WASHINGTON — As the Army tilts on the "ragged edge" of being unable to successfully confront challenges ahead, seen or unseen, the service faces two potential scenarios, said Army Secretary John McHugh at the opening ceremony of the Association of the US Army on Monday.
One of those is an Army of power and readiness where enemies respect its capabilities and are deterred by its strength or destroyed by its lethality, McHugh said. "I hope and pray that is the future of our Army. That is the future they deserve."
The other is "much darker and much more dangerous, one based on ill-conceived notions of the nature of war, one based on growing discussions in this town that questions the very need for our Army," he said.
In that dark and dangerous future, the force is unprepared for unpredictable contingencies, and based on a "grossly naive view of the geopolitical environment ... rather than the perilous reality we truly face at this moment" and built for "a fantasy reality that does not exist."
McHugh said unforseen dangers are inevitable.
"My greatest fear is what comes next, what don't we see that's heading toward us at this moment. What don't we see that will face us and our allies," he said. "Will we be agile and ready enough?"
He called for more efforts to educate Congress about real-world challenges for the Army and to explain critical needs. The defense budget under sequestration and the continuing resolutions add to the uncertainty at a time when threats are proliferating around the globe.
Army units stand at about 30 percent to 32 percent readiness levels rather than the standard of 60 percent or more; "We consume readiness as fast as it is produced," he said, and the budget has been cut 17 percent and potentially more cuts are coming. Sequestration has hindered critical modernization efforts.
"The nation is at risk, and ultimately, the world is at risk," McHugh said.
"If we continue to strip resources from this Army, at some point someone is going to have to tell us to stop doing something. As I look at the world right now, I don't know what that would be. ... Requirements are overtaking our capabilities."
This will be McHugh's last AUSA annual gathering in his leadership role. He is set to step down on Nov. 1 after a long run.
McHugh has been the Army's civilian leader for more than six years, through two wars, a steep drawdown of more than 80,000 soldiers and a massive reorganization of the force. His transition comes at a time of the changing of the guard in Army leadership and for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The new Army chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, took over in August as the former chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, retired.
McHugh, like Milley, is emphatic that the No. 1 priority for the Army must be readiness, and no Army leader wants to send troops into harm's way unless they are appropriately trained and equipped.
McHugh has long sounded the alarm that the force is nearly at its limit in facing missions and challenges, and that budget cuts endanger the Army's ability to handle the next contingency that arises. He has called repeatedly for a stable, predictable budget so that the Army can plan, and industry can plan as well.
McHugh encouraged Congress to quickly confirm the nomination of assistant secretary Eric Fanning as the new Army secretary.
"In my seven years [as secretary] I've met few people who were more respected in the Pentagon, on the Hill or in the defense community. His intellect, experience and temperament are exactly what this Army needs for the challenging days ahead," McHugh said.
McHugh is the 21st Army secretary and the second longest serving, according to Gen. Gordon Sullivan, AUSA president, who opened the ceremony. He has served with four different chiefs of staff and four vice chiefs.
"Today is bittersweet for me," said McHugh, as he spoke at his seventh and last AUSA annual gathering, and prepares to leave the Pentagon within weeks. "This job has been the singular honor of my career," he said.
He thanked every man and woman who serves in uniform, the families that support them and the civilians who work with them.
Quoting legendary ballplayer Lou Gehrig, he said: "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. There is no greater honor than to serve" the soldiers of the Army.
Several awards were presented at the ceremony:
- The Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Medal was awarded to retired Gen. William Kernan of Pinehurst, North Carolina.
- The Maj. Gen. Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Medal went to Felicia Campbell of Fullerton, California.
- The Lt. Gen. Raymond S. McLain Medal went to retired Brig. Gen. James Combs of Vacaville, California.
- The Maj. Gen. James Earl Rudder Medal was awarded to retired Maj. Gen. James Collins of University Place, Washington.
- The SMA William G. Bainbridge Noncommissioned Officer Medal was given to retired Sgt. Maj. David Martinez of South Korea.
- The Joseph P. Cribbins Award went to Annette Lozen of Clinton Township, Michigan.
- The AUSA Volunteer Family of the Year Award was presented to the Sgt. Blagoy Pogoncheff Family, including Blagoy, Stacie, Kelbie, Kialie and Andon of Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Washington.
- The AUSA National Service Award was awarded to The Gary Sinise Foundation of Los Angeles.