HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The Army must do "everything we possibly can" to maintain an all-volunteer force amid deep budget cuts and growing demands around the world, the service's top civilian leader said Thursday.

"When you look at our Army, it's asked to do missions for our nation time and time and time again," Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy said during the Association of the United States Army Global Force Symposium and Exposition here. "The world is a volatile place, and our nation continues to ask our military, especially our Army, to step up to the plate."

Since Murphy left Congress five years ago as a representative from Pennsylvania, the Army's budget has been slashed by about 40 percent, he said.

"Readiness is our No. 1 priority, there is no other No. 1," Murphy said. "This means individual readiness, unit readiness, and part of that is funding. As these budgets shrink over 40 percent in the Army, what are we doing to gain efficiencies and drive innovation to save dollars we can put into readiness, to put into training?"

The Army "can't keep fighting the last fight," he said.

"We're proficient when it comes to counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism," he said. "We have to prepare for the next fight, which is high-end ground combat."

This focus on the full spectrum of combat comes as the nation grapples with Russian aggression, the Islamic State terror group, a volatile North Korea, and emerging China. The Army also remains busy as the executive agent for the Defense Department for postal service, detainee operations, improvised explosive device research and dozens more areas, he said.

"Wars with great powers, those days, for some, they may think it's over," Murphy said. "We have to prepare, and we have to be ready to fight tonight. Readiness deters our most dangerous threats, and I'd rather be proactive than reactive."

Murphy also emphasized the importance of making sure the Army stays connected to its soldiers after they leave the service.

"That connective tissue is important," Murphy said, adding that the Defense Department in the last five years paid $4.6 billion in unemployment. "For the Army, it comes out of our budget."

This is why it's critical for the Army to continue growing its Soldier for Life program, Murphy said.

"When you leave the military after three years or 30 years, you're expected, when you become an American soldier, to be a leader a character," he said. "I get ticked off when I see in the media that our veterans are treated like charity cases. They're not. They're civic assets."

Veterans are more likely to be employed and earn more money than those who never served, Murphy said. Veterans also are more likely to vote and coach Little League.

"We're putting incredible responsibility on these young Americans time and time again, and they're civic assets when they leave our Army," he said.