WASHINGTON — Never mind the two-conflict strategy that once prevailed. If sequestration cuts return in 2016, the service branch in charge of fighting the country’s ground wars could soon be unprepared to fight even a single major conflict, the Army’s top leaders told Congress on Tuesday.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno hammered home the gloomy point that the Army’s ability to defend national interests hangs in the balance.
Not only must Congress work to forestall billions in automatic budget cuts, it should support the Army’s delicate balance of force structure worked out in the latest budget, while finally giving ground on requests for a new round of base closures, they said.
“This is the time for protection and predictability, not politics,” McHugh said.
Previous plans to draw down the active Army to 490,000 troops by 2017 have been replaced with a projected active force level as low as 440,000. If automatic budget cuts return once a two-year federal spending deal expires, end strength will be 420,000, with deeper-than-planned cuts to the National Guard and Army Reserve as well.
With a minimum of 440,000 active-duty troops, the Army could squeak by and likely meet the demands of the national defense strategy laid out in 2012, Odierno said. But he called assumptions about the length and scope of conflicts the Army is likely to face, as well as contributions by allies, “somewhat optimistic.”
At the lower level, Odierno said, “I’m very concerned that at ‘420,’ we cannot meet the defense strategic guidance. I doubt whether we could even execute one prolonged multiphase operation that is extended over a period of time.”
The Army needs Congress to approve another round of the Base Realignment and Closure process as well, McHugh said.
While acknowledging the pain of base closures in local communities — McHugh said he’d had a base close during his tenure as a New York congressman — up to 20 percent of the Army’s continental U.S. facilities are excess, according to a recent survey, he said.
The Army is beginning to recoup serious savings from the mid-2000s BRAC round, and would expect to eventually save billions of dollars a year from a new round, he said.
“It’s hard, I know that, but it was necessary then and it’s even more necessary now,” McHugh said. “To put it simply we can’t afford to pay for the unnecessary upkeep … of unneeded facilities. It wastes money we just don’t have.”
Odierno added that a new round of BRAC would involve mainly shutting down facilities, and would thus be less expensive and result in quicker returns than the previous round, which involved significant force realigments and new construction.
“With a reduction of over 200,000 men and women from our Army, we must reduce excess infrastructure,” he said. “We need BRAC to do this.”
The Army leaders also asked Congress to support plans to restructure Army aviation. In its 2015 budget request, it proposed eliminating three combat aviation brigades and moving all of the National Guard’s Apache attack helicopters to active units, while transferring Blackhawks to the Guard. In all, nearly 800 aircraft would be eliminated.
The change would eliminate the need for about $12 billion in spending over the next five years, the Army estimates, and continue paying off in the future.
The moves affecting the Guard have caused some controversy both within the military and in Congress, but McHugh and Odierno pointed out that most of the cuts are happening in the active force.
Once current plans are in place, 54 percent of the Army’s end strength will be in the reserve component, making it the only U.S. armed service with a minority of its troops in the active component, Odierno said. Of the aircraft cuts, more than 80 percent would come from active units.
Don’t let parochial political concerns hamstring the Army’s ability to fight, the leaders pleaded.
“We need your leadership,” McHugh said. “And we need your help.”