Army readiness problems will persist through 2020

Wednesday - 1/8/2014, 4:11am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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The budget agreement lawmakers reached last month will go some way toward alleviating the pain of sequestration for the Army. But even with that relief, it will be 2020 before the service digs its way out of the military readiness problems sequestration caused, the service's top officer said Tuesday.

The Ryan-Murray budget agreement softens the blow of sequestration to the Pentagon mainly by giving the military services more time to prepare for the budget levels mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

In 2014, instead of having its budget capped at $498 billion, DoD will be able to spend $521 billion. But that still represents a reduction from last year's budget, and the caps will grow tighter next year.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, said given what are still relatively sudden cuts, sequestration's impacts to military readiness won't be completely fixed for another half-dozen years.

"You've got to remember that our budget is based on, really, three major things: people, our ability to modernize ourselves and our readiness. And you've got to keep those in the right balance," he said during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington Tuesday. "Sequestration forces us to go right out of balance because I can't take out people fast enough to get the dollars to put into readiness and modernization in order to keep that balance. And so what it's created in the Army is about a three-year window, 2014, 2015, 2016, where we're really out of balance. Our readiness and our modernization programs are taking the hit because I can't take people out fast enough."

Not that the Army isn't reducing its force structure. It's already accelerated its earlier plans to draw down from 570,000 soldiers to 490,000 by 2017, now targeting the year 2015 to accomplish that reduction.

Difficulty in sustaining readiness

Odierno said the Army still is studying whether it can shrink even further in a short time frame.

"We're taking out about 20,000 a year. If I go higher than that, it costs me more to take them out, and so we start reducing the savings that we're gaining from the people," he said. "So that's the dilemma that we have."

Odierno told Federal News Radio in October that out of 45 brigades in the Army, only two were fully trained and ready to deploy to a contingency operation other than Afghanistan.

The Army planned to funnel virtually all of its training resources to just seven brigades to get at least those ones to acceptable readiness levels.

That was before the budget deal, and Odierno said the relief in 2014 will help, but it won't get the Army to where it needs to be.

"It gives us money to buy back some of the readiness. In '15, it's a lower number. The problem is, that's great for '14, and I'm thankful for that, but if we don't sustain it, we're going to go right back to where we were," he said. "That gives us a period of about six years of vulnerability because of this imbalance that we have. I believe the sequestration number is too low because I believe it doesn't allow us to do the things we need to do in a world that continues to have significant uncertainty. The American people expect us to respond if something goes wrong, and we will. But the cost will be that the soldiers that we send will not be ready like we want them to be, or we might not be able to sustain an operation as long as we need to because we don't have the numbers. So up until 2020, it's a readiness issue, a modernization issue. Past 2020, it's a size issue. Are we big enough to do the missions that we'll be asked to do? And I am a bit worried about that number in the end, especially in the Army."

The military personnel cuts the Army has planned for come almost entirely out of the full-time active duty component of the Army, not the National Guard or Army Reserve. By the time the current downsizing plans are complete, the Army will be made up of 46 percent active component and 54 percent reserve component soldiers.

"We think that's about the right percentage that we need to go forward and meet our national security needs. And if we have to go lower than 490,000 in the active component, we will have to take a percentage out of the Guard and Reserve as we move forward, and we're still working on what those numbers are," Odierno said. "But it's about keeping that right percentage, about 54 percent in the reserve, about 46 percent in the active. And based on the analysis we've done, which is quite substantial, that gets us about the right level of active readiness. It also gives us the ability for the National Guard to respond over longer periods of time. And it also allows the National Guard to continue to be responsive within their own states. And we think that's about the right balance."