WASHINGTON – On his first full day in office, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno warned congressional budget negotiators against shrinking the force too quickly or taking away the flexibility to fight threats of all types.
“Be careful of going too small, too fast,” he said in a roundtable interview Thursday at the Pentagon.
Congress and Pentagon leaders are posturing to protect against deeper defense spending cuts in budgetary battles this fall, and Odierno is leaving much of that fight to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. In the background, the new chief is figuring out how to downsize an Army that is still fighting wars by reviewing the entire force structure – including size, organization, training and equipment – through the next four to eight years.
Notably, Odierno said he does not think the Army will shrink to a maximum size of 520,000 soldiers, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed. That total was still "reasonable," Odierno said, if the assumptions made at the time are fulfilled, including withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2014.
"I’m comfortable with 520," he said. "Do I think we’re going to end up at 520? Probably not. So, what is the right number?"
Odierno insisted the Army remained agile — a word he stressed repeatedly — and appropriately balanced so it could continue to meet a wide range of unpredictable future national security threats, from wars of all sizes to terrorism and transnational criminal activity.
The former commanding general of both the Iraq War and the shuttered Joint Forces Command said he does not want the Army to repeat the early years of Iraq, when it adapted too slowly to the unexpected insurgency that erupted after the invasion. Odierno now has the Army planning for a number of scenarios, including fighting two wars at once.
"We’re working through several different scenarios that will help us to figure that out," he said. "I think at 520, we could probably do it fairly close. Below 520, we can’t."
Looking ahead, Odierno said the U.S. likely will face "more sophisticated" threats than the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The Army also is reviewing the design of a key structural element of those wars: the brigade combat team.
"We think there’s some deficiencies in there," he said.
Currently, service leaders are leaning toward adding a third battalion to each BCT, Odierno said. That would allow flexibility for soldiers to perform a variety of operations, such as humanitarian missions, counterterrorism and foreign military training. Odierno said he wants each brigade to be able to do all of those tasks, though some likely will be more trained and prepared for each of those missions than others.
He also wants to keep more brigade combat teams operating and deployed under their division headquarters, allowing fewer to be pulled out for rotations, which he said are disruptive to family and soldier life programs.
Reflecting on the last decade, Odierno said the toll of 10 years of war has affected individuals differently, acknowledging increased suicides in the force, but he also looked forward to nine-month rotations that will give soldiers more time at home between deployments.
"The relief we’ve started to get with the additional numbers out of Iraq has started to have an impact already," he said, as will drawing down from Afghanistan.
Few soldiers have spent more time deployed than Odierno, who was called to succeed Gen. David Petraeus in Baghdad only a few months after leaving his previous command in Iraq. Even he has had to manage his mental health.
"It’s not easy," he said. "I have strong family support system that helps me to get through. A lot of people don’t have that. … As I went through it myself, that’s what helped me get through it. Because it does — no matter who you are it takes a while for you to decompress."
Odierno said he has to find a way to convince future leaders to stay in the military after the lure of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is long gone.
"You see, I’ve got to convince them that I need them," he said. "The Army needs them, our nation needs them to continue."