Army foresees another drop in military readiness if sequestration returns

Wednesday - 3/26/2014, 4:09am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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Thanks to an influx of funds under the Ryan-Murray budget agreement, the Army is recovering slowly from a degradation in readiness that started when sequestration kicked in a year ago.

But those gains will be quickly erased if lawmakers don't do something about the Defense budget caps in fiscal 2016 and beyond, the service's top leadership told House legislators Tuesday.

The Bipartisan Budget Agreement represented only a brief reprieve from sequestration for the Defense Department. Starting in 2016, DoD is scheduled to revert back to the funding limits its leaders have been warning for years would be destructive to national security.

In the first year of the cuts, the Army absorbed the sudden reductions in the few areas of its budget where spending could be reduced immediately, the service's top civilian and military leaders told the House Armed Services Committee during the Army's annual posture hearing before the panel.

Along with civilian pay and facility maintenance, troop training was one of a handful of such areas. The Army canceled seven rotations through its Combat Training Center, leaving only two of its 45 brigades fully trained and ready to deploy to a contingency.

"We're higher than that now. We're probably closer to five or six, and it will increase as we invest the dollars we got in 2014 into those rotations," said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff. "The problem is that readiness is temporary. It's good for about six months to a year. We're going to have to sustain a tiered- readiness profile, which means only certain units will be ready. We will rotate them through the Army force generation process, but in 2016, we're going to have another readiness dive."

The Army knows it is facing a readiness problem even if Congress unexpectedly cancels the remaining years of sequestration, so it's reducing its total headcount of soldiers in order to shift personnel spending into funds to train its remaining forces, officials said.

20,000 per year

But even with a delay of the full sequestration figure to 2016, there are practical limitations to how quickly the Army can shrink itself. In the meantime, soldiers are less trained and more vulnerable in combat than they ought to be.

"That's true at least in the interim," Odierno said. "During the five or six years when we're taking end-strength out, we don't have enough readiness. But once you get that end-strength out, we'll be able to sustain a readiness level that's appropriate: that's the end-state. You have a smaller Army that's ready. But in the meantime, it creates great uncertainty and unreadiness because we have to be very careful on how we take soldiers out of the Army. We want to make sure we can still meet our current operational commitments. And we want to make sure we take care of our soldiers as we take them out."

The Army already is executing a plan to reduce its size by 20,000 soldiers per year between now and 2018. Officials say that's the fastest drawdown they can accomplish before the costs of the personnel reductions offset the budgetary savings they would achieve.

Odierno said the service would be about right-sized by that point, meaning that the Army would have sufficient funds to keep its remaining force trained and ready, even if it is smaller.

That's under the Pentagon's rosier budget scenario, which imagines that Congress will undo sequestration over the next several years. If it doesn't, the Army says it would need to continue the 20,000 soldiers per year drawdown for another five years, delaying the point at which it would reach a balance between force structure and readiness until 2023.

In either scenario, once the Army reaches that "balance" point, Odierno said there's a significant chance that the force will be too small to perform its missions.

In the five-year budget the Army submitted to Congress last month, officials said they could continue to execute the current Defense strategy, with higher risks, at a level of 450,000 active duty soldiers, compared to the 490,000 they estimated they'd need when the Pentagon first rolled out the current Defense strategy in 2012.

If sequestration stays in place, the Army would need to reduce its size to 420,000 in order to keep its remaining forces ready to deploy.

Skepticism continues about Army's plans

Defense hawks long have been skeptical about the Pentagon's claims that it could maintain its longstanding objective of being able to engage in two simultaneous conflicts at even the 490,000 soldier figure. But if the Army's current projections about sequestration's impact on the long-term size of the Army are accurate, that two-war debate becomes moot.