A decade after Camp Atterbury started prepping soldiers for war, the post is shifting focus to peacetime training.

Missing will be the thousands and thousands of soldiers who pass through each year, training and preparing for deployments overseas.

Training National Guard members and reservists will remain a top priority. But the post also will pivot to a new mission focused on doing more with drones and technical training in cyber defense and also marketing itself as a place for soldiers from across the country to do weeks-long training exercises.

Most troops are slated to be withdrawn from Afghanistan next year, and the 30,000-acre post in southern Johnson County no longer will have to send them off to combat or welcome them back home. Camp Atterbury instead will serve as a regional training center for the National Guard and reserves and try to expand its repertoire to include more homeland security training, unmanned aircraft testing and cyberdefense operations.

Atterbury will remain a mobilization site but will become an inactive one once combat operations cease in Afghanistan next year, post commander Col. Ivan Denton said. The post could be called upon to carry out the mission of readying soldiers for deployment but doesn't expect to mobilize any service members next year - for the first time in a decade.

About 20,000 soldiers a year used to come through the post while on their way to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or as their first stop when they returned home. But after U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq, the number of soldiers passing through dropped to about 16,000 two years ago and to about 12,000 last year.

This year, only about 5,000 service members are expected to come to Camp Atterbury to sharpen their shooting, first aid and other soldiering skills before shipping off to war.

The absence of those deploying and returning soldiers will mean a sizable cut in federal funding and a reduction of 500 military and civilian jobs at the post.

Staffing adjustments

Last year, Camp Atterbury and Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Jennings County received about $460 million in mostly federal funds to pay for salaries and benefits, supplies, training exercises and construction, Denton said. This year, that funding is projected to be cut by nearly a fourth to about $350 million.

But the contraction is temporary, Denton said.

Camp Atterbury isn't going anywhere and actually should continue to grow, he said.

Employment at Camp Atterbury will shrink over the next two years but is poised to increase overall within the next five years, Denton said.

Camp Atterbury expects to start hiring some employees back months after the 500 positions are eliminated this year, Denton said. The post could rehire as many as 200 of the service members and contractors by the end of 2013.

The post no longer will get federal funding for mobilization and soon must cut 500 military and civilian jobs related to running the post or helping deploying soldiers fill out paperwork, Denton said. The National Guard members and contractors who will be affected make sure that deploying soldiers have transportation, housing and medical treatment during their time at Camp Atterbury.

By the end of the year, Denton said he hopes to find new positions for 100 to 200 of those service members and civilian contractors. The post won't have as many mobilization-related jobs but will shift focus to other missions and have new positions to fill, he said.

They could work in areas such as homeland security, cyber defense or the unmanned aerial drone program, Denton said.

Many of the employees who will be affected by the cutbacks won't be out of work, said Maj. Lisa Kopczynski, Camp Atterbury's spokeswoman. They'll often return to federal or state jobs or go back to civilian life and become reservists in the National Guard.

The post also plans two job fairs for service members and contractors who don't have jobs to return to or have new positions lined up, Denton said.

Partnerships possible

Camp Atterbury plans to grow and create future employment opportunities by focusing on new initiatives, Denton said. For example, the post currently employs eight people who work to protect U.S. computer networks but someday could add hundreds of jobs in that field.

Eventually, Camp Atterbury could train soldiers for cyberwarfare or be a home base for service members who'd work to keep the nation safe from hackers and cyberattacks, Denton said.

The post plans to identify such opportunities and market itself to military units and federal agencies, he said.

"We'll partner with federal entities and compete for Department of the Army activities," he said. "Our thought is that if they're going to do training somewhere in the United States, they can do it here cheaper and more effectively."

Camp Atterbury has a logistical advantage over other training facilities because it's in the middle of the country, Denton said. The military installation also has the infrastructure for a wide variety of training, including at nearby Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, he said.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Defense has invested $500 million in new training facilities, barracks buildings and ranges at Camp Atterbury. New living quarters are under construction, and the post also plans to add a loading station at a rail spur. That amount of investment ensures that Camp Atterbury will remain a hub of training and military activity for the foreseeable future, Denton said.

Mainly, Camp Atterbury will focus on training National Guard and reserve soldiers from Indiana, northern Kentucky, eastern Illinois and western Ohio, Denton said. Those soldiers already come to Camp Atterbury to fulfill annual training requirements and also to take part in larger exercises.

The post will continue to prepare defense contractors, Department of State employees and civilian Department of Defense employees for trips around the world. They'll learn how to be safe in dangerous environments.

Camp Atterbury also will still host major training events such as the U.S. Northern Command's Vibrant Response, where more than 7,000 soldiers from across the country will visit to prepare for disasters, Kopczynski said. Pilots and soldiers from Europe also will descend on the post later this year to take part in the NATO-led Bold Quest exercise, she said.

Filling a gap

Over the past few years, Camp Atterbury increasingly has become a hub for homeland defense training, and Denton said that's a mission the post will continue to pursue after the mobilizations end.

The Indiana Department of Homeland Security, for instance, operates a search-and-rescue academy at Camp Atterbury, deputy commander Ron Morris said. They regularly do training, such as with cadaver-sniffing dogs, he said.

Camp Atterbury has the opportunity to expand that niche, since homeland security can encompass everything from local firefighters to large federal agencies, Denton said. For instance, Noblesville police recently spent a week at the post running through SWAT team tactics.

Officials are working to identify other areas where Camp Atterbury could fill a need, Denton said.

"We'll reach out to federal agencies that may have a capability gap and see how we can help them fill that capability gap," he said.

Denton said he hopes Camp Atterbury can get a think tank-like operation similar to the U.S. Army's Center for Lessons Learned but for homeland security. Officials would review training exercises and other data and prepare new doctrines on tactics and best practices.

"It would be the same homeland security training we're doing now, but we'd try to put more of an intellectual spin on it," he said.

Camp Atterbury also has opportunities for growth with remote-controlled drones since it has protected airspace, he said.

Despite its shifting mission, the post still could be used to mobilize soldiers to global hotspots, Denton said. But future mobilizations likely would be on a much smaller scale than before, he said.

"If they needed to mobilize 1,000 or 3,000 soldiers, we could do that," he said. "It doesn't have to be all or nothing with the size."

Joseph S. Pete is a reporter for the Daily Journal of Johnson County