By Paul McCleary
In multiple trips to Capitol Hill this fall, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has painted a stark picture of the future of the nation’s ground force.
Under the $500 billion in cuts being forced by sequestration, he has warned time and again, there is no money to train soldiers for combat, no money for new programs, and not even enough room in the budget to keep the Army anywhere near as large as it was before Iraq and Afghanistan.
If sequestration remains the law of the land — which it appears it will — the chief said the Army “will continue to have degraded readiness and extensive modernization program shortfalls.”
Things are so bad, he added on Nov. 7 when testifying before a Senate committee, “I believe our challenge is much greater today than it has been since I’ve been in the Army in terms of readiness. This is the lowest readiness levels I’ve seen within our Army since I’ve been serving for the last 37 years.”
It was a remarkably strong statement, especially considering that his career began in the “hollow Army” years of the mid-70s, when drug abuse, substandard recruits and racial tensions tore through the post-Vietnam War force.
The Army faced another crisis in the early 1990s when it went on a “procurement holiday” while forcing out hundreds of thousands of soldiers and undergoing tens of billions of dollars in budget cuts.
But is today’s Army less ready than those forces?
By 1979, only four of 10 Army divisions stationed in the US were considered combat ready; three of the four divisions in Europe were thought to be unfit to meet the Soviet threat. Around the same time, the service dismissed about 40 percent of its soldiers over a number of years for physical, mental, legal and psychological reasons.
In October 1980, the commander of the 220,000 soldiers manning US Army Europe, Gen. Fredrick Kroesen, publicly complained that “if we go to war tomorrow morning, we go with an obsolescent Army.”
At the same time, according to the seminal 1994 book “Certain Victory: The US Army in the Gulf War,” by Gen. Robert Scales, only about half of new soldiers inducted into the Army had a high school diploma — as opposed to about 98 percent today.
Odierno was part of that Army, too, having graduated from West Point in 1976.
Due to strong internal leadership and an emphasis by the Reagan administration on buying new equipment and tightening standards, the service recovered over the course of the 1980s. But during the “peace dividend” years of the 1990s, Army end strength went from 610,000 to 572,000 in little more than a year — on its way to 495,000 by the decade’s end — while budgets shrank and the need for repairs and spare parts rose.
At the time, the generals took to Capitol Hill and warned of the impending crack-up of the service.
In 2000, when stepping down from commanding US Central Command, Marine Corps Gen. Tony Zinni complained that the previous decade’s cuts in the military had gone too far.
“I believe the military is too small for the current kinds of commitments we have,” he said.
Similarly, in October 1999, Gen. John Coburn, commander of US Army Materiel Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “one of the most serious issues the Army faces is aging equipment. This issue is so serious that, if not properly addressed and corrected, it will inevitably result in degradation of the Army’s ability to maintain its readiness.”
Scales, now retired, was an Army planner in the Pentagon in the early 1990s. He recently told Defense News that “the readiness rating system under the first year of the Clinton administration had the lowest number of divisions that were combat ready since the Korean War.”
What the generals of 1999 and 2000 didn’t know, however, was that shortly after 9/11, the nation would plunge into two new wars, and hundreds of billions of dollars would flow into Pentagon coffers. And the Army that was purportedly too small, and so close to breaking, would roll over Saddam Hussein’s forces in 2003 without having to break stride.
Since 2001, supplemental wartime budgets have allowed the service to reset its ground vehicle and helicopter fleets to an almost unprecedented degree. Late last year, Scott Davis, then-program executive officer for the Army’s ground combat systems, told Defense News, “the average age of the tank and the Bradley are probably the youngest they’ve ever been.”
But it all comes back to readiness.
In June, the Army announced that it would cut 10 brigade combat teams (BCTs) over the next four years, bringing the number of active-duty BCTs to 33, in order to reduce its force structure from a wartime high of 570,000 to 490,000 by as soon as 2015.
While reforming the brigade structure this way represents one of the largest organizational changes since World War II for the service, those brigades will actually have more combat punch than the ones being fielded. The Army is adding a third maneuver battalion to each brigade along with engineering and fires capabilities to each unit.
Overall, the moves will leave the Army with 12 armored brigade combat teams, 14 infantry brigade combat teams and seven Stryker brigade combat teams in the active force. However, Odierno warned that “over the next couple of years that will adjust a little bit,” as heavy armor brigades absorb additional cuts.
With sequestration cuts, the service is cutting all battalion- and brigade-level training activities, save for units deploying to Afghanistan and South Korea, or the brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division that acts as the nation’s global quick reaction force.
Odierno has repeatedly lamented the inability of all of his units to prepare for war and has claimed that more casualties would be the result. But some are skeptical.
“He did not define what war it is he wants to fight, except by the standard Army definition of a BCT that’s been through all of the training exercises, all levels of combat readiness, and is 100 percent ready to do anything you call upon them to do,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University and distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center.
“It’s a standard for readiness that no Army has ever met.”
While no one can confidently predict where and when the next war will take place, there are few peer threats that the US could reasonably face in the near term. But rising instability in North Africa and the Middle East remains a concern.
“If you assume that the kinds of operations that fall under the low end of the spectrum, like what the Army and Marines have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq,” will continue, Adams said, “then give me a definition of readiness that fits that kind of exercise, and then tell me how many BCTs are ready.”
While all the armed services have concerns about falling budgets, the Army traditionally takes the biggest postwar hit as the nation looks to the air and sea services to keep threats at arm’s length.
“Since the end of World War II, the only service that has broken, the only service that has been combat ineffective due to lack of readiness, is the Army,” Scales said. “And it’s happened several times. It happened in 1950, in 1979, it happened in 1993 with the peace dividend, and it is in danger of happening today.” ■
Paul McCleary is a staff writer for Defense News.