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AUSA president: 'Sequestration is a killer'

The deep cuts the Army is absorbing, coupled with the threat of sequestration, present an "unacceptable risk" to the nation, the president of the Association of the United States Army said.

Retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan sat down Oct. 8 with Army Times, just days before more than 30,000 people were expected to gather in Washington, D.C., for AUSA's annual meeting.

Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff, expressed frustration at Congress' inaction and warned that the Army is getting smaller in an increasingly volatile world.

Interview highlights, edited for space and clarity:

Q: The Army is deploying soldiers to Africa, Iraq and elsewhere, but it's also cutting the force. How is that affecting the Army?

A: Like every service, they're doing their best with this thing known as sequestration, and these budget reductions, and the hands-off approach the Congress is taking to the budget. It's kind of like we're on auto-pilot, and there doesn't seem to be much likelihood that the executive branch and the legislative branch are going to get together to stop sequestration, which I think they should.

Q:What are your thoughts about the new missions to which the Army is now committing troops?

A: The trend line is going in the wrong direction. Africa, the Middle East, back into Iraq, doing things in Syria, the Pacific, with China flexing its muscles, central Europe and the Baltic nations, where we see a resurgent Russia, and all of that combined to include the drug cartels and the criminal organizations in our own hemisphere, make for security and defense needs greater than before.

The world, the velocity of change is breathtaking.

Q:What do you think needs to happen?

A: The best outcome would be let's stop, let's take a pause, a timeout here, to make sure that we don't continue downsizing at a time when this cascading effect of dysfunctional events is going on. The need for troops is going up, but we're getting smaller. It doesn't make any sense.

Q:How did we end up with sequestration, and shouldn't the Defense Department absorb a share of the cuts?

A: They made an assumption five years ago that we need to pay off the debt, so we created sequestration and how we could carve up the budget. The Department of Defense is essentially cut to support that reduction. It takes an inordinately high piece of the pie.

Q:Is sequestration really that bad?

A: Sequestration is a killer. It ties everybody's hands; readiness suffers. Readiness is suffering. Readiness means training. Fifty percent of the bill is being paid by the Department of Defense, which only gets 17 percent of the discretionary money. That's like someone saying we're not going to use the Department of Defense anymore. That's not true.

Q: What are we lacking?

A: People are looking for leadership. Two things are happening, I believe. Our friends are wondering whether we're real, and our enemies see weakness. Both of which are dangerous.

Q:What happens if sequestration returns and the Army has to cut the active-duty force down to 420,000?

A: I don't think the country should be taking [this risk], and I'll keep beating that drum. I don't think we're going in the right direction. [Talking to Congress] is like the sound of silence. Who is stepping up? I just don't think it's prudent to take the Army down, which provides 40 percent of the sinews of war. The theater medical support, the strategic [communication] links, a lot of the ammunition, movement of fuel — it goes on and on and on. Plus the school system back here trains many of the services. We can't sustain it. The risk is too high.

Q:What do you mean by that?

A: What it means is I'm not training [soldiers]. I cannot train them. A 480,000 or 490,000 active-duty strength is the pre-war strength of the Army. That number was decided upon in May of 1995. That was the number that we knew would be funded in 1995. I think that's probably the number [today] that could suffice, but we're going to blow through that number if something doesn't happen. I think once we get down past 490,000, we're going to have problems.

Q:How would you describe the current state of the Army, and what's the way ahead?

A: I think it's remarkably resilient and remarkably focused on what has to be done. That doesn't mean there aren't challenges. Six months ago if you told me the 1st Infantry Division was going to Baghdad, I would have told you you're smoking a very funny cigarette. The world is going to change fast, and I'm not convinced the United States of America is prepared in its governmental procedures to change as quickly as the world is changing.

Q:Is there anything else you'd like to add?

A: Sometimes I think we need to just take a deep breath and take a look at ourselves, take a look at how other people see us. I think we're seen as feckless. We don't know what we want, and if we're all in, we're all in. I think we have no other choice. Everybody else is taking their department of defense apart, their military apart. I don't think we should be taking ours apart. It embarrasses me that we are.

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