The Army is considering taking measures to slow the drawdown, though the service still plans to eventually reach an end-strength of 450,000 active-duty troops.
Army Secretary John McHugh, in a Wednesday interview with Army Times, said he hopes to "retain some faces in our structure to fill out units that are undermanned."
The Army is on pace to hit 490,000 active-duty soldiers by the end of fiscal year 2015. It also is slated to cut about 20,000 soldiers every year to reach 450,000 by the end of fiscal 2017.
However, senior Army leaders are discussing extending that timeline an additional year — that is if sequestration can be avoided in 2016.
"Assuming budget relief occurs, the Army could retain some flexibility as it downsizes and slow the ramp to reach 440-450 thousand in FY18," said Lt. Col. Christopher Kasker, public affairs officer to the Army Secretary. " In any event, the end-state of 440-450 remains fixed as long as sequestration is averted. Congress would have to grant us this authority in the budget."
McHugh told Army Times that adjusting the "ramp" of the drawdown "provides us a little bit of relief, basically for readiness purposes."
"The retention will not affect the ultimate place in which we end up," McHugh stressed. "I don't want soldiers to think the end-strength is now going to be 451,000 or 452,000 or 455,000, because that hasn't changed, and unless the budget realities change, we don't expect that to."
When looking at the Army's readiness figures, there is clearly a need for some relief.
Even with the gains it has made in the last 18 months, only 36 percent of the Army's units are "appropriately ready" to respond or deploy if needed, McHugh said, and if sequestration returns in 2016, those hard-earned gains could be lost again.
"We have come some significant distance on restoring our readiness over the last two years thanks to some relief that Congress has provided us," he said. "But at '16, should sequestration return, all the progress that we've made … will be lost. You can add to that our modernization programs, our family programs. Virtually no corner of the Army would be untouched in a negative way should sequestration remain on the books."
Optimally, the Army wants 65 percent to 70 percent of its units to be ready to respond or deploy if needed, McHugh said.
"That obviously says we've still got a long way to go, but it's important to note that the roughly 36 percent is far better than we were in '13," he said.
It could take the Army years to recover from the automatic budget cuts triggered by sequestration, McHugh said.
"It's not a light switch," he said. "You don't regain either end-strength or readiness overnight, even if someone writes a sufficiently large check."
It takes "months and months" to build a new brigade combat team or increase readiness across the force, McHugh said.
"We've got to be mindful of not just where we're going, but what it would take to get us back to a different level should that becomes absolutely essential," he said.
During the wide-ranging discussion with Army Times, McHugh addressed the challenges Army faces as it deals with shrinking budgets, new missions around the world and the potential return of sequestration in 2016.
"This remains a very busy Army, as evidenced by the number of new missions, some unforeseen as recently as a year ago, [and] the fact that we have nine of our 10 division headquarters out deployed across all corners of the globe," he said.
In recent months, the Army has been able to "step up to meet the challenge and the goal in West Africa, an unanticipated training mission in Iraq, [and] respond to, shall I say, Mr. Putin's adventurism in the Ukraine and Eastern Europe," McHugh said.
"This Army remains, as it has been for more than the past decade, the greatest land force the world has ever seen," he said. "We're doing everything we can to preserve that."
If sequestration returns in 2016, it could have "very real challenges, very serious implications" to the Army's ability to meet the demands placed upon it, McHugh said.
While an active-duty end-strength of 450,000 soldiers "produces certain challenges, we feel that it is a sufficient number to meet the national defense strategic guidance and to adequately meet the missions that lie before us," McHugh said.
At 420,000, however, "we don't feel that we meet the defense strategic guidance and would not have sufficient numbers to continue to do the missions that we see before us today," he said. "The other reality, as we've seen over the last 12 months, is there are often things that arise that we didn't foresee. Our ability to respond to any emerging new crisis would be severely restricted."
As he travels across the force, McHugh said he hears from soldiers who are worried about the future of the Army.
"They're worried about their place in this Army and even if they'll have a place in the Army," he said.
Soldiers also see how the Army has had to cut soldiers "who have served honorably, who have met our standards, some with multiple deployments into combat," McHugh said. "And they worry if they might not be next. So until and unless we get some predictability in funding, and until and unless we have some ultimate disposition of sequestration, that angst is going to continue to turn."
McHugh, who has been secretary of the Army for more than five years, said the Army has operated under a continuing resolution for nearly half the time he's been in the job.
"What we really need is a resolution to sequestration of some sort," he said. "But also, equally important, predictable and stable funding so that we can plan across our many areas of need and send a more stable and better message for our soldiers about their future."