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Only Two US Army Brigades Now Combat Ready, Chief Says

Oct. 21, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By LANCE M. BACON   |   Comments
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Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Secretary of the Army John McHugh speak at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army on Oct. 21 in Washington. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said his greatest fear is to receive an order to deploy thousands of troops. And with good reason.

The Army has only two combat-ready brigades right now, he said. Even the ones headed to Afghanistan are qualified for the trainer and adviser mission, not combat.

Odierno said he hopes to get the number of trained and equipped brigades to seven by June 2014.

“There is going to come a time when we simply don’t have enough money to provide what I believe to be the right amount of ground forces to conduct contingency operations,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but it is something we are going to continue to review.”

Army Secretary John McHugh said he and the chief are committed that “whatever the Army’s end strength and its budgets may look like, we will never send a soldier into war unprepared, untrained or improperly equipped.” But he acknowledged that there are unprecedented uncertainties with which the service must contend.

The cost of sequestration is being covered by readiness and modernization dollars. That is why there are so few brigades trained and equipped for the combat mission. Service leaders look to accelerate the drawdown to help free up some money and balance training, modernization and end strength.

One step in this endeavor is an effort to cut 25 percent of overhead in headquarters. The Pentagon only required a 20-percent cut, but Odierno said the larger slice “can achieve some significant savings” — thousands of soldiers that could instead help fill a Brigade Combat Team, for example.

But many problems are beyond Army control. Leading that category is a gridlocked Congress’ habit of passing “continuing resolutions.” These force the military to operate on the previous year’s budgets — which are several billion shorter than the president’s current budget proposals.

“By the time any budget is developed through the services, cleared through the Department of Defense, goes through the [Office of Management and Budget], goes through the administration, goes to Capitol Hill, gets through the House and Senate and is passed and is signed by the president, by the time we are executing that budget it is almost three years old,” McHugh said. “So a budget that locks us through a [continuing resolution] into last year’s budget is really a three-year-old budget. You can’t run the most important military on the face of the earth with three-year old budgets.”

These resolutions, combined with the crippling effect of sequestration, have had a negative impact on 485 programs, McHugh said. As a result, the service can’t start new contracts “which is enormously problematic” for an Army trying to evolve into a new era of technology.

And that means every program is in jeopardy.

“What do we need? We need to make sure our soldiers have the best equipment possible,” Odierno said. “We need to make sure our individual soldiers have protective equipment, they have the right sights, they have the right weapons. … We need something to replace the Humvee, we need to replace the Bradley. We need to invest in our aviation systems — our UH-60s, our Apaches, our CH-47s. We need to make sure that in the complex environments we are going to operate in that we have a network that enables us to pass information very quickly down to the lowest element. We need all of it. The bottom line is we can’t afford all of it. So we’re going to have to make some tough decisions.”

Some programs will be reduced, others will be eliminated, Odierno said, though neither he nor the secretary was willing to name specific programs.

Some of those answers will likely emerge later this year. The chief currently is leading Quadrennial Defense Review meetings where future strategies and budgets are balanced, as best they can be.

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