FORT BRAGG, N.C. — For the past decade, the uncertainty of war hovered over this garrison town like an ominous cloud, with units shipping off and returning home every few weeks from intense combat tours.
The end of that whirlwind deployment tempo, which flushed America’s Army with cash and adulation, is bringing a new anxiety to Fort Bragg and military bases nationwide as commanders scramble to slash billions from their budgets.
The automatic across-the-board cuts in federal spending scheduled to begin Friday have become the subject of a heated political fight in Washington, where the White House and Republicans have traded blame as the Pentagon warns that the fiscal uncertainty is threatening the world’s largest military.
The extent to which such warnings from defense leaders are exaggerated remains in dispute. But there is no doubt that the budget crunch represents a sea change for an Army that swelled quickly and became used to being generously bankrolled after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Look no further than the 82nd Airborne Division, the Army’s first line of defense for any new major conflict. Like their peers across the country, the division’s commanders have had to make difficult choices in recent weeks, sharply curtailing training and forgoing repairs for some equipment. Commanders say that if the shortfalls persist for months, they worry about how deftly soldiers would perform if the Army were called on to secure Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons or defend Americans if another diplomatic post was attacked.
“There will be a higher level of risk and much greater potential for casualties,” said Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the division’s commander. “We’d be faced with new conditions we haven’t encountered before: tanks, artillery, chemical weapons. These are conditions we would normally train for intensively.”
As brigades geared up for deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, most participated in costly, comprehensive training exercises that taught them how the military’s vast array of aircraft, vehicles, communication equipment and weapons work in tandem in combat. In a hurry to save money, the Army sharply pared down the training modules it devised for the post-war era. For Nicholson, that means many of his soldiers will get to hone their skills only in small units here at Fort Bragg.
Col. Michael Fenzel, the commander of the division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said that training mainly at the squad level “represents incredible concern” as he weighs potential new missions, such as responding to an unforeseen crisis in Afghanistan.
“The offense is going to be practicing without the linebackers and the offensive backs,” said Fenzel, who has had to trim about 35 percent from his budget. “Having that degradation knowing that the world is becoming more unstable is unsettling.”
To makes ends meet, Fenzel said, he has cut back on buying medical supplies, keeping only the essential stock, and put off nonessential vehicle repairs.
The 82nd’s Combat Aviation Brigade has been struck particularly hard. After completing an Afghan deployment in the fall, the unit’s aircraft were shipped to bases nationwide for refurbishment. Money to send helicopters back to Fort Bragg was axed, forcing Col. Michael Musiol, the brigade commander, to dip into his unit’s budget to return them.
His budget shortfall also translated into a significant reduction in flight training for pilots. Until recently, Apache and Blackhawk pilots did no more than 10 percent of their required practice hours on simulators. These days, as much as 30 percent to 40 percent of their training is on the machine.
“It is a detriment to readiness,” Musiol said. “We’re assuming more risk.”
Some commanders say the budget crisis has a silver lining, spurring young Army leaders to find cost-saving workarounds they would never have considered when the coffers were flush. Capt. Nathan Adkins, who leads an artillery battery in the 82nd, said his unit was able to find a cheap alternative when a $10,000 cable linking a weapon to a computer system broke down.
“We’ve got to be more conscious and creative,” he said. “We have to be more selective on what levels we maintain equipment.”
Other cuts could have far more painful implications as the Army continues to address the toll a decade of wear has taken on soldiers. Although the Army has said that care for wounded warriors will be spared, initiatives to deal with suicide prevention, sexual assault and other issues are likely to be affected, commanders say.
“We’ve had soldiers who have been fighting for 10 years and have major issues with what they’ve seen and been through,” said Fenzel, the brigade commander. “We now have programs, dozens of places they can turn to. It concerns us that they remain when we need them the most.”
Soldiers also worry that, as the Army contracts, they will have fewer opportunities and less-fulfilling jobs, said Sgt. Marc Wochele, 35. After his last deployment, he said, several soldiers he assumed would stay in the service for 20 years decided to get out.
“The Army is losing a lot of good soldiers,” he said.
Wochele, who had a good job as a sales representative for FedEx before he enlisted five years ago, said the primary draw of an Army job was the health-care benefits, including treatment for his autistic son. Now he worries that those benefits might be reduced.
“That’s my biggest concern,” he said.
The civilian furloughs for defense employees, which are expected to start in April, could affect everything from outpatient care at the base hospital to day-care capacity on post. An Army proposal circulated this week among top commanders suggested shutting down military schools one day per week — a prospect that some found baffling.
“Soldiers are willing to endure hardship and privation in order to accomplish their mission,” said Nicholson, the division commander. “But they’re able to do that because they know their families are being taken care of. When support to their families is taken away, that’s going to affect them.”