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Fort Bragg: the Largest Military Base in the World

Based outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the Piedmont transition zone between the Atlantic coastal plain and the Appalachian mountains, Fort Bragg Army Base is an ideal place for military training. Consequently, the US military has based its Army Forces Command and Army Reserve Command there. 

Additionally, many of the US Army’s elite forces are garrisoned there, including the Army Special Operations Command and the 1st Special Forces Command. The base is known as the “Home of the Airborne” because it houses the 18th Airborne Corps and many of its divisions including the 82nd Airborne Division.

With all these units doing their training at Fort Bragg, it’s a huge installation. It’s one of the largest military bases in the world by area at 251 square miles, or 650 square kilometers, more than 10 times the size of Manhattan. Not only that, it’s the largest military base in the world by garrison population with nearly 54,000 active duty soldiers on base and a population served of over 260,000, including military family members, civilian contractors and students. That’s bigger than the populations of large cities like Lubbock, Texas, and Spokane, Washington.

Fort Bragg has become an increasingly important installation for the US military through the Cold War and wars in the Middle East with considerable rapid deployment capabilities by air, highway and rail. Today, it has widely become considered the military capital of the world.

More than 100 Years of History

Fort Bragg started out as a small training station called Camp Bragg. It was established in 1918 at the end of World War I as a place to test many of the new long-range artillery weapons developed during the war and train personnel on them.

The US Army chose the location for Camp Bragg because it had the right terrain for artillery practice as well as access to railways and water in the form of the Little River and several creeks and lakes. Plus, the climate made it possible for the army to train year round.

The Army built Camp Bragg with facilities for six artillery brigades. Additionally, they installed an airfield called Pope Field, which, at the time, was designed to host spotting aircraft for the practicing artillery. Pope Field is still a major part of Fort Bragg, serving many of the airborne units.

Camp Bragg was named after Braxton Bragg, a West Point graduate who served as an officer in the US Army during the Second Seminole War and Mexican-American War. Bragg then sided with the Confederacy during the American Civil War and rose to the position of General of the Army of Tennessee. 

Because Bragg commanded campaigns in North Carolina and was a native of the state, the Army decided on him for the new artillery camp’s namesake. However, as per the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021, influenced by current movements to remove Confederate statues and memorials, the Army must now rename any assets that commemorate the Confederacy or anyone who served voluntarily in its armed forces. That includes Fort Bragg.

Camp Bragg almost closed in 1921 but lobbying from the camp’s officers convinced the Army’s top brass to not only leave it in place but make it a permanent installation, and therefore a “fort,” in 1922. It remained small until World War II when a number of armored and infantry divisions as well as the 82nd Airborne Division were relocated there, raising the population to a whopping 159,000.

World War II also saw a considerable expansion of the base’s installations. The Army paved many of the roads and runways and built Camp Mackall, which included an airfield and over 1,700 buildings. Camp Mackall is now well-known for the part it plays in training US Army Special Forces, the Green Berets.

Furthermore, in 1942, the Army created the Airborne Command located at Fort Bragg to begin training paratroopers for operations in the European and Pacific theaters. After coming back from Europe, the 82nd Airborne Division made its home at the base, and the 18th Airborne Corps was established there in 1951, prompting the name “Home of the Airborne.”

Projection of Power

Fort Bragg is central and essential to the US military’s mission readiness and global responsiveness, their ability to deploy to any corner of the world at a moment’s notice. An important part of this is the base’s air capabilities.

Fort Bragg has access to numerous airfields. The most important is Pope Field, which provides training and deployment services for the 18th Airborne Corps and other operations originating at Fort Bragg. 

Under an inter-service agreement, the airfield is also used by the US Air Force, specifically the 43rd Air Mobility Operations Group as well as three secretive special operations units and the Air Force Combat Control School.

Pope Field has two paved runways. The main runway is roughly 2,900 meters long, or 9,500 feet, and there’s an additional assault strip measuring 914 meters or 3,000 feet.

Another important airfield is Simmons Army Airfield which also supports the 18th Airborne Corps and most of the special operations originating at Fort Bragg. It has one runway measuring 1,400 meters or 4,600 feet. 

These airfields were instrumental in demonstrating Fort Bragg’s role in America’s projection of power during the Gulf War in the early 90s. Pope Field and Simmons Airfield operated round the clock to deploy soldiers to bases in Saudi Arabia and then Kuwait to defend the nation against Sadam Hussein’s advancing armies.

Then, in the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Fort Bragg repeated its success, deploying more personnel than any other base. This efficiency ultimately factored into the Army’s decision to move its headquarters to the base in 2011 after the closure of Fort Macpherson in Georgia.

As Fort Bragg has become increasingly important to the goals and operations of the US military, the Army has gone to great lengths to modernize the facilities. That’s included tearing down many of the old World War II-era buildings like the original barracks for the 82nd Airborne Division and replacing them with modern structures as well as building new buildings for the Army Forces Command and Army Reserves Command.

Other facilities at Fort Bragg include Womack Army Medical Center, 11 schools, a number of parks and recreational facilities, and a golf course. There was briefly even a baseball stadium, Fort Bragg Stadium, which was built specially for the “Fort Bragg Game” between the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins played in July of 2016, the first regular-season Major League Baseball game ever held on a military base. However, after the game, the grandstands were removed, and the stadium was converted to an all-purpose recreational field.

Aside from these amenities, 146,000 acres, or 590 of Fort Bragg’s 650 square kilometers, are dedicated to training. That’s over 11,000 football fields—American football, anyway. There are 1,400 miles, or 2,300 kilometers, of paved roadway and 21 miles, or 34 kilometers, of railroad track beginning at the Honeycutt Marshalling Yards.

Home of the Airbourne

Because Fort Bragg is central to the United States’ projection of power, many of its most elite units are stationed there, especially airborne infantry. The 18th Airborne Corps is headquartered there, commanding units like the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions which became famous for their roles in the Normandy Landings in WWII.

Aerial view of the mouth of the Noyo River on the Pacific Ocean at Fort Bragg,
Aerial view of the mouth of the Noyo River on the Pacific Ocean at Fort Bragg, Mendocino County, California, USA. California State Route 1 (Main Street in Fort Bragg) crosses the river at the outlet. View is to the west. By Robert Campbell, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The 82nd Airborne Division itself is based at Fort Bragg as well. The division was formed in World War I during which it earned the nickname the “All-American” division because it had soldiers from each of the at-the-time 48 states. During World War II, the division played a vital role in the Sicily and Italy campaigns as well as Normandy.

Fort Bragg is also home to Army Special Operations Command. This includes the headquarters of the First Special Forces Command. Most famously, First Special Forces Command handles the operations of the US Army Special Forces, also known as the “Green Berets.”

The Green Berets are an elite airborne light infantry force famed for their paramilitary prowess, language skills and intense selection process that involves some of the most physically, emotionally and mentally demanding exercises in the US military. 

The Green Berets rose to widespread fame during the Vietnam War, and have since been used as one of the Army’s primary units “behind enemy lines.” They often use their language and cultural training to sneak into enemy territory and ally themselves with insurgent groups. 

For instance, in Iraq, they were instrumental in supporting the Kurdish resistance to Saddam Hussein’s government. For these reasons, the Green Berets are often a feeding unit for US paramilitary intelligence units like the CIA’s Special Activities Division, which took part in the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, and the US Delta Force, known for a number of clandestine operations and also based at Fort Bragg.

The US Army Special Forces are divided into seven units or “groups,” each responsible for a different part of the globe. Most of these are stationed elsewhere, but 3rd Special Forces Group, in charge of operations in Africa, is physically based at Fort Bragg.

The Green Berets aren’t the only special operations force under the First Special Forces Command, though. The unit also oversees psychological operations and civil affairs, many units of which are based at Fort Bragg. These include the 4th and 8th Psychological Operations Groups and the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade. All of these units are airborne.

Finally, the Air Force has several elite units on the base as well, specifically at Pope Field. These include the 11th Special Operations Intelligence Squadron and the 24th Special Tactics Squadron also known as Pararescuemen or PJs. The PJs are famous for their airborne rescue missions, often inserting via dangerous high-altitude-low-opening jumps, or HALO, to save stranded special operations units or even NASA astronauts.

Growth Spurts

The US Army is far from finished expanding Fort Bragg. In 2018 699-million-dollars-worth of construction plans were announced, though many of these projects have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, $27 million of this is earmarked for a new entertainment and retail center called “Freedom Crossing” that will provide restaurants, shops, a movie theater and outdoor entertainment venue to serve the active-duty and retired soldiers on the base. 

However, the bulk of the nearly billion dollars will go to a wishlist of projects for Special Operations Command. These include a new fire station and upgrades to barracks, the airfields and tactical equipment as well as the expansion of training grounds and facilities. 

With an even greater ability to train elite forces and deploy them around the world, Fort Bragg seems destined to remain the head of the spear when it comes to the US military’s global readiness and projection of power. It’s unlikely it will lose its title of world’s largest military base anytime soon.

SOURCES

“Fort Bragg: In-depth Overview.” Military OneSource. https://installations.militaryonesource.mil/in-depth-overview/fort-bragg

“Fort Bragg NC: In-Depth Welcome Center.” MyBaseGuide.com. https://mybaseguide.com/installation/fort-bragg/community/fort-bragg-nc-welcome-center/

“Fort Bragg plans $699 million, 6-year construction program.” Kim Slowey. Construction Dive. https://www.constructiondive.com/news/fort-bragg-plans-699m-6-year-construction-program/542671/

“Honeycutt Marshalling Yard Fort Bragg North Carolina.” Installation Transportation Office. https://fliphtml5.com/nfax/rrzj

“U.S. Army Fort Bragg: Fort Bragg History.” U.S. Army. https://home.army.mil/bragg/index.php/about/fort-bragg-history

“U.S. Army Fort Bragg: Rail Operations.” U.S. Army. https://home.army.mil/bragg/index.php/about/garrison/afsbn-bragg/installation-transportation-office/rail-operations

“U.S. Army Fort Bragg: Units/Tenants.” U.S. Army. https://home.army.mil/bragg/index.php/units-tenants

“U.S. Army Fort Bragg: Visitor Information.” U.S. Army. https://home.army.mil/bragg/index.php/about/visitor-information

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