WIESBADEN, Germany — As the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria threatens to drag the U.S. into another conflict in the Middle East, the Army’s chief of staff said Tuesday the service wasn’t training troops for conflict with Syria.
“We are preparing units to deploy to Afghanistan,” Gen. Ray Odierno said Tuesday in an interview at the Army’s Clay Kaserne in Wiesbaden, Germany. “That’s who we have funded. Other units that aren’t going to Afghanistan currently, we do not have the money to train them the rest of this year.”
Still, he said, the Army does have units that could be ready to deploy to Syria or to help U.S. allies in the region, if required in the near future. But amid funding cuts from sequestration, the Army’s readiness to deal with any possible spillover from Syria “will degrade slowly over time.”
Odierno, who is touring U.S. bases in Europe and meeting with military leaders, spent nearly an hour before Tuesday’s interview in a town hall-style meeting with soldiers, civilian workers and families in a packed gymnasium at the Army’s European headquarters.
Though he was queried on a range of topics, from the Army’s officer evaluation system to sexual assault, the threat posed by the across-the-board spending cuts was a recurrent theme.
Odierno said the cuts had already forced the Army to take nearly $8 billion from its base budget to fund operations in Afghanistan this fiscal year, and to cancel training for various units and soldiers as it tries to manage the effects of sequestration.
Odierno said it’s too soon to tell how long the service could continue to maintain its readiness to deploy under the current fiscal climate because of its uncertainty.
But if Congress and the president can’t come to a deal on the Pentagon’s 2014 budget and sequestration continues, he said, “potentially, by the end of , we’re going to have some serious readiness issues.”
That, he said, could force the Army to look at cutting programs and benefits. An attempt by the Army, Air Force and Marines earlier this year to cut tuition assistance to compensate for part of their budget shortfalls met with hostility from troops, and Congress forced the services to reinstate the popular benefit.
But if the Army’s deployment capabilities erode too far under sequestration, “we’ll have to look at every program,” Odierno said. “We’ll have to look a the number of civilians we have, we’ll have to look at family programs, we’ll have to look at every program we have to ensure that we have the right readiness levels.”
The service has managed to find enough money in the current year’s budget to avoid at least seven days’ worth of civilian furloughs, he said, but unless the Army comes up with $780 million in cuts or additional funding, those employees still face 14 days of unpaid leave this summer. However, the furlough could be further reduced if the Army comes up with more funds.
“We’re still working our way through that right now,” he said in response to a question at the town hall.
The severity and suddenness of the cuts caused by sequestration are what’s made them so difficult to deal with, Odierno said. The service could absorb the cuts if some of their effects were shifted to later years in order to give the service more time to plan and carry out its modernization and force reduction plans.
President Barack Obama’s budget plan proposes such a shift, but at least two alternate budgets have been proposed by the House and Senate, Odierno said.
“I know we’re having lots of discussion about the budget right now; it will work itself out,” he said. “It might be frustrating, it might be a bit unpredictable, but it will work itself out.”