Despite the rows of polished booths at last week's Association of the United States Army convention, most were pessimistic about the service's fiscal future. (Sara Davidson / Staff)
WASHINGTON — The disparity was stark between the gleaming convention show floor with its new combat vehicles, hulking MRAPs, full-sized helicopters and drone mock-ups hanging from the ceiling, and the grim message being delivered by Army officials in conference rooms upstairs at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center here last week.
While the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) convention-goers sipped complimentary cocktails on the show floor and attended industry-funded dinners in the evenings, in briefing after briefing, generals, colonels and civilian program managers essentially shrugged their shoulders when asked what effect budget cuts will have on their programs.
One bit of clarity came when Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told Defense News that if sequestration remains in place and the Pentagon has to take $500 billion out of its projected budgets over the next decade, his service will have no choice but to fall below the 490,000-soldier threshold it has set.
That isn’t breaking news — it has been known for some time that in order to save any money in its personnel accounts, the Army will have to go below 490,000. But for the first time the chief offered a number: “We can meet the requirements of full sequestration probably somewhere around 420,000, 425,000. I think we can do that.”
In another session with reporters, Odierno said the Army may accelerate the force drawdown to reach the 490,000 level by the end of 2015, as opposed to 2017.
The pressure of the new fiscal realities was evident when the normally sedate Heidi Shyu showed flashes of frustration during several appearances when discussing her acquisition accounts. As the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, Shyu expressed frustration with what she called the “perfect storm of continuing resolutions, sequestration and [the] government shutdown” for creating the toxic brew of budgetary issues swirling around Washington.
Describing how the Army is coping with acquisition programs in this new environment, Shyu admitted that “we’re lurching,” trying to salvage some programs, pushing others back and canceling others.
Shyu also backed up the chief’s comments on end-strength, telling reporters that the Army is “going down to 490,000 and very likely lower than that” in coming years.
“We don’t see an end in sight,” Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. James Barclay said. “We’re going to have some tough times” in keeping the acquisition programs like Ground Combat Vehicle and other reset programs alive.
“I find it difficult to envision any significant number of our developmental initiatives that won’t be affected,” Army Secretary John McHugh told reporters. “And some we’ll have to cancel.”
While no service official would provide details, the Ground Combat Vehicle appears to be most at risk. Envisioned as the Army’s next-generation replacement to the Bradley, and in development with teams led by BAE Systems and General Dynamics building prototypes, the estimated $11 million-per-vehicle cost may prove too expensive for a service that still has hundreds of Bradleys recently upgraded with the latest electronics and weapons systems.
One topic that didn’t receive much attention was the 50,000 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.
With sequestration and costly government shutdowns sucking all the air out of the nation’s capital, there was little time or energy left for Army leaders to talk about current combat operations or the train-and-advise mission slated to wrap up at the end of 2014.
Just as important as the troops deployed are the troops who might have to deploy next. Only two Army brigades meet the Category 1 readiness level, which means they have been fully trained in combined arms maneuver and are prepared to meet a range of threats.
Those two brigades are both in the 82nd Airborne Division — one brigade that is tasked with being the service’s Global Response Force and the brigade that just came off that watch.
In an interview with Defense News, Gen. Daniel Allyn, commander of US Army Forces Command, said “what that means for the rest of our Army is they will be doing the best that they can with very little resourcing to achieve max readiness. It will probably mean they’ll be ready at the small unit and tactical level but not trained properly at the battalion task force or brigade combat team level. That will mean we’ll have to buy that readiness back and that will cost money, and that will cost time.”
He also warned that if a major crisis comes up and he has to send a unit that “hasn’t yet closed that training gap, we then pay in blood and treasure because of our lack of readiness.”
Right now, the only units going through the normal training center rotations are those slated to head to Afghanistan — one brigade from the 10th Mountain Division, two from the 101st Airborne Division and one from the 4th Infantry Division are all scheduled to rotate in next — and those rotating into South Korea and Europe as part of the NATO response force.
Given Washington’s inability to come to grips with the nation’s fiscal realities, it is almost impossible to sketch out with confidence what the near-term will look like for the Pentagon’s bottom line.
But one thing is certain: As wartime funding accounts dry up over the next several years and budgets stay flat, big changes are coming to the Army.
How big, and how leadership manages those changes, is the question.