Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s outgoing chief of staff, sounded notes of caution Wednesday as he prepared to depart military service after nearly 40 years in uniform. The U.S. military, he said, is at an “inflection point” at which it risks losing its long-term viability while scrambling to meet short-term demands, mostly because of the budget uncertainty that’s plagued the government throughout his entire four-year term.
He said he’s concerned about the Army’s readiness to engage in complex fights, its overall size and a continuing squeeze on its acquisition funding.
On Friday, Odierno will relinquish his post to Gen. Mark Milley, who the Senate confirmed last week as the Army’s 39th chief of staff. In his final press conference as the Army’s top officer, he told reporters Wednesday that he’s leaving a service whose future continues to give him heartburn even after having shepherded the Army through the worst effects of sequestration in 2013, when officials had to severely curtail training exercises.
The Army, Odierno said, is being asked to perform more missions while it’s being forced to cut back on end strength, and while its modernization budget is under constant pressure.
“The problem we have today is that we have a dynamic environment with increasing requirements on our military and we continue to have decreasing resources for our military,” he said. “We are sacrificing the long-term viability of our military to meet current environmental requirements. What do I mean by that? We are decreasing our readiness over time. I also worry about reduced modernization in our force and the impact that might have two, three, four, five years from now, because many of the problems we face will be persistent problems. They are not ones that will be solved overnight.”
Odierno said those problems include ongoing Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle East, the rise of the Islamic State, a Russian military with increasing capabilities and willingness to use them and provocative Chinese actions in the Pacific.
The Army has refined some of its readiness models over the past year-and-a-half in an effort to help its forces deploy to emergencies more quickly if they must, but it has barely gotten started on training its forces to be ready for multidimensional conflicts as opposed to the counterinsurgency missions it’s been focused on in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As of now, only 33 percent of the Army’s brigades are adequately trained for an encounter against a sophisticated enemy, Odierno said. He believes the objective should be closer to 60 percent.
“In the last 18 months we have really started to train for what we call hybrid warfare, which is actually the warfare that I think Russia is, in fact, conducting [in Ukraine],” he said. “We are doing about 10 brigade rotations in our training center this year and eight last year that are specifically focused on this. So we are in the process of increasing our capabilities, but it echoes back to my worry about dollars, because that’s what we need to continue to train and build capability. If all of a sudden sequestration comes back in 2016, that will have an impact.”
Following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the Army felt compelled to devote more attention to Eastern Europe, including in Baltic nations that now are members of NATO. And Odierno says the character of NATO exercises have changed over the past year. The Army, he said, still is learning what it means to be “ready” for a potential conflict on the European continent.
“The last time we did a large exercise in Europe, I reminded everybody that our main job was to protect Western Europe, but one of the things we’re learning now is that there are logistical challenges in Eastern Europe,” he said. “For example, they have a different gauge railroad than Western Europe does, so moving supplies is more difficult. We need to learn to sustain ourselves over time and integrate ourselves with the capability NATO now has. We’re using our readiness center at [Germany’s] Grafenwoehr-Hohenfels to continue to attack this problem.”
Odierno has said several times before that he’s worried about the Army’s current downsizing plan in light of recent world events, and said Wednesday that his successors should advocate to hold the line at no fewer troops than are called for by the current strategy: 450,000 active duty soldiers by 2017. A return to the Budget Control Act caps would require the Army to shrink to 420,000.
Asked how he’d spend additional funds if Congress granted the Army a sudden plus-up in funding, he said he would immediately invest them toward additional training and to reverse several years of funding shortfalls in the modernization of the Army’s equipment, despite lackluster performance by several of the service’s recent acquisition programs.
“I think for the first time, because of the new Army operating concept, we absolutely have a good understanding of what we need now,” he said. “I think it’s about lethality, protection and situational awareness. So we’re looking at developing mobile protective firepower for our light units, our medium units, our heavy units. We have to continue to increase our ability to have situational awareness and pass information quickly. We have programs in place to do that, but we have to continue to push on those programs. We also have to continue to work on our unmanned and autonomous capabilities. All of those things are going to be very important to us as we move to the future.”
Odierno said his successors also will need to pay continued attention to the effects of more than a decade of continuous deployments on the soldiers and families who are still serving in the Army.
The counterinsurgency campaigns have continued for so long, he noted, that a young officer who first encountered the Iraq war in 2003 as a captain is, by now, a colonel or one-star general.
“I worry about post traumatic-stress, which is a long-term problem,” he said. “We tend not to talk about our leaders, but we have non-commissioned offers who were sergeants or privates back then who are now sergeants first class, master sergeants and sergeant majors who have had six, seven, eight deployments. They’re doing well so far, but we have to make sure we have programs in place to take care of them as well as they continue to lead our great soldiers.”
Odierno said the Defense Department and Congress need to continue to focus on easing legal restrictions which, in the past, have obstructed nonprofit organizations and private companies from coordinating with the government to provide support and care for wounded warriors.
Federal agencies have made some progress on that front, he said, including through the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, the Bethesda, Md. facility that researches and treats traumatic brain injury and was constructed mostly through private donations.
“We’re much better than we were five years ago at this,” he said. “We’re able to combine private enterprise who’s trying to help our wounded warriors with formal Department of Defense programs and Veterans Affairs programs. But we also cannot forget those families whose sons or daughters or husbands or wives gave their lives over these last 10 or 12 years. We have to remain connected to them. I have meetings with our families all the time, and all they love just staying connected to the Army. To me, that’s incredibly important. We should never forget the sacrifice that they made and the sacrifice that their families that sent their children continue to make, and that’s something that I will live with for the rest of my life. I had the opportunity firsthand to stand side by side by these young men and women who really cared about what they were doing. They showed incredible selflessness and courage in what they did. It’s important that we remember that by taking care of their families and their children as we go forward.”