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Congressional conferees have agreed to legislation that sets active Army end strength at no more than 552,100 soldiers, and no fewer than 542,700, for the fiscal year that closes Sept. 30.
The fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, agreed to by members of a conference committee Dec. 17, requires that the Army pace the drawdown so that annual end strength is not reduced by more than 15,000 soldiers from 2014 through 2017.
Under the Obama administration's phased reduction plan for the Army, active-component end strength is scheduled to reach 490,000 soldiers by Oct. 1, 2018.
As of late December, there were 550,000 soldiers on active duty, which means the drawdown of forces that began last year is ahead of schedule, thanks in large part to a spate of unexpected voluntary retirements and separations this year.
"We really exceeded our goals for natural attrition this year," said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff.
"Our original goal was to end this year with 557,000 soldiers to 560,000 soldiers. We ended the fiscal year [on Sept. 30] with 551,000 soldiers," he said.
Over the next five years, the Army will have to reduce the size of the active force by 60,000 soldiers.
Personnel officials expect more than half of the drawdown will be achieved through reduced accessions and retention, and about 25,000 soldiers will be involuntarily separated or retired.
If the Army paces the drawdown over five years of steady reductions, end strength will be cut annually by 12,000 soldiers.
Odierno and other senior Army leaders, including Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the service's chief of personnel, have indicated the Army does not plan to use voluntary incentives, such as buyouts and separation bonuses, to cut end strength during the drawdown.
However, Army Secretary John McHugh has authorized early retirements for officers passed over for promotion, and noncommissioned officers selected for separation under the Qualitative Service Program.
Drawdown tools renewed
The legislation approved by the conferees renews some of the management and force reduction tools used during the drawdown of the 1990s, to include:
• Reinstatement of the authority to conduct Selective Early Retirement Boards and early discharges.
During the 1990s, SERBs were used to cull overstrength year groups and cohorts of certain retirement-eligible lieutenant colonels, colonels and chief warrant officers.
The authority to conduct such boards was scheduled to expire Dec. 31, but under the new legislation, it has been extended to Dec. 31, 2018.
• Temporary extension of the authority to reduce the requirement that commissioned officers have at least 10 years of commissioned service to voluntarily retire as an officer at 20 years of service.
Under the temporary authority, the secretary of the Army can reduce the minimum commissioned service requirement from 10 to eight years. This section of law applies to commissioned officers with prior service as an enlisted soldier or warrant officer. The temporary authority expires Sept. 30, 2018.
• A temporary increase in the time-in-grade retirement waiver limitation for lieutenant colonels and colonels.
Under federal law, officers promoted to lieutenant colonel or colonel normally must serve at least three years in grade to retire in their promoted rank.
This renewed authority allows the secretary of the Army to approve retirements in those ranks after only two years in grade. Such waivers are capped at no more than 4 percent annually of the officers in that rank. The temporary authority expires Sept. 30, 2018.