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Army leaders warn against shrinking forces

By Thom Shanker
New York Times / October 11, 2011

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WASHINGTON - The Army’s two top leaders argued yesterday against shrinking their service too much, warning that the nation may have to rethink its defense strategy if the ground forces become too small.

The two officials - John M. McHugh, the Army secretary, and General Ray Odierno, the new chief of staff - acknowledged that the Army might be told to cut the number of soldiers even below the 520,000 total that now is the target for this decade.

Odierno noted that the Army’s force level was about 480,000 before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and at that number was supposed to be able to join the other services in carrying out two major wars at one time, according to the national military strategy.

Then came the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - and the Army proved too small to sustain both conflicts, growing to its current strength of 570,000.

Joining McHugh during a news conference at the annual session of the Association of the US Army, Odierno was asked what would happen if the Army was ordered to keep shrinking after it reached 520,000 beginning in 2015.

“We will have to change the strategy and what we are able to do if we continue to fall below a certain level,’’ Odierno said. “And that’s what we have to discuss as we talk about matching these budget cuts to strategy.’’

McHugh and Odierno said the Army could, with difficulty, do its share in meeting the $350 billion in cuts already ordered.

McHugh echoed Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s concerns that it would be “catastrophic’’ if the Pentagon were ordered to find hundreds of billions of dollars in additional cuts. That would happen if the special congressional committee on the budget could not identify $1.5 trillion in additional savings, kicking in automatic reductions in a process called sequestration.

The entire military has experienced two significant programs of budget cuts and troop reductions in its recent history: once after the Vietnam War and once again after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Just as the military will be squaring off against congressional budget-cutters, the individual services will be squaring off against one another to preserve their shares of the eventual, smaller Pentagon spending plan.

And, in that, the Army is struggling against an emerging national security approach in which ground forces, which did the most and suffered the most in Afghanistan and Iraq, are viewed as less relevant today against risks on the horizon, whether an ascendant China, a nuclear North Korea, or a nuclear Iran.

Odierno said similar arguments were made about the irrelevance of US ground forces before and were disproved by the attacks of Sept. 11.

“We have to be ready for unknown contingencies,’’ Odierno said. “We have never predicted the next conflict that we will be in. So it is incumbent on us as an Army to ensure that we have a force that is ready to deal with these unknown contingencies, as well as roles that we will play in other strategies and other contingencies that we will be planning for.’’

The officials pledged to avoid mistakes of past force reductions, when the Army fielded what were called “hollow’’ units without enough people and equipment to carry out their missions. McHugh and Odierno said the Army would allocate money to match the size of the personnel with sufficient stocks of equipment to sustain readiness and meet requirements of future operations. Options include decreasing the number of combat brigades. Odierno expressed skepticism about calls for moving some of the service’s heavy tank units out of the active component and into the National Guard.

The issue of adequate military spending has become an issue in the presidential race.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a foreign policy speech last week criticized “massive defense cuts’’ that he said were implemented by the Obama administration.

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