October 10, 2011

The Army gets set to fight for its budget dollars

With the Defense Department bracing for cuts to its budget, the Army is wasting no time in staking out its position as the backbone of the armed forces – one that shouldn’t get short shrift when the final budget numbers are tallied.

Army officials have perhaps more reason than ever to make that kind of argument.

When it comes to the future of national defense, a less munificent observer might argue that, with two major deployments winding down, the Army’s glory days are over. While soldiers in the next conflict might have a role to play when it comes to precision-based strikes, counterterrorist operations and drone missions, it’s increasingly sea and air that will rule the day.

Even former secretary Robert M. Gates, before stepping down,suggested that the Army should get used to a smaller force that would pack less heavy firepower.

“In the competition for tight defense dollars, the Army . . . must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements -- whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf or elsewhere,” Gates said in an address at West Point.

Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, told reporters Monday that, as the Defense Department goes about matching future levels of funding to the military strategy, the goal must be to develop a balanced force, one that is prepared for some level of ground activity.

“We are terrible at predicting the future,” Odierno said. “We have never predicted the next conflict that we’ll be in. So it’s incumbent on us as the Army to make sure that we have a force that’s ready to deal with these unknown contingencies.”

Odierno has previously said that budget cuts are likely to shrink the force below the 520,000 troops called for in the current Pentagon planning – a prediction he repeated Monday at the annual meeting of the Association for the U.S. Army. The Army currently has about 569,000 soldiers on active duty, including a temporary increase of 22,000 that is already scheduled to lapse in 2014.

Experts at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank that has a reputation for being partial to ground forces, have been among those to recommend looking to the country’s land force for savings. The center put out a study last week calling for cuts to the Army to protect the Air Force and Navy.

The study noted that it’s relatively easy to grow the Army and Marines pretty quickly, but it takes years, if not decades, to build new planes, subs and ships.

Army Secretary John McHugh said Monday that this is hardly the first time he and others have heard suggestions that it no longer makes sense to maintain such a large ground force. Predictions about future conflict, he said, inevitably envision battles primarily carried out by land and sea.

“We heard [such predictions] just prior to Sept. 11, we heard them with respect to Bosnia and Kosovo,” he said. “We went into Iraq under the rubric of ‘shock and awe.’ … After we shocked, after we awed, to secure victory we had to march.”

McHugh added: “The fact is, at the end of the day, if you’re going to control territory, you have to have a capable land force.”

That may be true. And no one is suggesting that a capable ground force is no longer needed. As Gates said, the Army should not be turned into “a Victorian nation-building constabulary -- designed to chase guerrillas, build schools or sip tea.”

The question, though, is how the Army will shrink and still maintain its capabilities.

“Our position,” Odierno said Monday, “is no matter what the size, it’s going to be a quality force.”