Fort Bragg in Fayetteville is the largest Army installation in the country, by population. Like the rest of the military in North Carolina, it is important to our economy in addition to its obvious importance to our national security.
Last week, I heard a presentation from the base’s deputy garrison commander, Kevin Griess. He is effectively the installation’s city manager, because that’s what it is – the equivalent of a small city. Griess was speaking to the government relations forum of the Defense Alliance of North Carolina. DANC is a nonprofit that advocates for the military.
We have a big military footprint, with more than 147,000 uniformed and civilian employees of the Department of Defense, more than all but three other states. But a lot of newcomers to North Carolina in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham may not realize how vital it is to the overall economy. The defense sector makes up around 13% of spending on goods and services in our state, behind only farms and agribusiness. Besides Fort Bragg, there’s Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville (along with Marine Corps Air Station New River), and a couple of large installations in Havelock – Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and Fleet Readiness Center East, a massive repair and maintenance depot for military aircraft. The Coast Guard has a base in Elizabeth City. And there’s a major Army munitions-loading terminal, Sunny Point, on the Cape Fear River south of Wilmington.
Fort Bragg is a particularly interesting place, because it is home to one of the most visible, well-known divisions, the 82nd Airborne, but also home to lower-profile special operations units. The base is home to around 12% of the Army’s active component, with nearly 48,500 soldiers. Another 16,000-plus civilian and contract employees work on the base. With military family members, the population on Fort Bragg totals more than 130,000. If it were a city, it would be the eighth-largest in North Carolina, ahead of Wilmington. The military payroll is more than $3.1 billion, and the civilian employees make more than $900 million.
Lots of generals
There are 38 general officer posts at Fort Bragg, the largest number outside of the Washington, D.C., area. That’s because there are a lot of important commands. The U.S. Army Forces Command, which is responsible for training and fielding a combat-ready Army, is led by a four-star. The U.S. Army Reserve Command, Joint Special Operations Command, XVIII Airborne Corps, and U.S. Army Special Operations Command are all on Fort Bragg.
The 82nd is part of the military’s Immediate Response Force, which is tasked with quickly going anywhere in the world, as needed, such as Kabul in August 2021 to support evacuations, and Germany and Poland in February when the Russians prepared to invade Ukraine.
“The USASOC, the special operators, they go on lots of deployments,” said Griess. “The old joke, ‘Can’t tell you where they’re at, where they’re going, what they’re doing.’ But they’re going out all the time, wherever they’re going.”
A big post
Griess is an Air Force veteran with a doctorate, and he came to Fort Bragg in February 2021 from a similar role at an Army garrison in Germany. He is responsible for making sure 1,400 miles of roads and 5,800 buildings are maintained, among a lot of other things. Think of all the problems that a city manager deals with every day, and add on the unique challenges of serving a population that has to deploy in a hurry to dangerous places. How well Fort Bragg operates impacts readiness.
The average Army garrison has less than 10 million square feet of buildings. Fort Bragg has 54.5 million square feet.
“Just the cost of running the garrison for ourselves – running the garrison, which does not include the operating costs of the individual units, like the XVIII Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division or USASOC – but just managing the city part, we do about $8.2 billion annually in business. We’re spending about $22.3 million a day.”
“So that’s a significant economic driver,” said Griess.
From 2007 through 2012, when the U.S. was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, between $300 million and more than $600 million was being spent annually on military construction at Fort Bragg. “There was a recognition that Bragg needed to keep up,” he said. Last year, it was in the $100 million range. “Not quite the lowest we’ve ever been, but still not really where we need to be.” Griess said the garrison is hoping to get the level back to between $200 million and $300 million.
One challenge is military housing. Fort Bragg has around 6,100 housing units, which are managed by a private company under a long-term contract with the Army. Some of them are old, and there have been complaints about mold problems and other issues. There have also been mold problems in barracks. Griess said that $15.8 million has been spent on renovations in the housing recently, and 16 of the 129 barracks are undergoing renovation.
The garrison is always looking for efficiencies, and one way it is saving money is a partnership with the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Fort Bragg is going to be able to submit road repair requests to NCDOT, and NCDOT will handle contracting and oversight for the projects. The installation has a lot of repair work, and the cost has run around $1 million a mile. Griess estimates the new partnership will reduce that to $600,000 a mile. One reason is NCDOT’s scale. It contracts for a lot of highway work. The partnership can bring NCDOT more revenue and save Fort Bragg around $75 million over the next decade.
The military has a lot of young families, and childcare is a challenge. It is also a readiness issue, because you want soldiers to be able to focus on their jobs and not worrying about who is watching the kids. The garrison has 12 childcare centers that would normally hold around 1,400 children.
Right now, because of staffing shortages, there is only capacity for about 850 children. Hopefully, the tight labor market will ease, because the garrison has requested three new child care centers of 200-plus children each over the next five years. One has been funded.
“Most cities don’t own their own childcare,” said Griess, “but this is kind of a unique aspect of what we do. And we’re expecting another 800 to 1,000 to come on the installation in the next three years, based on unit movements.”
Out of sight
Fort Bragg and the rest of our military installations have one thing in common, which is they are easy to miss. Much is out of sight from our highways and, for security reasons, they are inaccessible unless you have a good reason to be on an installation.
But because they are so important to our state, the time to make folks in the big cities aware of them is before the periodic base realignments and consolidations, when installations around the country can get closed or dramatically reduced in size. The folks in Charleston, SC, know, because they used to have a naval base until the mid-90s. Right now, parts of our state are very focused on our military assets but mainly the counties around the bases, where the warfighters, civilian workers and retirees live. That’s one of the key roles of organizations like DANC, the North Carolina Military Business Center, the North Carolina Defense Technology Transition Office (DEFTECH), and the North Carolina Military Affairs Commission: getting the word out to the rest of us.