"We made assumptions that we wouldn't be using Army forces in Europe the way we used to, we made assumptions that we wouldn't go back into Iraq — and here we are back in Iraq, here we are worried about Russia again," said Gen. Raymond Odierno, speaking at the Defense One Summit here Wednesday. He called for a discussion of what the Army will be doing over the next five years.
There are 1,500 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, with plans to send another 1,600 in a month; 55,000 deployed to countries around the world and 80,000 soldiers stationed in 150 countries around the world, Odierno said. "So, our commitments have actually gone up in the last year," he said.
Army leaders agreed in 2012 with a plan to cut the Army from 490,000 to 450,000 troops because it aligned with the Defense Department's strategic guidance at the time. At posture hearings before the new Congress in the spring, Odierno said he plans to argue for a larger number, though sequestration budget cuts leave the service at 420,000.
"I said it last year, and I will say it again this year," Odierno said.
At the suggestion that an Army of more than 400,000 could be more efficient or better organized, Odierno said he is working to make the force more expeditionary and decentralized before detailing how a hefty chunk of the force is out of action. Some 100,000 troops are the Army's training force, 65,000 troops will be in training at any point, 50,000 are dedicated to regional combatant commands and 40,000 are in special forces.
The Army's new operating concept casts the force as the integrator for a whole-of-government approach, and multi-domain warfare — sea, air, space and cyberspace — seemingly with a division headquarters at the center. Eight of 10 division headquarters are deployed, one in Iraq coordinating training and intelligence with multinational partners in the fight against the Islamic State group.
"The world we face today is very complex and the solutions we have to come up with are very complex, so the premise you could go to company-sized units is great, but in order to manage response, you need [division] headquarters," Odierno said.
Yet to respond quicker and in a more decentralized fashion, the Army has built force packages for each regional combatant commander, Odierno said. For example, there is a battalion forward-deployed in Djibouti, and troops in Kuwait who can respond "anywhere in the Mideast and get there very quickly," he said. "We are also developing small [force] packages that [can] be delivered very quickly by air — we are developing those packages now, we are in the process of doing that."
Asked about a controversial recent decision to quarantine U.S. troops for three weeks in Italy who were returning home from the Ebola fight in Africa, Odierno said it had been his call. Soldiers' families were nervous about exposure, he said, and it was important to protect soldiers who had no choice but to deploy. "I thought reducing the risk to zero, which is what the medical people tell us to do, is worth it," he said.
Asked about avoiding "brain drain" as the force shrinks, Odierno said vanishing billets make the Army more competitive — which soldiers want. It retains experienced and junior mid-career troops drawn to stay in a force that is still busy all over the world.
Meanwhile, a two-year-old gender integration effort includes 31 women chosen as observers for Ranger assessments — with 70 women expected to participate next year — and multiple studies to determine how women will fit into the force structure and which jobs they are suited to. The effort is soon to be completed.
At the Defense Department's direction, the Army must request a waiver to justify any decision to exclude women from combat arms positions that DoD has opened to them. The Army will complete its studies this spring and make its decision next fall. "It's about talent management, and we have to take the best, without lowering the standard," Odierno said.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.