Army foresees another drop in military readiness if sequestration returns

Thanks to an influx of funds under the Ryan-Murray budget agreement, the Army is recovering slowly from a degradation in readiness that started when sequestration kicked in a year ago.

But those gains will be quickly erased if lawmakers don’t do something about the Defense budget caps in fiscal 2016 and beyond, the service’s top leadership told House legislators Tuesday.

The Bipartisan Budget Agreement represented only a brief reprieve from sequestration for the Defense Department. Starting in 2016, DoD is scheduled to revert back to the funding limits its leaders have been warning for years would be destructive to national security.

In the first year of the cuts, the Army absorbed the sudden reductions in the few areas of its budget where spending could be reduced immediately, the service’s top civilian and military leaders told the House Armed Services Committee during the Army’s annual posture hearing before the panel.

Along with civilian pay and facility maintenance, troop training was one of a handful of such areas. The Army canceled seven rotations through its Combat Training Center, leaving only two of its 45 brigades fully trained and ready to deploy to a contingency.

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“We’re higher than that now. We’re probably closer to five or six, and it will increase as we invest the dollars we got in 2014 into those rotations,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff. “The problem is that readiness is temporary. It’s good for about six months to a year. We’re going to have to sustain a tiered- readiness profile, which means only certain units will be ready. We will rotate them through the Army force generation process, but in 2016, we’re going to have another readiness dive.”

The Army knows it is facing a readiness problem even if Congress unexpectedly cancels the remaining years of sequestration, so it’s reducing its total headcount of soldiers in order to shift personnel spending into funds to train its remaining forces, officials said.

20,000 per year

But even with a delay of the full sequestration figure to 2016, there are practical limitations to how quickly the Army can shrink itself. In the meantime, soldiers are less trained and more vulnerable in combat than they ought to be.

“That’s true at least in the interim,” Odierno said. “During the five or six years when we’re taking end-strength out, we don’t have enough readiness. But once you get that end-strength out, we’ll be able to sustain a readiness level that’s appropriate: that’s the end-state. You have a smaller Army that’s ready. But in the meantime, it creates great uncertainty and unreadiness because we have to be very careful on how we take soldiers out of the Army. We want to make sure we can still meet our current operational commitments. And we want to make sure we take care of our soldiers as we take them out.”

The Army already is executing a plan to reduce its size by 20,000 soldiers per year between now and 2018. Officials say that’s the fastest drawdown they can accomplish before the costs of the personnel reductions offset the budgetary savings they would achieve.

Odierno said the service would be about right-sized by that point, meaning that the Army would have sufficient funds to keep its remaining force trained and ready, even if it is smaller.

That’s under the Pentagon’s rosier budget scenario, which imagines that Congress will undo sequestration over the next several years. If it doesn’t, the Army says it would need to continue the 20,000 soldiers per year drawdown for another five years, delaying the point at which it would reach a balance between force structure and readiness until 2023.

In either scenario, once the Army reaches that “balance” point, Odierno said there’s a significant chance that the force will be too small to perform its missions.

In the five-year budget the Army submitted to Congress last month, officials said they could continue to execute the current Defense strategy, with higher risks, at a level of 450,000 active duty soldiers, compared to the 490,000 they estimated they’d need when the Pentagon first rolled out the current Defense strategy in 2012.

If sequestration stays in place, the Army would need to reduce its size to 420,000 in order to keep its remaining forces ready to deploy.

Skepticism continues about Army’s plans

Defense hawks long have been skeptical about the Pentagon’s claims that it could maintain its longstanding objective of being able to engage in two simultaneous conflicts at even the 490,000 soldier figure. But if the Army’s current projections about sequestration’s impact on the long-term size of the Army are accurate, that two-war debate becomes moot.

Odierno said the Army’s projections that it could continue to execute the 2012 Defense strategy, even at the 450,000 soldier force the Pentagon now is proposing, are based on assumptions that may turn out to be unrealistic.

“I believe that the assumptions of the length of warfare, the assumptions on the contribution of our allies, the assumptions on the casualties and others are somewhat optimistic,” he said. “And I believe that increases the risk, based on my experience and what we’ve experienced in the past, that I think the risk is significant. [A force of] 420,000, plus a reduction in the National Guard and the Army Reserve will make it very difficult. As we reduce capacity, we lose flexibility. That means our assumptions about the future must be accurate, and in my experience, our assumptions are not always very accurate. I doubt whether we could even execute one prolonged, multi-phased operation that is extended over a period of time.”

Based on the math the Army has crunched over the past year, John McHugh, the Army secretary, attempted to make clear at the outset of Tuesday’s hearing that there is no wiggle-room in the budget for lawmakers to protect pet projects or to require the service to spend money it doesn’t think is necessary.

Instead, he said, Congress should get on board with DoD’s proposals to save dollars where it can, including another round of base closures, the retirement of lower-priority weapons systems and changes to military compensation programs.

“If sequestration, which is now the law, returns in 2016, our gains will erode and another round of indiscriminate cuts will gut our force to the point that we’ll be unable to meet the strategic guidance,” he said. “We deeply, perhaps more so than in any other recent time, need your leadership and need your help. This is the time for protection and predictability, not politics.”

Reserve, Guard to shrink proportionately

In Tuesday’s hearing, the objections lawmakers voiced to DoD’s cost-saving ideas over health care and BRAC were more muted than in similar posture hearings over the past several years.

One issue that did arise more than once was the Army’s proposal to downsize its reserve components instead of leaning on them more heavily because of budget reductions.

“The National Guard is significantly more cost-effective over its lifecycle, at approximately one-third of the cost when not mobilized and approximately 80 percent to 95 percent of the cost when mobilized,” said Rep. William Enyart (D- Ill.). “So I’m not sure that I understand why we’re proposing to cut the National Guard instead of relying on it more.”

Enyart did not allow the Army witnesses to answer his question. But in their prepared testimony, McHugh and Odierno said the reserve component would shrink under their plan; but in proportional terms, nowhere near as much as the active duty Army.

“The end-strength cuts to the active Army represent 70 percent of the total end- strength reductions, compared with 20 percent from the National Guard and 10 percent from the U.S. Army Reserve,” they wrote. “The Guard and Reserve will now comprise 54 percent of the total Army end-strength, while the active component will comprise 46 percent. The Army will be the only service in which the reserve component outnumbers the active component.”

McHugh said the Army has done all it can to prepare for two possible futures — one in which sequestration stays in place and one in which Congress gives DoD the funding it thinks it needs.

He said the decisions the Army needs to make right now will affect the next several years, and it can’t make them until Congress figures out a long-term plan for how much money it wants to spend on the military.

“The time for action is now,” he said. “This year and next may very well decide the fate of the world’s greatest combat force and could have implications for both our nation’s, as well as the world’s, security for many years to come.”

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