Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno speaks during an interview with Army Times staff at the Pentagon. (Thomas Brown / Army Times)
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World instability concerns Odierno
What keeps the chief up at night?
"I continue to worry simply about the Middle East," said Gen. Ray Odierno. "I worry about, I watch very, very closely, Israel. … In the end, you continually see these changing dynamics in the Middle East. The Egyptian-Israeli relationship is very different now than it was a year ago, when Mubarak was in power.
"What does that mean to stability? What does it mean with Iranian influence and [their] continued move to gain more influence? What does that mean with them and the Sunni-Arab world?
"The one thing I do not worry about is our soldiers and our leaders. Although we have had some bumps in the road here with some leader issues, I am still completely confident that we have the best leaders in the world today and the best soldiers. We have the best Army in the world.
Odierno said he wants to ensure "as we go through these difficult times, that when we come out on the other end, we will still have the best leaders and the best Army. How we get through that is another thing I worry about.
"As I visit our leaders and soldiers, I continue to be so impressed with their capabilities, morale and all that they do," Odierno said. "We have the highest quality of people that we have ever had since I have been in the Army. That provides me with the confidence that we will continue to move forward here and be the Army that we need to be in order to provide our nation’s security. I feel very, very comfortable with that."
As many as 16,000 soldiers and 5,000 officers face involuntary separation, but more jobs will open to female soldiers. Pre-deployment training will intensify, and time between permanent change-of-station moves may extend.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno covered these and other hot topics in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Army Times. From tighter promotions and his plans for the new fitness test to a redesign of brigade combat teams and possible changes to the Army Service Uniform, nothing was off limits as the chief outlined his goals for 2013 and beyond.
It's not hard to identify what tops his list. With emphatic passion, Odierno emphasized his determination to maintain a precarious balance among troop strength, modernization and training, despite the budget pressures. Odierno said he is comfortable with plans to cut 80,000 soldiers — a drawdown required by a $450 billion cut ordered by the Obama administration. The Army is using attrition to make most cuts. Soldiers who don't meet standards are shown the door to keep the most experienced and capable soldiers.
The service exceeded attrition goals by more than 6,000 and ended fiscal 2012 with 551,000 soldiers. Despite this success, roughly 20 percent of the remaining involuntary cuts will affect enlisted soldiers, and 3,000 to 5,000 officers will likely get hit with involuntary separation in the coming years, Odierno said.
The rest of the drawdown — about 40,000 soldiers — will be trimmed through attrition.
Of greater concern is the looming threat of sequestration.
Unless Congress comes up with a Christmas miracle to reverse the law, the Defense Department will be forced to cut another $500 billion over 10 years. That means another 80,000 to 100,000 soldiers will be out of uniform in the near term, and modernization efforts would suffer severe degradation. Those cuts will affect both the active and reserve force, he said.
A reversal must go through bipartisan committees, pass the Senate and House and be signed by the president, who has vowed to block legislation that would exempt the Pentagon from the forthcoming cuts.
"I am hopeful that there is going to be some sort of framework or agreement," Odierno said. "My guess is that they will push it down the road and make the new Congress decide on it. We will see. Nobody really knows. I feel a bit more confident now that I think that they will come to some agreement on that."
The good news is, personnel accounts are protected from sequestration cuts in 2013. The bad news is, nothing else is. The Army will be forced to make a 12 percent to 14 percent salami slice from every line item in the budget. It can't cut more money from one to save another.
This will likely cause the Army to default on contracts and stop key modernization programs. Odierno would not identify what programs are in most jeopardy, but the Ground Combat Vehicle and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle would likely be in Congress' cross hairs.
If sequestration rolls ahead, the chief in 2014 will gather his leaders to develop a new strategy and rebalance the new, smaller force.
Other key programs and policies on Odierno's radar include:
• Tighter grooming standards. The chief isn't sure what the final outcome will be, but he is giving careful consideration to each standard, especially tattoos.
"It is not about what I am personally comfortable with," he said of tattoos. "It is about what we believe is best for the Army and what we need for the professionalism in the force. I also understand that, in this generation, tattoos are much more prevalent on our young people than they were before. So what I have done is asked for some information on where we are on this before I make a final decision on tattoos."
But he seemed to draw the line on visible neck, face and hand tattoos.
"We are really trying to figure out the bounds of that as a professional appearance," he said. "That is the discussion that we are having."
• The Army Service Uniform. An Army questionnaire asked soldiers whether the blue uniform should be changed. The chief expects to be briefed on it next month but cast his vote in favor of the status quo.
"I like it," he said. "I like the fact that we only have two uniforms. I think that simplifies it and makes it cheaper. I think this uniform is a hell of a lot better looking than the green uniform. I think that it makes us look more professional. In fact, I am pressing for us to wear this uniform more."
Odierno said he especially likes that people can see the number of deployments, awards and badges a soldier has earned.
• Longer time on station. The cut from 45 to approximately 32 BCTs will not require a lot of shuffling from base to base, he said. Team that with an increase in home-station training and decrease in overall budget, and you have a recipe that may allow some soldiers to stay on station four years instead of three.
"We are going to try to keep soldiers in place as long as we can," Odierno said. "We are looking at trying to do that for four years. But we always have to consider, are they getting into the right positions for them to continue to develop as noncommissioned officers? In most cases we can do that, but there are some where we cannot. It will not be the case for everybody.
"With officers, it is much more difficult," he said. "For them to progress and get the experiences that we want, we have to move them."
• Tougher promotions. Guaranteed promotions to captain and a practically guaranteed jump to major are a thing of the past as promotion rates return to historic norms — 92 percent selected for captain and roughly 85 percent of those later pinning on gold oak leaves.
"I want competitiveness in our promotion system," Odierno said. "I want it to be where we pick the best."
• Who deploys where. Odierno is a big proponent of joint operations, having headed joint commands for seven years prior to assuming the Army's top spot. In those roles, he saw a critical gap: Although the Army was dedicated to the joint force, it was not paying enough attention to what the combatant commanders needed to shape their environment and be successful in their areas of operation. The progressive readiness model is his solution. Units and brigades will be aligned to a combatant commander who can use them as he sees fit. An active brigade will do about three months of reset, nine to 10 months of training and be available 10 or 11 months.
"We are finding that there is a lot of appetite for this by the combatant commanders," Odierno said. "[2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division] have been given 93 different missions to conduct next year by Africa. They are small and different-sized missions. What that is doing for us is, it is telling us that there is a real need out there. We will be doing that with other combatant commands."
Corps and division level will see a more permanent alignment. I Corps will be permanently aligned with Pacific Command. III Corps will be permanently aligned with Central Command. The 18th Airborne Corps will respond to contingency operations and be responsible for forced entry operations. Northern, Southern, Africa and European commands will align with joint task force-capable division headquarters.
• Holding everyone accountable. It's been a tough year for the Army, with some top leaders getting pulled on the carpet for questionable and criminal behavior. Odierno said he and Army Secretary John McHugh are discussing whether to release the details of each case moving forward. The Navy does this as a message to all leaders that such actions will be dealt with quickly and openly.
"This is a very important topic," he said. "We believe that everybody should be held accountable. Everybody when they do something wrong should be punished. We feel very strongly about that."
Odeirno cited the case of Col. James Johnson III, former commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, who was relieved of duty and court-martialed in June.
"We did not let him slip out of the legal process. He had to go through the legal process because he broke the law," the chief said.
Johnson was convicted of 17 counts, including bigamy, adultery and fraud in connection with an affair he had with an Iraqi woman. Johnson was fined $300,000 and allowed to retire as a lieutenant colonel, a sentence that produced howls of outrage within the force. When asked whether he was happy with the outcome, Odierno's answer was blunt: "No, I am not."
• More jobs for women. When it comes to filling a job, Odierno's priority is talent, not gender.
"I want to make the best use of the talent that we have in our Army," he said. "That is regardless of male or female. I think that we can increase the use of females and use their talent. We are going to continue to find ways to do that."
One way is opening all infantry and armor battalion headquarters to women beginning in January. The decision follows a six-month review conducted in nine brigades. Female engagement teams also will become a permanent fixture.
The coming year will see a concerted effort to establish common standards for men and women in infantry and armor occupations.
"If you meet the common standard, then you qualify," he said. "We have to define what those are. … Once that is done, we will look at how we integrate women into [military occupational specialties] that are now closed to them."
• The new fitness test. The current test, or one like it, is likely to survive as it provides a measure of general fitness. But the chief wants another test that measures functional fitness.
"We have to take it to the next step," Odierno said, adding that he would like a gender-neutral test but gave no guarantees.
He said the functional aspect could be job-specific and pointed to his career as an artilleryman.
"In a 155 unit, you have to carry a 100-pound projectile. You have to have a certain capability to do that," he said. "If you are an infantryman, then endurance plays a bigger role. We have to determine which. You do a physical fitness test that is common in everyone. But then we do functional fitness depending on what you are doing to better prepare you to execute that job. That is what we are trying to do."
Odierno said he expects initial reports from Training and Doctrine Command within the next three months.