WASHINGTON: While the Army can keep troops headed for Afghanistan trained up and ready to go, the ongoing budget gridlock threatens its ability to prepare for crises around the world – from North Korea to Syria – conflicts that would require a very different kind of training than the counterinsurgency tactics the force has focused on for years. That’s the warning from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who added that the service might even have to submit an “unfunded requirements” wish list to Congress for the first time in years.
“I worry about the unknown contingency. We’ll continue to train for our Afghan mission and some other missions we have, but for unknown contingencies, our risk goes way up,” Gen. Odierno told reporters at a Defense Writers’ Group breakfast this morning. With yesterday’s release of the Pentagon’s annual report on China, the People’s Republic is getting a lot of anxious attention, but “we also have to worry about North Korea,” said Odierno. “That’s the first priority.”
“The next priority is the Middle East, and we have to prepare to operate in Syria or against Iran or, who knows, a failed Pakistan,” said Odierno. In particular, the fall of the Assad regime looks almost inevitable, he said: “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when,’ so what I worry about is … what happens the day after.”
Once the Army could spend 50 years focused on conventional warfare against the Soviet Union or a decade on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, he said, “we’ve got to be prepared to operate across a broader spectrum of conflict, and that’s what makes this even more challenging.”
So is there any common denominator to guide the Army’s preparation? Yes, said Odierno. All those conflicts would involve a mix of guerrilla warfare amidst a largely hostile local population, as in Afghanistan or Iraq, with high-tech weapons – tanks, guided missiles, even cyberattacks – that the Taliban couldn’t deploy in their wildest dreams. That lethal combination is what theorists call “hybrid war.” To prepare its forces, the Army has come up with what it calls “decisive action” training – training that is now threatened by budget cuts.
“We know that the environment we’re going to have to operate in, no matter where it is, is going to be a combination of high-end combined-arms maneuver, but there’ll also be some aspect of counterinsurgency and some aspects of stability,” Odierno said. “They’ll be mixed together.”
“We are replicating these [scenarios] in our training centers,” he said. “I’m very pleased with these ‘decisive action’ rotations.”
But the Army has had to cancel six planned brigade rotations (i.e. field exercises) at combat training centers due to budget shortfalls in fiscal year 2013 alone. “About 80 percent of the Army is only going to train to very low levels,” he said, just practicing tactics as squads and other small units. “They’re not going to be able to do any company, battalion, or brigade-level training.”
Units scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan and the 82nd Airborne’s “global response force” will be exempted from the cuts and able to train, but readiness problems will afflict the rest of the Army – including, say, most of any force that would be required to intervene in Syria.
“We provide options and the president makes a decision,” said Odierno, declining to forecast administration policy. The problem: “Next year it becomes a little bit more risky because our readiness is lower. We have the formations to do it. The question is are they ready to do it?”
“If in ’14 we don’t get a budget [again] and we go into another continuing resolution, we go into another year of sequestration, that will further impact our readiness,” Odierno went out. In that case, “I see us having a three to four year issue.”
“It would take me three years, probably, to get us back in balance, so you’re talking ’18, ’19,” he explained. “So we become vulnerable for three or four years.”
Odierno repeated his appeal for Congress to at least slow the pace at which the sequestration cuts are phased in over the next decade, even if it doesn’t adjust the 10-year total. “What I keep trying to tell people is it’s not just the size of the cuts, it’s that they’re so close in,” he said.
Pay and benefits, especially healthcare, are the Army’s biggest single expense, but “you can only get so much money out of personnel each year,” Odierno explained. (That is, unless you’re willing to force people out of the military en masse, as in the 1990s). “The most I can get out of personnel is $2 billion [a year],” he said, which means most of the cuts must come from readiness – training, spare parts, ammunition, etc. – and modernization – developing, buying, and fielding new equipment.
“If we can get budgets and they can backload the sequestration,” however, Odierno said, “it would make it much easier for us to reduce personnel” in a balanced way.
Sequestration, Odierno said, would also force the Army to cut the Reserve and National Guard and to try to shut down bases – both things that Congress happens to hate. But it’s clear that the Army’s biggest angst is over the budget crisis’s impact on its ability to prepare for military crises.
“Warfare really hasn’t changed. The reason we have conflict is people, they want to dominate resources, they want to dominate populations,” Odierno said. (No less a figure than Saint Augustine wrote of this phenomenon sixteen centuries ago, calling it the “libido dominandi”). Understanding that “human domain” or “human dimension of conflict” is the focus of Odierno’s new flagship project, the Office of Strategic Landpower.
Odierno, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Chief Adm. William McRaven, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos have agreed to and signed off on formal terms of reference, he said. “We’re going to open an office in DC and another one down in TRADOC,” the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command headquarters at Fort Eustis, Va. The Air Force and Navy will also be represented, he said.
Odierno emphasized the close ties Special Operations Forces and conventional forces have developed over the last decade and downplayed suggestions of rivalry with the Marine Corps for the role of worldwide rapid-reaction expeditionary force. “The Army has significant airborne capability…. The Marines have capability from the sea,” he said. “It’s complementary; it’s not competitive.”
Odierno downplayed any expectations for a radical new vision for land warfare, however – perhaps bearing in mind the Army’s Future Combat Systems debacle and the Rumsfeld-era “transformation” of which it was part. “My belief, which is different than some, is we can’t be revolutionary,” he said, “because of the uncertainty we have in the world today. So we can’t be revolutionary; we have to evolve.”
“Though we are going to be smaller, we’ve got to be ready,” Odierno emphasized. That readiness edge, of course, is exactly what he’s afraid the Army’s going to lose.
In recent years, the service has not submitted a traditional “unfunded requirements” list to Congress. This year, Odierno said, the budget crunch may be so bad he has do. “It’s my prerogative” to submit a list or not, he said. “I don’t want it to become political, [but] if we continue to have significant training shortfalls, for example… if I don’t have enough money to sustain a level of readiness, I need to say something about that.”