Gen. Ray Odierno, US Army chief of staff, is known as a forceful leader, passionate in arguing for the needs of his soldiers and his Army.
He’s the Army’s top soldier at an extremely difficult time, managing budgetary uncertainty and piecemeal cuts, sequestration, a government shutdown and readiness shortfalls that have left the Army with only two fully combat-ready brigades, both from the 82nd Airborne Division.
At last week’s Association of the United States Army’s annual conference, Army Secretary John McHugh said such cuts while the force is engaged in combat are unprecedented. He and Odierno expressed deep dismay and outright frustration at Washington’s political dysfunction and budgetary mayhem.
The Army was forced to make $5.5 billion in meat-ax cuts to spending because of rigid and irresponsible requirements under sequestration that did not allow service leaders to hit savings targets by mapping out sensible and strategic funding levels. Now lawmakers are doubling down on the fiscal foolishness with budget cuts that will hit nearly 500 Army programs, further eroding readiness levels and soldier morale. The funding shortages are taking a heavy toll on two key American war-fighting advantages — superlative training and modern equipment.
And more cuts are slated to come, even as the force resets itself after Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mountains of battle-worn gear from vehicles to aircraft that need overhaul are piling up as critical training has been gapped, including all-important rotations to the Army’s National Training Center.
Incredibly, soldiers in the all-volunteer Army are going to be ordered to pull KP, guard duty and other scut work once demanded when troops were plentiful because the draft provided a steady supply of low-wage labor.
Today’s troops, however, are highly professional and have the option of walking away once their service obligations are met. Sticking them with such menial tasks is the surest way to drive away talent in whom the Army has invested greatly to recruit and train.
Odierno is working to get out front of these multiple challenges. He has convened teams of some of the Army’s sharpest thinkers to help shape the service’s future as another quadrennial defense review looms. What’s needed are forward-looking and innovative organizational and operational constructs to ensure the service maintains its advantages as the world’s best trained and equipped Army, even as it shrinks end-strength.
The force is moving from 570,000 to 490,000 soldiers by the end of 2015 but will have to shed even more troops if the Army is to maintain a healthy balance between training and equipment.
While Odierno fights to keep his service’s combat superiority, he also has to push back against critics who, captivated by the endless promises of high-tech weaponry and combat systems, believe the need for ground troops is diminishing. He deems that view as “naïve” and “dangerous.” He is correct. Iraq and Afghanistan proved, yet again, the timeless need for troops on the ground.
On the program side of the equation, major acquisitions are likely to be delayed as the military comes to grips with the need to change how and what it buys. A sense of that new reality was palpable among conference exhibitors last week.
But whether it’s people or programs, it all depends on whether congressional budget negotiators can resolve their differences and forge a better budget deal.
First, however, they should make fresh visits to military bases to understand what cuts truly mean. Then they should give the Pentagon and other agencies the ability to cut strategically while there’s still time to get this right.