TAMPA — The signs of MacDill Air Force Base's transformation in the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are easy to spot.
It's seen in the lines of cars backed up at the main gate as armed guards carefully check IDs. It's seen in U.S. Central Command's new headquarters and the overflowing parking lots across the base.
But at CentCom, the combatant command leading the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the days of exponential growth are done.
The command is now undertaking a comprehensive review of staffing levels at its MacDill headquarters as it deals with a Pentagon mandate to trim costs.
In a wide-ranging interview, CentCom's chief of staff, Army Maj. Gen. Karl Horst, said CentCom expects to reduce its MacDill staff in the next three to four years by about 1,100 positions, down to 4,000 personnel overall.
The reductions, Horst said, are a consequence of the wars and Iraq and Afghanistan winding down and budget cuts across the military as Washington deals with a mounting deficit.
"There is no intention of degrading (CentCom's) capability," Horst said. "All we're doing is looking at how to be as capable, more efficiently."
He added, "I don't think it's unreasonable that we look hard at ourselves and say, 'Are we doing the best we can with what we have? And … how can we do better?' I think it absolutely logical and consistent with how all big businesses operate."
These are not layoffs. Horst said the reduction mostly affects temporary staffers who will be reassigned elsewhere in the military.
It could not be confirmed Friday whether U.S. Special Operations Command, which is headquartered at MacDill and oversees the nation's elite commando forces, would also trim its staff.
As hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers in 2001, just 1,000 people were assigned to CentCom's MacDill headquarters. Horst said the permanent staffing level at CentCom before Sept. 11 hovered near 2,000 personnel, though the number has varied widely.
"Because of the activity in our (area of responsibility), we're not going to get to 2,000," Horst said, noting CentCom's commander, Gen. James Mattis, expects the figure to eventually settle somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000.
All that also depends on developments in the fight against global terrorism.
MacDill officials say the base's economic impact in Tampa Bay is $4.9 billion, including more than $1 billion in military and civilian pay. So talk of cuts is closely monitored by local politicians.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the economic impact of the reduction is difficult to gauge.
"Obviously, any job loss has an impact," he said. "But I'd rather have our troops home and safe with their families and take the risk of losing a few jobs if that gets them home."
CentCom's former commander, Adm. William Fallon, was the first to begin trimming its staff in 2007. Fallon cut about 1,100 positions.
"I think periodically you have to take that objective look at yourself," Horst said. "You get so busy doing the day to day work, and things kind of inch up periodically."
CentCom is in the process of moving into new headquarters, part of nearly $1 billion in construction at MacDill in the last several years. Even with the cuts, CentCom would be too tightly packed into its current facility, officials say.
Horst started as CentCom chief of staff in July. He is the former commanding general of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, D.C.
But even amid a downsizing, Horst said, it is important that Americans and the military not lose sight that the battle against terrorism is unfinished.
"For 10 years, we said (Osama bin Laden) is Public Enemy No. 1. A lot of Americans made him the face of evil and the face of responsibility for the tragedy of 9/11. … For the morale and psyche of the American people, I think it is cathartic that Osama bin Laden met his demise.
"And while bidding farewell to (bin Laden) was a good thing, it doesn't … diminish the will or intent of the (terrorist) network that's out there," Horst said.
The nation and CentCom, he said, is better prepared to deal with the threat today.
Horst recounted an incident in January, when a civilian jet crossed an invisible line 46 miles from Washington, D.C. It temporarily had lost communications with air traffic controllers.
"It was on the wrong frequency," Horst said. "The pilots were not really paying attention to what they were doing."
The aircraft entered Washington air space at 11:53 a.m. At 11:54 a.m. the Federal Aviation Administration called the military. At 11:56 a.m., two F-16 fighter jets "crossed over the White House at 2,200 feet with afterburners on going out fast, which caused the White House to call and say, 'Hey, you're not supposed to be doing that. What's up?' "
At 11:57, the FAA regained communications with the aircraft, defusing the incident. The quick response was a product of an integrated air defense system and cooperation between the military and a civilian agency.
"The American people need to know we've learned a lot and gotten very sophisticated," Horst said. "The challenge is, you can't be everywhere."
Reach William R. Levesque at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.