because of its current importance to military training and the capacity it has to ramp up quickly to support future conflicts. The fact that it develops Infantry troops, which history shows is essential to any combat in which ground needs to be held, bodes well for the post, he said.
“If I was guessing, another significant school is probably in Fort Benning’s future. That’s a logical thing that would happen there,” he said. “Some smaller combat units could easily come to the installation. I would say Fort Benning is probably at its low ebb of activity right now, but it will be higher. When and how I can’t tell you. But it’s going to be higher in the future and should be … It’s good for many years to come.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Here are various numbers related to Fort Benning and its U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence:
▪ Economic impact — $4.8 billion per year, includes payroll, job creation off post, sales and taxes generated. Payroll alone from troops and civil-service employees is $105 million per month or $1.26 billion a year
▪ Active-duty soldiers on post — About 11,000
▪ Civilian workers on post — Nearly 10,900, which includes federal employees and contract workers
▪ Troops in training — On average, nearly 17,000 each week
▪ Geographic size — 182,464 total acres, with 170,510 of those acres in Georgia, the rest in Alabama
▪ Training infrastructure — 83 live-fire ranges, 34 artillery/mortar points, 300 training areas, 49 training sites (145 daily training missions); home to the U.S. Army Infantry School and the U.S. Army Armor School
* Source: Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce/Regional Military Affairs Update