Army Chief: Part-Time Soldiers Cannot Replace Full-Timers

By Sandra I. Erwin

At the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Army active-duty soldiers made up 51 percent of the force. The other 49 percent was a mix of reservists and members of the National Guard.

Over the coming years — as budgets shrink and the active-duty Army thins its ranks — that split will shift in favor of the Guard and Reserve, said Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff.

The Army is comfortable with a 46/54 share, Odierno said Jan. 7 at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C. But any further rebalancing would not be acceptable, he said, because it would leave the Army with too many part-time soldiers.

Odierno insisted that each component of the Army — active-duty, Reserve and National Guard — has unique skills and missions, and that all are needed.

The chief’s comments come amid a torrent of congressional criticism that the Army is dipping into the National Guard to help pay for training, operations and other priorities. In letters to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month, leaders of the House and Senate grumbled about Army proposals to trim the National Guard down to 315,000 troops, or about 35,000 fewer than the pre-9/11 force.

The issue has stirred tensions inside the Pentagon and carries an undertone of class warfare pitting well-compensated full-time soldiers against part-timers. Guard and Reserve advocates contend these soldiers cost far less than active-duty troops and offer a better deal to the U.S. taxpayer. “We are convinced that end-strength reductions in the Reserve component are not a practical or long-term solution to ensuring our nation’s security in an era of fiscal restraints,” lawmakers wrote in a Dec. 13 letter.

Odierno pushed back, noting that the active-duty force is bearing the bulk of the reductions. The Army’s original plan was to downsize from a peak of 570,000 to 490,000 by 2018. In the wake of sequester cuts last year, the goal was accelerated by two years. The current force stands at 527,000, with projected annual cuts of 20,000 through the end of fiscal year 2015. “Then we will have to make decisions on where we go from there,” depending on “available resources,” Odierno said. The Reserve and Guard combined currently have about 555,000 troops.

If the active-duty Army has to drop below 490,000, he said, the Reserve and Guard can also expect further cuts, said Odierno. “We're still working on what those numbers are.”

Each component is important, he said, but the “capabilities are not interchangeable.” There is a reason why the active component is more expensive, he added. “It gives you a higher level of readiness because they're full time.”

National Guard soldiers perform valuable duties, he said, but they train only 39 days a year. “To say that the National Guard is cheaper and can replace the active-duty force is not true,” he said. The same can be said about active-duty troops not being adequate substitutes for guardsmen who have unique responsibilities in homeland defense under state governments. “It's about getting the right balance between the two,” said Odierno.

The 2014-2015 budget deal that Congress approved in December gives the military some relief from sequester cuts but not enough to spare the Army from deep cuts, Odierno noted. “I'm grateful” for the budget agreement, he said. In the long term, however, the Army still has more people, missions and programs than it can afford. After next year, “We go back to the problem of the balance between end strength, readiness and modernization,” he said. “I can't get that balance until 2020. That creates six years of vulnerability.”

The reduced spending caps that Congress mandated in the Budget Control Act of 2011 — which still are in place for eight years after 2015 — could compel further reductions in ground forces, Hagel warned in July when he unveiled a "Strategic Choices and Management Review" as a preview of what future budgets might entail.

One scenario would be to shrink Army end-strength to between 420,000 and 450,000 active-duty troops and between 490,000 and 530,000 in the reserves.

Hagel cast the spending choices as a tradeoff between a larger, but poorly equipped force and one that is smaller, but more technologically advanced. “The balance we strike between capability, capacity, and readiness will determine the composition and the size of the force for years to come,” Hagel said.

As the debate over how to divvy up resources within the Army components continues, Guard leaders are bracing for a fight. Playing to the Guard’s advantage, they point out, is that the Defense Department is struggling to curb rising compensation costs incurred by the active-duty force. Gen. Frank J. Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said that during these times of fiscal challenges, the military should rely more heavily on the Guard. “We think from a National Guard perspective, we provide the nation a great opportunity to take a look at saving some of that compensation,” Grass told reporters in November. “You pay for guardsmen 39 days a year unless you’re using them full time, so you can ramp down when you need to, and you can ramp up when you need to go to war as we have throughout this war.” Including both the Army and Air Force National Guard, 750,000 have deployed, he said. “At the same time we’re probably averaging 3,000 to 4,000 a day doing missions in the homeland, so we see a real value proposition here for the nation to get after this compensation issue.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, Land Forces

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