BIGGS ARMY AIRFIELD - For the next five years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will transform Fort Bliss as part of one its largest Army projects, adding 15,000 troops from ground combat units.
The 1.2 million-acre post, currently home to the Army's Air Defense Artillery School, will lose the missile defense unit training school that has become its trademark in exchange for the new troops.
The post transformation, which includes about $3 billion in construction, is expected to be completed by 2011. By then Fort Bliss, where about 14,000 soldiers are currently stationed, is expected to balloon to nearly 30,000 soldiers.
"Think of this as running an installation and building an installation and we're doing it simultaneously," said Col. Bob Burns, the post garrison commander.
Burns said some of the changes were prompted by overhaul recommendations from the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, while others are the result of the Army's efforts to change where and how its forces train.
Army officials said Fort Bliss was selected for expansion in part because of its size.
"The state of Rhode Island will fit inside Fort Bliss with room to spare," said Clark McChesney, director of the Fort Bliss transformation office. And every piece of equipment in the Army's aresenal can be tested at the training ranges at Fort Bliss, Burns said.
Many soldiers, including those from the 1st Armored Division, are moving to Fort Bliss from European posts. Some of the new troops will also be working on the Army's high-tech Future Combat Systems project, while others will form an air combat brigade.
The bulk of the upgrades at Fort Bliss are at Biggs Army Airfield, which Burns said for too long has been underused, where hundreds of new buildings and miles of paved roads are being built.
Construction started last year and is expected to continue through 2011, when at least four brigade combat teams - combat-ready groups of about 4,000 soldiers - will be permanently housed on the post just outside El Paso.
McChesney said the changes will also affect El Paso.
The Texas Department of Transportation is also building roads and expanding highway access to Fort Bliss from neighborhoods around El Paso. One project will add a double-decker highway along the western edge of the post.
And the Army has partnered with city officials to build a desalination plant on Fort Bliss property that will eventually produce millions of gallons of water a day for both the post and the city.
Army officials are also making an effort to award contracts to local businesses, McChesney said.
Of the current $300 million in construction projects, about $75 million in federal contracts were awarded to El Paso businesses, said John E. Morgan, a Corps of Engineers project manager at Fort Bliss.