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WASHINGTON — While the size and relative buying power of the US may be declining, American allies will depend on the US Army even more in the future than they do now, Army chief Gen. Ray Odierno said Wednesday.
While the question-and-answer session at the Atlantic Council in Washington contained the requisite talk of sequestration and how the mandated cuts will affect the force, Odierno spent the bulk of his time fielding questions about threats that the United States, and the Army, will likely face in the coming years.
Chief among his concerns is the evolving nature of international terrorist organizations and the fact that groups such as Hezbollah — which is very publicly fighting for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war — are “not held to any accountability in terms of international law because they are not a nation-state. So to me that’s the problem … and that’s why [future conflicts are] so difficult to predict.”
Warfare in the 21st century is changing rapidly, Odierno said, as criminal and terrorist groups cross borders both physically and virtually, and “international law and other international bodies are yet to recognize this evolving conflict.” The fact that Hezbollah “is verbally saying ‘we are now going to support [the Assad] government,’ what does that mean?”
Of greatest concern, he said, is the “underlying Sunni/Shia conflict that we see in the Middle East; that’s what you’re seeing play out in Syria” as Hezbollah fights to support the Syrian government, which is also supported by Iran.
He also cited “both the internal stability of Pakistan and its effect on the region,” along with its nuclear stockpiles as a major worry. Next on his list are the unpredictability of the new regime in North Korea and finding ways to partner with China on an array of military and diplomatic issues.
Odierno is also worried about US allies, he said, and the fact that critical NATO partners are cutting their military budgets and troop numbers at the same time as the United States.
“We gotta make sure we stay in sync, because we might become unbalanced” within the NATO umbrella if the US and its allies don’t talk through their cuts and find ways to try and complement each other’s capabilities, he warned.
For example, “as the British Army continues to reduce in size we’ve had several conversations about keeping them integrated in what we’re trying to do. In a lot of ways they’re depending on us, especially in our ground capabilities into the future,” Odierno said.
While the French have not reduced significantly yet they may begin to slash military budgets soon, along with the Italians and the South Koreans, who are increasingly unable to maintain traditional troop numbers due to demographic changes in South Korean society.
The most recent plans for the South Korean Army call for a troop reduction from 560,000 to about 370,000 by 2020.
As far as the current US budget mess is concerned, Odierno complained that “since 2010 we’ve had 15 continuing resolutions. That’s killing us.”
In 2013, “we ended up with a $20 billion shortfall in operations and maintenance money. We’ve been able to get that back down to about $12 billion or so, based on new [reprogramming] legislation that was passed,” but the service is still short by about $8 billion.
That shortfall will have significant ripple effects in 2014 and beyond as readiness atrophies due to the lack of money to hold training exercises. And that $8 billion shortfall in 2013 will only get worse in 2014 because the sequestration cuts are “not part of our calculation for the ’14 budget, so we’re already in the hole before we even get to ’14,” he said.
And cuts to the Army’s end-strength won’t be enough to close that gap.
“In the Army, 45 percent of our budget is people,” he said. “I cannot take people out fast enough to meet sequestration numbers.”