Army Leaders Worry About Looming Fiscal Cliff

By Sandra I. Erwin

Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno vowed he would never send soldiers into combat who are not properly trained and equipped. He is confident he can keep that promise before his term expires at the end of this year, but frets that the next chief will be taking over a less-than-ready Army.

“I worry about the next chief,” Odierno told reporters at the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Odierno and Army Secretary John McHugh during a news conference Oct. 13 made a strong appeal to Congress to roll back automatic budget cuts set to begin in fiscal year 2016. Unless lawmakers act to reverse the sequester, the Army would have to absorb a cut of $9 billion from a $120 billion budget.

McHugh acknowledged that the Army has not been able to make a compelling and credible enough case against the cuts since Congress passed the Budget Control Act in 2011. For the past two years, the Army has absorbed significant budget reductions without any noticeable performance degradation. That created a perception that the military had overhyped the impact of sequestration, McHugh said. “It was the natural conclusion in this town that when we continued to meet missions, to do what the Army does, that somewhat what we said about the damaging aspects of sequestration was not true.”

The truth is that the Army “made it look too easy,” McHugh said.

Odierno said that while downsizing the Army might not be cause for alarm now, the cutbacks are gradually weakening the force. 

“So far we’ve been able to mask the cuts,” he said. Army leaders have ensured that deployed units get enough training and equipment, “but there’s going to come a time when we can’t do that,” he said. “That’s where I think it’s a problem.”

When the Obama administration unveiled a new military strategy in 2012 that positioned the military for post-war leaner times, Odierno and McHugh supported troop reductions that would take the Army from 580,000 to 490,000 active-duty forces. When sequestration was imposed in 2013, Odierno stood behind another round of cuts that would reduce the Army to 450,000. If the ax comes down again in 2016 and beyond, the Army might have to bring the force down to 420,000.

Odierno said he no longer supports these cuts. The world has become more unstable since 2012, he said. “I worry about our end-strength. … Now I have concerns that going below 490,000 is a problem.”

The Army’s aviation capacity is down 25 percent since 2010, and many weapon modernization programs are being delayed, he said. “We'll have a significant degradation in readiness and modernization.”

The Army already has slashed its equipment modernization budget by 46 percent. Officials have proposed to save $31 billion over five years by restructuring its aviation units, retiring aging OH-58

Kiowa helicopters, and reducing some compensation and benefits. But Congress has rejected these recommendations.

McHugh’s message to Congress: “This is a time for predictability, not a time for politics.”

Odierno said military leaders, while focused on the armed services' own fiscal troubles, recognize that defense budget cuts are the result of a broader impasse over federal spending and revenues that affects the entire U.S. government.

“We have to remember that sequestration is for the whole government, not just for the military,” he said. Political gridlock over federal spending writ large is “hindering any progress with military sequestration,” he said. He suggested policy makers consider national security priorities separately from the budget. “There’s too much going on around the world.” That conversation has to happen, he said, as soon as a new Congress comes in.

Topics: Defense Department, War Planning

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