Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has pegged sequestration and the uncertainty surrounding the potentially devastating cuts to the Pentagon's budget as the military's greatest threat.
The Army four-star explained on Feb. 15 in a speech to a Washington think tank that even after 12 years of war the "greatest threat to our national security is the fiscal uncertainty resulting from the lack of predictability in the budget cycle."
Pentagon leaders will soon start getting answers to their budget questions, but it's looking more likely that they won't like what they hear. If the White House and Congress can't approve a deficit reduction plan ahead of March 1, then sequestration will be enacted and the military will be forced to absorb $500 billion of cuts to planned defense spending over the next ten years.
Odierno made sure to point out that those cuts would piggy back on the $487 billion in cuts the Pentagon agreed to take in 2011 and the $300 billion worth of cuts that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates made in 2010.
"We are now just beginning to implement that almost $800 billion worth of cuts," Odierno said. "Now, on top of that with sequestration, we'll take an additional $500 billion worth of cuts in the Department of Defense, so we're now up to $1.2 trillion."
The Pentagon will also lose funding if Congress extends the continuing resolution that has kept military funding at 2012 levels and doesn't incorporate enough Overseas Contingency Funding into the budget.
These budget cuts hit as the Army is in the midst of a sweeping transition. Soldiers are returning home as the service completes more than a decade of continuous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In doing so, Army leaders have tried to find the service's place in the new defense strategy that places a heavier emphasis on the Pacific.
Soldiers and defense industry executives will gather in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this week at the Association of the U.S. Army's Winter Symposium where this year's theme is the Army's next battle. However, without clarity over how much the Army will have to spend in the coming years, Odierno said it's nearly impossible for the Army to make plans for its future.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Congress on Feb. 11 that America will have to re-evaluate what missions it expects the military to accomplish should sequestration occur. The military will not be able to sustain the mission sets laid out in the new defense strategy if it has to lop off 10 percent of its funding.
As the U.S. military's largest service, the Army stands to lose the most should sequestration occur. Odierno said operations in Afghanistan and Korea will be the only areas of the Army that will be fully funded.
Readiness will take a substantial hit should sequestration occur, Odierno explained. Army leaders will have to scramble to cut $18 billion from the Army's operations and maintenance budget between March and October.
The Army chief understands he's leading a shrinking Army. However, he thought he was only losing 89,000 soldiers by 2017. Sequestration cuts would force the Army to subtract another 100,000 soldiers from its force strength, according to Odierno.
Those soldiers who will remain in the force will not get the training they need because of budget cuts, Odierno said. Eighty percent of the Army's combat units will see their training budgets drastically cut.
Odierno warned that he will likely have to extend deployments for the next round of units heading to Afghanistan because the soldiers scheduled to relieve them would not have the right amount of training. If given the choice, Odierno told Congress he'd extend deployments rather than deploy unprepared soldiers to Afghanistan.
"The rest of the forces that are now back in the United States will not be able to train" because of budget cuts, Odierno told Congress. "They'll be able to do very small level, squad level training. They will not be able to do platoon level, company level, battalion level training."
Without that training, the transition the Army is undergoing gets harder. Odierno admitted to Congress that the Army and the entire military have struggled to predict its future enemies. However, it's rare for military leaders to have this much uncertainty when it comes to their budget. That uncertainty makes it even hard to prepare the nation for future threats, he explained.
"If nothing else, the predictability of understanding what we will have for the next five years would help us. Right now, we have no idea what our budget will look like for the next five years, so it is impossible to put a proper plan together," Odierno said.