With budget cuts promising to hit the U.S. Army harder than the other military services, Army senior leaders are saying they will not repeat history and keep people at the expense of scaling back training or upgrading soldiers’ equipment.
“If you protect people, but you take away from training and you take away from modernization, then you have a whole bunch of people in your force that aren’t trained and don’t have the most modern equipment,” Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of the Army, said in an interview at the Pentagon. “When you go to use them, it costs soldiers lives on the battlefield.”
After 40 years of service, including more than three years as the Army’s second in command, Chiarelli is retiring at the end of January. He will be replaced by Gen. Lloyd Austin, who recently served as commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq.
As Chiarelli leaves office, he said he’s confident the Army will not become a hollow force, a service that strips capabilities to maintain size.
Current plans, put in place before the Budget Control Act was passed in August, call for the Army to shrink from 547,000 troops to 520,000 by 2016. Most people expect that number to fall even further.
The Pentagon’s new strategic guidance, unveiled Jan. 5, calls for a shift in geographic focus toward the Asia Pacific region, while maintaining influence in the Middle East. With that, the Defense Department plans to reduce the size of its ground forces.
The guidance is meant to shape DoD plans and budget requests over the next 10 years as it reduces projected spending by $487 billion to meet the Budget Control Act’s initial spending caps.
The guidance did not take into account the possibility of sequestration, which would initiate an additional $500 billion cut starting in January 2013 if Congress does not find an alternative way to reduce the country’s deficit.
To meet the initial $487 billion cut, the Army is reportedly considering reducing the force size to 490,000. An October report from the Center for a New American Security recommended 482,000 — the number of active-duty soldiers in the Army before Sept. 11, 2001.
The question now is not whether the Army will get smaller, but how.
Chiarelli said service leaders have three knobs, or “rheostats,” that they can adjust to keep a balanced Army: personnel, readiness and modernization.
This time around, the Army intends to turn all three, the four-star said.
“I’m not saying we’re not going to protect people, but it’s really shortsighted when you do that,” he said. “So, we’re going to turn all three rheostats at the same time. We’re going to ensure that whatever size force we can afford, it is also a modernized and trained force. That’s absolutely critical for us.”
Chiarelli said Army leadership is in complete agreement on this point.
“Both Gen. [Martin] Dempsey, during the short period of time when he was chief, and Gen. [Ray] Odierno have been perfectly steadfast; the Secretary of the Army [John McHugh] has been like a laser beam on it,” Chiarelli said. “He has kept us on course through two chiefs of staff to make sure that we maintain a balanced force.”
This approach is wise, analysts agree, but it is a complicated problem to get right.
“It will not be a straightforward turn all three knobs to the right,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security.
Boiling the problem down to three rheostats is a little misleading, because within each one of those there are several other knobs that can be turned, making a complicated problem even more complex, said Ray DuBois, former acting undersecretary of the Army and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
For example, within personnel, there is much more than just end strength, he said. There is the question of force structure, too. This includes how many brigades and soldiers kept in the active duty force and how many are in the reserve component.
Getting the force mix right is as important as the number of people, DuBois said.
The question of whether more heavy armor brigades should reside in the reserve component is an “operational research problem that the Army is working on every day,” he said.
The Army must also answer the question: What is the right mix between the Army’s combat power — the brigade combat teams — and its generating force, or the institutional Army?
“This is the dilemma the Army always faces at the end of a war or a conflict overseas,” DuBois said.
This debate also comes as the Army is nearing a decision on making its infantry and heavy brigades more robust, adding a third maneuver battalion to each of them, according to Barno.
“As the Army gets smaller, that could come out of BCTs going away,” Barno said. “You may end up with a significantly smaller number of BCTs, but they may be more robust BCTs than the ones that are out there for infantry and heavy today.”
Stryker brigades already have three maneuver battalions.
As the Army reduces the number of brigades, it will also have to consider the right mix of enabling capabilities to support those units. This includes Army aviation.
“You don’t need as many enablers for a force at 547,400 that you do at 520,000,” Chiarelli said. “That doesn’t mean you salami-slice enablers.”
One of the key lessons, especially out of Afghanistan, is that “you need that air mobility that the helicopter fleet — all those aviation brigades — provide you,” Barno said. “That will be a difficult lesson to walk away from.”
DuBois said another funding draw is the need to rebuild and reset equipment that has been chewed up during 10 years at war. Up until now, that equipment has been maintained through supplemental war spending bills, but there is no guarantee that money will be there in the next couple of years, he said.
“The Army must determine how much of its investment dollars it’s going to put into reset, rebuild and replace,” DuBois said.
Chiarelli pointed to the Ground Combat Vehicle, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and a recently awarded contract for the Paladin PIM upgrade program as evidence of the Army’s commitment to modernization.
DuBois said his biggest concern was that the Army would fight hard to keep its end strength, force structure and training, at the expense of the modernization accounts.
Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, agrees with Chiarelli that the different pieces of the Army’s budget need to be reduced proportionately.
“A hollow force can mean units without enough people, people without enough training, people without enough equipment, units without enough equipment, etc.,” he said.
In a July report, Harrison outlined five “key levers of control” that the Defense Department could manipulate to meet its new budget constraints: force structure, end strength, compensation and benefits, readiness and training, and weapon systems.
“The key to getting the right balance is using an evidence-based approach,” he said. “You don’t want to guess at these things.”
The Army needs hard data from controlled experiments to support its strategic choices on everything from training to pay.
“What level of pay and benefits do you need to attract and retain high-quality people? What is the right mix of cash versus deferred compensation?” Harrison said. “There are a lot of things the military can and should be doing to collect data and make sure they get this right.”
Barno said the Army should map out the life-cycle cost, including the ammunition, fuel and spare parts needed by a fully trained and ready BCT over the course of a year and build that into its planning documents.
Do that for each type of unit — infantry, heavy and Stryker — and then fence those dollars, he said. “If you can’t provide those kinds of resources, then you know you’re going to have the beginnings of a hollow force.”