Odierno: Short-term budget fix might end furloughs, but hurts planning
WIESBADEN, Germany — After meeting with allies and his top generals in Europe, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno was headed back over the Atlantic on Wednesday into a budget war that escalated in his absence.
A stalemate in Congress forced the government into a partial shutdown that caused thousands of Army civilians to be furloughed, and led Odierno to cut his Europe trip short.
He is headed back into Washington’s budget fight with just one message: “I need predictability.”
The best-case scenario, he said, would be for Congress to approve the nearly $130 billion that President Obama requested for the Army in his 2014 budget.
What he doesn’t want is for Congress to approve yet another continuing resolution — a stopgap measure until a full budget for the new fiscal year is adopted — without resolving sequestration, which would leave the service $12 billion short for Fiscal 2014 of what it would get under Obama’s plan.
With that scenario looking more likely as gridlock again grips Washington, that’s the one Odierno said he and his staff have been planning toward.
In either case, the Army plans to cut its civilian workforce.
The government shutdown won’t have any effect on the war in Afghanistan, he said, even though it has forced officials to slow or stop some services for military members outside of combat zones.
Much of his focus, however, is longer-term. The fiscal fight playing out right now could either enable the service to regain some of the readiness it lost when sequestration hit last spring, or it could dig that hole deeper.
The service carried a $1.2 billion shortfall from 2013 into Fiscal 2014, Odierno said. Much of that shortfall was for “readiness,” meaning that some units — other than those headed to war — weren’t able to train for combat.
Under Obama’s budget plan, that funding gap would close. With a continuing resolution, readiness would suffer another $1 billion hit, he said, further eroding the Army’s ability to respond should the unexpected happen.
Adding to his frustration, he said, legislators still haven’t fixed one of the most vexing parts of sequestration — the sweeping nature of the cuts prohibit him and the other service chiefs from shifting funds to high priority items. In the Army’s case, the priorities are reducing its end-strength, readying units for combat and modernizing the force.
If sequestration continues on into 2015 as well, he said, “that’s going to cause us to have to go to a severe, tiered readiness structure.”
The Army, which is reducing the number of brigades from 45 to 33, would be left with only a small number of those ready to deploy at a moment’s notice — the Army is “looking at seven,” Odierno said — plus enablers, such as logistics and communications units.
The plan, he said, would result in an Army in which part of the force is “very ready,” and other parts would have “readiness issues.”
And if it continues beyond that, he said, the Army would have to shrink well below the 490,000 active-duty force the Army is planning to reduce to by the end of 2017.
“We could get as small as 420,000 in the active component,” Odierno said.
Unlike when sequestration kicked in last spring, though, the service has had more time to prepare for it this year.
That has allowed the Army to control its decision making a bit more, Odierno said.
In the coming year, “our intent is not to have to furlough (civilians) again,” he said. Furloughs aren’t, however, off the table.
One of the ways the Army hopes to avoid furloughs, though, is by eliminating some civilian staff altogether.
“We’re going to have to,” Odierno said, adding there will be reduction-in-force actions.
He didn’t say how many civilian positions will be cut, but noted the reduction will be larger than in past years, will happen at the same rate as the reduction in the active-duty force, and will begin “very” soon.
Odierno said he’s looking to cut the contractor workforce before either DA civilians or soldiers. Those cuts, he said, would focus on contractors that “don’t give us unique capabilities.”
In the two years he’s been chief of staff of the Army, Odierno said, “I’ve had zero predictability on our budget. That makes it more difficult to manage the dollars that they’ve given me.”
His message to Congress, where he’ll testify next week, is that “we need predictability on the budget so we can make the best use of the American dollar in order for us to build the best Army possible.
“They’ve heard that from me on several occasions.“