As senior defense planners map out the future of the military in an age of trimmed-down budgets, Army leaders say they’re making the case in the Pentagon and to Congress that the U.S. will continue to need strong ground forces.
While the department conducts a comprehensive budget review to determine what a military on a tighter budget will look like, analysts, and even some Pentagon leaders have suggested the emphasis will be on sea and air power, with smaller ground forces. Outgoing Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn said as much last week in a farewell address.
Without referencing Lynn’s comments specifically, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said he’s heard such arguments before.
“When I was a brigadier general in 2001, I heard the same thing,” he said. “Everyone said we’re going to be technologically-driven, we’ll be driven by air and sea and we need to reduce the size of our ground forces. Then we went through our largest deployment and longest war. We have to be ready for unknown contingencies, and we’re terrible at protecting the future.”
Army Secretary John McHugh, made similar remarks when he and Odierno addressed reporters at the Association of the U.S. Army’s conference in Washington Monday. Both said they are making the case that the Army shouldn’t bear an uneven share of defense cuts.
“We went into Iraq under the rubric of shock and awe. After we shocked and after we awed, we had to march,” McHugh said. “At the end of the day, if you’re going to control territory, you have to have a capable land force. I don’t see how that changes in the future.”
But even as they make the case for ground forces, McHugh and Odierno say they’re under no illusions about the federal budget, and the fact that the Army will have fewer dollars than it’s been planning for over the past few years. Odierno said it’s likely the Army will shrink smaller than even the current drawdown plans, which call for 520,000 soldiers.
How small, he’s not yet sure, he said.
“Part of it is that I don’t know what the cuts are going to be to the Department of Defense,” he said. “What I will tell you is that I’m deathly afraid of a sequester. I believe that will fundamentally change how we conduct security operations across all the services.”
Sequestration is the scenario that would set in if the Congressional “supercommittee” can’t come to agreement on a way to cut the federal budget by more than a $1 trillion over the next 10 years. That scenario would trigger further cuts to the military — taking budget reductions already planned at $450 billion and doubling them.
Odierno, like other DoD leaders, says the military can handle the $450 billion dollar cut, but only with great difficulty.
No hollow force
McHugh said the Army is determined not to repeat what current Pentagon leaders regard as mistakes of the past: keeping a large number of troops, but slicing away at other areas.
“We’ve had artificially-supported end strength in the past. It didn’t have the things beneath it that was required to make an effective force. It didn’t have funds for proper training, it didn’t have modernization and readiness programs,” McHugh said. “We’re trying to make the best argument we can for being a balanced force. Our end strength number is subject to discussion, after which time we’ll get a budget number. Right now, we can’t see bottom, and until we can, it’s a little hard to see where we’ll end up.”
Odierno said given the choice between quality and quantity in the Army, he’s determined to see quality win out.
“No matter what happens, we are not going to have a hollow force,” he said. “We’re going to make sure we have a force with the modernization and readiness necessary to be high quality, no matter what the size, which might cause us to be smaller.”
He said one option under consideration is a reduction in the number of Army combat brigades, but offered few other details on where the Army might trim its forces.
A changed national security strategy?
As the Army shrinks, the national security strategy will have to change, Odierno said, something he said Army leaders are trying to make sure political leaders understand. Among those changes: the Army will have to give up on the idea of being able to fight two wars simultaneously if it draws down to pre-Sept. 11th levels, Odierno said.
The Army has proven over the past ten years that it could not fight two wars with an end strength of 480,000, he said.
“We had to increase the size of the Army to 570,000. Either we made some miscalculations or whatever, but we made it clear that we were not able to do that,” he said.
But the fact that the Army wants to maintain its modernization and training accounts at a healthy level doesn’t mean the service thinks its big acquisition programs are off limits, McHugh said.
He pointed to the SLAMRAAM missile system and the Medium Extended Air Defense System as underperforming programs the Army ended on its own recently.
A new capability portfolio review process will take an ongoing look at big programs, he added.
“When they no longer make sense, we’re going to get rid of them,” he said. “I’ve also issued a directive to take a wholesale look at our temporary task forces and offices. You’d be surprised over ten years how many temporary task forces have been formed, and frankly we’re spending a lot of money. I don’t want to prejudge how things are going to come out, but I suspect we’re going to find we have some permanent temporary task forces that need to go away.