As the Army prepares to cut 40,000 more soldiers in order to fit into a shrinking budget, the service is in danger of becoming too small for an increasingly dangerous world, the chief of staff said, and that may embolden our enemies to act.
"If we get small enough where some of these [world] leaders don't believe the Army can respond or deter them, if you can't ... deter them from believing they can accomplish something ... they might have thought might have been more difficult in the past, that increases the threats and danger to the United States," Gen. Ray Odierno said in an exclusive sit-down with Army Times. "And I don't know what that level is, but I think we're getting dangerously close to that level now."
Since 2012, the Army has cut 80,000 soldiers and shut down 13 brigade combat teams, including two in Germany and one in South Korea, to reach an end-strength of 490,000.
The service will cut 40,000 more soldiers for an end-strength of 450,000 by the end of fiscal year 2018; another 30,000 soldiers could be forced to go if sequestration returns in fiscal 2016, which begins Oct. 1.
"There are a lot of things boiling in a lot of different places," Odierno said. "What you don't know is when something boils over. You have to have the capability to respond, and that's the issue."
More than 177,000 soldiers were deployed, forward stationed or assigned to more than 150 countries on at least five of the world's continents as of the end of July.
There are roughly 77,000 soldiers were deployed, forward stationed or assigned to more than 150 countries around the world.
Photo Credit: Capt. Adan Cazarez/Army
The Army is engaged around the world, including in places that just a couple years ago were not part of the immediate, overall plan, Odierno said.
"There wasn't much discussion about Russia. In fact, nobody talked about going back to Iraq. There was no ISIL," he said. "We're trying to work all these issues simultaneously, and you have to have enough size to respond when something goes bad. That's the concern."
Odierno, who on Aug. 14 will complete his tenure as the chief of staff and retire after almost 40 years in uniform, highlighted a rather lengthy list of security concerns during the interview.
Some on his list are expected: the "new, aggressive Russia," where the Army has dedicated about 2,500 troops to Operation Atlantic Resolve, an ongoing series of training exercises to assure and work with NATO allies in the region; the growing threat in China; and that unpredictable dictator in North Korea.
But the Army also is dealing with the Middle East, where the threat is not just confined to the Islamic State, Odierno said.
"You have the underlying Sunni-Shia fight that really is the underlying factor that's driving this," he said, adding that centuries-old divide spans Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere.
"There's this conflict that boiling underneath that's a concern in the Middle East," he said.
Sgt. 1st Class Rapherson Morales-Rivera, a paratrooper assigned to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, clears an Iraqi soldier's weapon at Camp Taji, Iraq, on June 21.
Photo Credit: Spc. Paris Maxey/Army
Just this week, Yemen's al-Qaida branch captured three towns near the southern port city of Aden where pro-government forces have been advancing against Shiite rebels, the Associated Press reported. Yemen's armed forces have splintered over the conflict with the Shiite rebels, creating a security vacuum in some parts of the impoverished country, the AP reported.
In Syria, clashes between members of al-Qaida's branch there and a rebel faction in the country's north believed to have been trained by the U.S. government have stopped after the rebels abandoned their headquarters, the AP reported. The Nusra Front has released video showing one of the captured rebels, and it comes just days after the U.S. and Turkey announced the outlines of a deal to help rebels push the Islamic State back from a strip of territory it controls along the Syrian-Turkish border, according to the AP.
More than 2,900 soldiers are deployed to Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere in the region to bolster the fight against the Islamic State, including training and advising Iraqi troops as well as moderate Syrian rebels.
On Aug. 5, the Army announced it would send the III Corps headquarters to Kuwait to oversee the fight there as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.
There's also Afghanistan and the Taliban, which just confirmed the death of its longtime leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and appointed his successor as a new round of peace talks was postponed amid concerns over how committed the new leadership is to ending the militant group's 14-year insurgency, the AP reported.
The selection of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who was Mullah Omar's deputy, as the Taliban's new leader has already reportedly caused a rift within the group, especially between fighters who favor negotiations with the Afghan government and those who want to continue an insurgency, according to the AP.
The U.S. Army has more than 7,500 soldiers supporting the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan; another 13,000 or so are deployed to support Operation Spartan Shield, which includes Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan.
There also are hot spots in Africa to include Libya and terrorist elements in central Africa, Odierno said.
"I am deeply worried about Libya because I believe that you're starting to see a migration across the Egyptian desert into Libya, connected, potentially, to Syria and Iraq, and now you start to see this big connection," he said. "It's something we have to be concerned with. The work that's going on in Africa is very important."
Libya has plunged into chaos since the 2011 overthrow and death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, leaving the country with two parliaments and two governments, along with rival militaries and militias, according to the Associated Press. The power struggle and fierce fighting has paved the way for the Islamic State group to expand in Libya. In 2012, an attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi killed four Americans, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens.
In Africa, more than 1,700 soldiers are working with countries such as Ghana, Cameroon, Zambia, Ethiopia, Chad, Niger and Morocco on theater security cooperation events, exercises and other events.
Demands continue to mount for soldiers as the end-strength and budget decreases.
Photo Credit: Capt. Adan Cazarez/Army
The Army also has troops in South America, including the long-standing Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras, and troops conducting exercises and training in places such as Guatemala and El Salvador.
The issues facing Southern Command also are a concern, Odierno said.
"Nobody ever talks about SOUTHCOM, but I worry about the networks that have been established over the years," he said. "Most of these networks have been established to move drugs into North America, but, frankly, they can traffic just about anything, and that's of great concern to us."
These challenges around the world are all difficult problems to face, Odierno said.
"I worry about our capability to meet all these different challenges as we move forward," he said. "And I worry about the long-term impact increased requirements and reduced resources are going to have our soldiers. The op-tempo will continue, but I always worry if they are going to be trained to the levels that we expect them to be trained."
'The budget is going down'
This is why the Army must make sure the force it has is the "best Army possible," Odierno said.
"One that's incredibly capable and able to move quickly and work with our allies and partners to shoulder these problems around the world," he said. "Whether we like it or not, the budget is going down."
The Army has been in transition ever since Odierno became the chief in September 2011.
"We were coming out of two wars, Iraq completely and Afghanistan significantly reduced, and the Army was in the process of transitioning itself with budget reductions and other things in terms of reducing the size of the Army," Odierno said. "Then we really had to reorient ourselves with what we want the Army to look like in the future."
Despite that backdrop, the Army was able to sustain and meet its commitments, Odierno said.
"And frankly, those commitments have started to grow because of the continued increase in instability that we're seeing around the world," he said. "But the Army has continued to be able to respond and ensure that our soldiers are prepared to do what we ask them to do."
The Army also reorganized itself in a massive effort not seen since World War II, reworking everything from its brigade combat teams and sustainment structure to its divisions and fires capabilities.
It also has produced an Army Operating Concept that forms the framework of what the Army should look like and how it should fight in the future, Odierno said.
This includes developing a new leader development strategy that has allowed the Army to grow smart, flexible noncommissioned officers and officers, and creating a modernization program that identifies gaps and seams to better help leaders understand where they should invest time and money.
"We're going to have to fight in a multinational, interagency way, and we have to be a more flexible, adaptable, capable Army, and we have to be able to tailor and scale our capabilities to deploy simultaneously," he said. "In the past 20 to 30 years, we've focused on one specific enemy, whether it be the Soviet Union, then it kind of became Iraq, al-Qaida. With the way the world is today, the way it's moving, we have to be able to do many different things at one time."
A dose of optimism
Despite the many challenges, Odierno said the Army should be excited about its future.
"We've been able to meet our current commitments, we've done it under budget constraints and with an Army that has downsized 80,000 soldiers and getting ready to [lose] 40,000 more, and we've been able to look to the future and really establish a way ahead that's really solid," Odierno said.
A large reason for that success is soldiers' ability to adapt, Odierno said.
"We're in the process of really starting to develop an Army that's capable of facing what we call a hybrid threat, one that's got some counter-insurgency and what we call high-end threats," he said. "It really gives me a lot of faith and confidence in the leaders we have. They're continuing to perform superbly across a broad range of missions."
Gen. Mark Milley, commander of Forces Command, will succeed Odierno. The Senate confirmed Milley's nomination on Aug. 5.
A series of challenges awaits Milley in his new role.
"Unfortunately, none of the issues have gone away," Odierno said. "Sequestration is not yet resolved, and I'm not seeing much progress right now in that being resolved, but our missions are increasing. I think that's the biggest challenge Gen. Milley will have going forward. The requirements are going up, but the dollars are going down."
As threats grow and resources diminish, "very difficult decisions have to be made," Odierno said, adding that he had hoped to be able to resolve the Army's drawdown before he retired.
"I was disappointed," he said. "I thought maybe I would be able to resolve this, and we would know where we are and we could start focusing on capabilities we want our Army to have instead of what size the Army should be. But I think that's going to continue for the next several years."
As for his next step, Odierno and his wife plan to move to Pinehurst, North Carolina.
"It's a small, relaxing community, then I'll decide what I'm going to do," he said. "I'm not going to retire, retire, but I have not decided yet what I'm going to do."
He has loved every job he's had in the Army, including as the Army's top general, Odierno said.
"I have felt so honored the last four years to be chief of staff, because every day I'm just taken by the sacrifice and the commitment of our soldiers and their families, and how much they've given, and how much they continue to give, and how much they care about each other and care about the mission," he said. "That's what makes this job worthwhile."
Odierno said he'll "never forget" the troops he served with and alongside, especially during his multiple deployments to Iraq.
"The Army is about soldiers, it's about people, and those interactions and the sacrifice they make, those are things we'll never forget," Odierno said. "It's been a distinct honor."