WASHINGTON — The Army drawdown continues this week, when about 1,100 Army captains will receive word that their military careers are about to end. Another 500 majors will get the same news in early July.
The cuts were planned by officer separation and early retirement boards that convened this spring to review 19,000 active-duty officers for possible early separation. It’s all part of the Army’s effort to smoothly trim down to a number that, thanks to federal budgetary uncertainty, remains unclear.
There were about 28,000 captains and nearly 17,000 majors in the Army on April 30, according to Defense Department statistics.
Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell, who sat down with Stars and Stripes recently to discuss Army end-strength cuts, said the separations aren’t something anyone wanted. Good officers who’ve risked their lives to serve the nation will have to leave, he said.
“They’re in the Army now, and in other times they’d probably continue to stay in the Army,” he said. “But this is not normal times.”
During the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Army had about 570,000 troops and has since dropped to about 510,000. The current cuts, which also include 500 noncommissioned officers selected early this year for separation, are aimed at producing an end strength of 490,000 troops — the Army’s previous target.
But the force will almost certainly get smaller. The most recent defense budget proposal from the Pentagon, now working its way through Congress, calls for an Army of some 450,000 soldiers.
Should automatic budget cuts known as sequestration return in 2016 after two years on hold because of a bipartisan budget deal, 420,000 troops will be the target end strength, officials say. Campbell and other Army leaders say that such a deep cut would be risky enough to require an overhaul of the nation’s defense strategy. However it plays out, many more troops will have to leave.
“This will be a continuing effort as we go forward,” Campbell said.
Even as the Army plans for continued drawdowns, certain fields — including cyberwarfare, special operations and missile defense — have grown, he said. The service branch’s leaders are looking hard at areas for offsetting cuts, Campbell said.
Among them are Army educational institutions and Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, he said. Other areas that may be ripe for reductions are Army Medical Command, brigade combat teams — which have already been cut significantly — and enabling functions such as logistics units, he said.
The Army is focused on moving troops to civilian life as compassionately as possible, Campbell said. Some of the most difficult notifications, he said, could be to officers now commanding troops in Afghanistan.
“Just think, if you’re a young captain … you’ve been in the army four to eight years, you could be a company commander who commanded in combat, and now somebody’s going to come up and say, ‘Hey, thanks for your service,’ ” he said. “It’s going to be a shock.”
Most of the captains who receive notice this week will receive separation pay, while a few have accumulated enough time in the service to qualify for early retirement.
The Army hopes to move many into the Army Reserve ranks.
“We think about two-thirds of those who are selected would be great candidates to go into the reserve component,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Seamands, director of Army personnel management. “The reserve component shortages are actually captains and midgrade NCOs, so it would improve readiness in the reserve forces.”
The 1,100 captains will remain in the service until April 1 and can use the intervening time to prepare their families, retrain and look for work in the civilian world, Campbell said. Support for transition is available through the Army’s “Soldier for Life” program, instituted by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno in 2012, he said.
“They’ll have nearly 10 months to transition, to get their finances and their families ready, all the things they need to do to get a smooth takeoff as they leave the service,” Campbell said. “They’ll have almost a year to get ready for that.”