Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said the service is preparing for the worst in its 2014 budget. (Thomas Brown/Army Times file photo)
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The Army has been forced to cut a lot of soldiers, training and services over the past year — and the coming year isn’t looking any better.
The service is facing a variety of vulnerabilities. Involuntary separations are on the horizon. Money designated for training and procurement will be used to pay other bills, leaving readiness at “significant risk.” Post reductions are underway, and closures are likely.
“I frankly wish I had a lot of good news to share today. But, frankly, we’re really at a crossroads in our Army,” service Secretary John McHugh said May 8 in congressional testimony. “A crossroads that we believe very strongly, if we don’t choose the path carefully and wisely, could really significantly impact the readiness of this force … and, in its extreme, hamper our ability to execute our national security challenges, perhaps for years to come.”
Service leaders are pressing Congress to pass a budget this summer that will avert the sweeping cuts, but that is something lawmakers have been unable to do in recent years. The president has submitted a defense budget, but the Senate and House each have a defense budget of their own. And mandatory sequestration cuts — $12 billion to $14 billion for the Army alone — loom over everything.
If lawmakers cannot find common ground, “2014 will be just like ’13,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said. “We’re preparing for the worst.”
A responsible drawdown will be impossible in that worst-case scenario, personnel officials said. And the troubles have already started. Troop cuts largely were to be done through attrition. But the service must turn to Selective Early Retirement Boards in August to trim the excess number of sergeants first class, master sergeants and sergeants major. Colonels, lieutenant colonels and captains are facing involuntary separations, and the service “will have to do a lot more of those through sequestration,” Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell told lawmakers last month.
Full sequestration will require the service to cut 100,000 soldiers beyond the five-year reduction of 80,000 active soldiers already in motion.
The Army’s plan is to cut roughly 80,000 Guard and Reserve and 20,000 active-duty troops. This, along with plans to replace reservists with active-duty units on upcoming deployments, has ruffled some feathers on Capitol Hill.
“This decision causes unfortunate disruption to [reserve-component] soldiers who will no longer deploy and for [active-component] soldiers who must now deploy in their stead,” one congressional staffer said. “The more troubling outcome of this decision is the expedited hollowing out of RC readiness. Rather than continuing to keep RC units in the rotation cycle, the refusal to deploy them for wartime and peacetime missions will, over a surprisingly brief period, return them to an unusable, purely strategic reserve. How can the Army have an operational reserve if its reserve no longer operates?”
The Army last month notified Congress that it would not substitute active-component units that do not meet minimum dwell time and had already canceled some reserve mobilizations scheduled for fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30. The service said it will also look for additional opportunities in fiscal 2014 to substitute active formations for Reserve units.
“This is an unfortunate example of austerity budgeting,” said retired Brig. Gen. Michael Silva, national president of the Reserve Officer Association. “The Army has been quick to point out the short-term cost savings, but they’re ignoring the risk of long-term damage to the total force. Deploying only AC units will force the RC back into a purely strategic role, and that’s something that today’s citizen warriors won’t stand for. Asking these combat veterans to sit on the sidelines after 11 years of integrated support will be a disaster for recruiting and retention in an all-volunteer force.
“We are pleased the Army has indicated its commitment to the Total Force Policy and the employment of RC soldiers as part of the operational force,” Silva said. “However, any decision that blatantly disinvests in the reserve components calls the sincerity of that commitment into question and runs counter to the intent of the Total Force Policy. A move like this might be expedient and fiscally convenient, but it is shortsighted in two directions: both forgetful of the past and heedless toward the future.”
Service leaders argue that the changes are necessary to maintain as much readiness and balance as possible as monies diminish. When the dust settles, roughly 55 percent of the total force will be Guard and reserves. Today, that number stands at 49 percent.
“To me, that’s about the right breakdown,” Odierno said. “If we get any more out of balance, then we will not be able to do the missions that we have to. The active component gives you the ability to respond quickly, to provide immediate readiness. Reserve provides depth as operations are prolonged.”
But the first battle, it seems, will be fought on Capitol Hill.
“If current downward or flat-lining budgets persist, along with upward trajectories in the personnel and [operations and maintenance] budget accounts, the Army may find that even its 490,000 soldier Army is unaffordable in a short span of time, at which point the RC will have been completely hollowed out through disuse,” the congressional staffer said. “This scenario is truly frightening.”
Ready or not
Adding to the deployment dilemma is the fact that the service must further sacrifice readiness to achieve reductions. If unchanged, sequestration will require the Army to cut up to $14 billion next year. Personnel cuts can cover only $2 billion of that cost.
“That means I’ve got to take it out of readiness and modernization,” Odierno said. “So we’re going to become unready, and we’re going to have to start cutting modernization programs. That’s not the way to do business.”
The service will start 2014 in the hole. It faces a $7.8 billion cut in funding and must cover an $8 billion shortfall in overseas contingency operations funding between now and the end of this fiscal year. This is on top of cuts contained in the Budget Control Act.
This reality is “causing us some significant readiness issues,” Odierno said. Eighty percent of units can train only at squad levels. Seven combat training center rotations, which are the foundation of brigade combat team certification, have been canceled. Nine exercises used to certify joint task force and division and corps capability also have been canceled.
And the chief warns that further cuts in fiscal ’14 will leave the service with a readiness shortfall that will take three to four years to overcome and leave the Army “vulnerable” from a readiness perspective.
“We’re going to head down this road of not having enough money to train, not having enough money to properly modernize ourselves, and we can’t do that,” Odierno said. “The Army is a complex organization. I can’t just say I’m going to eliminate three aircraft carriers or I’m going to eliminate fighters and jets. For us, it’s about brigades. Everybody says, ‘OK, what’s a brigade? What does a brigade do?’ Well, it doesn’t mean much until you need it.
“I’ve got to make sure that we have enough that we can meet the needs of this country, and when they need them, they are ready,” he said. “Because when the Army gets involved, when you’re not ready, the cost is lives.”
Uprisings in Syria are a good example. If asked to deploy, the Army is good to go — right now. But that readiness is significantly degrading as training is cut.
“The next three or four months, we probably have the capability to do it,” the chief said. “Next year, it becomes a little more risky because our readiness is lower. We have the formations to do it. The issue is, are they prepared and ready to do it?”
And there is a strong likelihood that the Army will get this or some similar call to action.
Afghanistan. Almost 60,000 soldiers are there, and more than 10,000 are in Kuwait. Eighty percent of the mission has been turned over to Afghan nationals, but Odierno said the next six months will be the true test as the fighting season begins.
The Pacific. The Army has elevated this to a four-star command. As many as 120 events have been conducted this year with a close eye on North Korea. Odierno said he is comfortable with the Pacific posture, though he may add some aviation and is considering using rotational forces in the future.
Africa. Service leaders recognize the potential movement of terrorists into ungoverned areas and have launched a proactive effort to prevent safe havens from emerging. Some 85 missions are planned over the next year that will address everything from first response to joint training needed to build partner capacity.
Europe. Formations have been cut by about 10,000 soldiers and V Corps will stand down by this summer. Odierno said that will leave the right number in Europe but has committed to future training and rotations to ensure all NATO obligations are met.
Cuts to gear, bases
The Army’s fiscal 2014 modernization base request is $1.7 billion, almost 7 percent less than last year’s request.
Of course, the Army is already being forced to raid these accounts to cover other costs. For example, the Army wants to transfer $128 million this year from its Warfighter Information Network-Tactical battlefield communications program; $130 million from its medium and heavy tactical vehicle fleets; $97 million from its Paladin PIM mobile howitzer program; $89 million from the Stryker program; $31 million from the Assault Breacher Vehicle; and $730 million from Humvee recap and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle modifications.
The chief said the Army is getting what it wants out of these and other programs, but “there’s going to come a point, though, where we’re going to have to make tough choices about what we can and can’t do.”
Those decisions will happen in 2014 or 2015, he said. The Army will take a hard look at the network and ground systems. Major changes in the aviation fleet are likely. Joint Light Tactical Vehicle testing has been pushed back up to four months.
Two congressional reports also have raised significant questions about the cost and need for the Ground Combat Vehicle, the $29 billion next-generation combat troop carrier. Odierno didn’t mince words in his May 8 response to lawmakers.
“The Bradley did not perform well in Iraq,” he said. “It did not protect our soldiers. It cannot carry a full squad. And we cannot put into the Bradley the IT capabilities that we want in order to pass information. So we have to have the Ground Combat Vehicle.”
But another question is where the Army would park those vehicles. Many posts are about to go through some changes — and some may close their gates.
The president’s 2014 budget requests base realignment and closure for the following year. McHugh on May 8 told lawmakers that “it’s past time for another base closure round.”
“We estimated that we’re about 20 percent over structure in the Army,” he said. “In other words, buildings that we have to heat that have no one in them. Older facilities that require a great deal of maintenance that are not really being used.”
Current cuts will reduce end strength by 14 percent and cut almost 40 percent of brigade combat teams. The Army is working to realign those forces and is scheduled to release its plans in June. If sequestration takes its full effect, those cuts jump to 25 percent.
“When you have a 25 percent reduction in Army, you’ve got to start looking at where we can save on infrastructure,” Odierno said. “It could , if we go to full sequestration, mean we have to close some of our bases that have major troop units in them.”
This truth is not lost on the communities in and around those posts. Arguably the most vocal has been that of Fort Polk, La. The post has a lot going for it. Army analysis said there is no need for military construction to retain the BCT based there and accommodate an additional 1,000 soldiers. Polk is one of the few installations with an active land acquisition program and it is home to a unique Joint Readiness Training Center. But funding for that type of training is diminishing, and Polk supporters know it. They have been actively lobbying Congress and had the largest turnout at a public listening meeting the Army conducted at every post.
When pressed by lawmakers, McHugh hailed the support Polk provides and the effort of supporters fighting to keep the Army there. But he came well short of promising protection, instead assuring Polk — and every other post — that it will receive “full and fair consideration to every reasonable input.”