The Army continues to be "stretched very thin" as it continues to draw down to a total force of 980,000, the service's top civilian leader said.
"I do worry about that," Army Secretary Eric Fanning said. "We are running it hard."
When the Army began drawing down to 980,000 soldiers – with goals of 450,000 in the active Army, 335,000 in the Army National Guard, and 195,000 in the Army Reserve by the end of 2018 – the demand for soldiers was not as high as it is today, Fanning said.
For full AUSA 2016 coverage: www.defensenews.com/ausa
"We did not see Russia being as aggressive as it is. We did not have ISIL to contend with like we do now," he said. "There are a lot of requirements on an Army that is being asked to do a lot of things globally. Just in the last four years or so, we have increased our uniformed [and] civilian presence in the Pacific theater by 50 percent while we are drawing down."
But Fanning also cautioned against increasing the Army's size without proper funding.
"The worst thing for the Army would be that we are required to keep a larger force structure but the budget does not change," he said. "We have already taken a lot of risk in our modernization accounts … and in our operations and maintenance accounts. The force structure that we are headed towards, while there are a lot of requirements levied against it, it is, we think, a balanced force structure for the budget that we have."
As soldiers continue to deploy around the world, whether to Iraq and Afghanistan or to support exercises and engagements in Europe, the Pacific and Africa, Army leaders are focused on keeping the force trained and ready, Fanning said.
"That is one of the concerns," he said. "There are some stressors out there, and certain parts of the Army, like the Patriot batteries, we do not have the optempo down to the ratio that we want it to be."
Fanning, who recently returned from a troop visit to Iraq and Afghanistan, praised soldiers for their desire to serve.
"Soldiers want to deploy. They want to get outside of the gate," he said. "It is an incredibly strong and resilient force that is doing great things over there. I think the biggest stressor for the Army and for the force is just the unpredictability of what the future holds for them and for the Army just based on the political and budgetary instability that we have been facing now for many years."
As he looks to the future, Fanning said the Army "is really drawn into focusing on and resourcing today's fight at the expense of the future."
As Army secretary, Fanning said he remains concerned about the budget, even as the Army faces another continuing resolution.
"The instability makes it very hard to plan," he said. "Continuing resolutions are disruptive. Not being able to budget even for a full year because of the continuing resolution is disruptive. This all impacts how you build a program to maintain flexibility so you can respond quickly. It is not nearly as effective as having a long-term program that you can plan on."
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.