Soldiers from the 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., reload rockets onto a helicopter Nov. 22 during a training exercise. (Brett Barrouquere / AP)
FORT CAMPBELL, KY. — The skies above Shaw Air Force Base in central South Carolina and the fields across Fort Campbell on the Tennessee-Kentucky line have been a bit quieter in recent months.
Budget cuts to the military have forced installations around the country to alter training exercises and daily routines to save money. For airmen and pilots, that means fewer flights. For soldiers and Marines, it means fewer drills or delaying them until a deployment nears.
The automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, come as the military is in the midst of a drawdown in Afghanistan and shrinking its overall size.
The Army has retooled training regimens to focus on soldiers deploying to Afghanistan and Korea — those who will be in hostile areas soonest, said George Wright, a civilian Army spokesman in Washington. The Army curtailed training to smaller units of eight to 14 soldiers each —the squad level — for 80 percent of the fighting force in fiscal year 2013 and canceled seven Brigade Combat Team training center rotations.
In cases where only part of a brigade is deploying from Fort Campbell, some soldiers are being pushed into field training while others are held back until their departure date draws nearer, spokesman Bob Jenkins said.
“That way, we’re able to meet the requirements for the people being trained for deployment and make sure they had all the things that were required,” Jenkins said. “If people were supposed to go out and shoot 500 rounds one day, they went out and fired 500 rounds. That didn’t change.”
The 77th Fighter Squadron, one of three that make up the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw, was told to stand down in April after it returned from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan. It was one of several groups in the 9th Air Force ordered to idle jets for weeks in response to the automatic budget cuts.
Col. Clark Quinn, the F-16 wing’s vice commander, said the pilots were given the vacation time they would have normally taken and then put into ground training, such as on computer simulators. It gave them a chance to rest, and polish up some of their technical skills, he said.
“They were not flying. Their aircraft were just parked,” Quinn said. The maintenance support units worked on other aircraft to stay sharp, he said.
The pilots and airmen are now back on their regular training schedules, Quinn said.
Over the summer, the 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell anticipated cuts would come and purchased helicopter parts that typically need replacing, rather waiting to buy them when equipment failed. The move has allowed the regiment to keep flying, even if on a more limited basis, once the cutbacks kicked in, said Maj. Matt Wolfe.
“We had to cut down flight hours for a while with the funding issues,” Wolfe said. “But, we’ve been flying on the cheap. The only thing we cost them is fuel.”
Navy Lt. Rob Myers at the Pentagon said budget cuts have forced the Naval Air Forces to trim flight hours for aviators back to 11 hours per aviator per month — the minimum needed to maintain flight proficiency. Pilots are turning to simulators to get in flight hours beyond the minimum.
“Our deploying forces are properly manned, trained and equipped to meet all mission requirements. Our non-deployers have had some degradation due to impacts based on exercise cancellations, port visits cancellations, schools cancellations, flight hours reduced,” Myers said.
Col. Steve Yackley, deputy commander at Fort Jackson outside Columbia, S.C., said the post continues to train about 45,000 soldiers annually and expects to get the money to do so for the next two years. It is the Army’s largest training installation and trains about half the service’s new soldiers every year.
“We are a little protected,” Yackley said. But he said the installation has to look for savings in other ways. At both Shaw and Fort Jackson, grass isn’t cut as diligently and repairs to buildings are made only in emergencies.
Fort Campbell has undertaken similar steps, stopping reunions for former soldiers and health and informational sessions for soldiers and their families.
“If we could do without it, we did,” Jenkins said.
Along with maintenance and training delays, some soldiers are being put to new tasks while not deployed.
Capt. J. Stephen Donaldson, company commander of 551st Military Police at Fort Campbell, is teaching soldiers who recently returned from deployment how to handle post security. Donaldson’s job entails taking 72 soldiers, from the infantry and supply, and teaching them how to use pepper spray and work security at the entrance gates to the post. The soldiers will work security on a six-month rotation.
The soldiers will fill in for two platoons from the 716th MP Battalion deployed overseas. With two more platoons headed out soon, the extra hands are needed to avoid hiring private contractors.
For the soldiers, shuffling training schedules and cutbacks are difficult, but nothing they say they can’t handle.
“It sucks, but you do what you need to do,” Spc. Chris Allen said after returning to Fort Campbell in October from six months in Afghanistan.
Associated Press reporter Julie Watson in San Diego, Calif., contributed to this report. Barrouquere reported from Fort Campbell, Ky., and Louisville, Ky. Schafer reported from Columbia, S.C., and Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.