Army Gen. Robert Cone, chief of the Training and Doctrine Command, said Tuesday he's attempting to cut his annual budget in ways that don't impact negatively the schooling necessary to win on the battlefield.
The man responsible for Army training that includes the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning also said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll. And he warned against cutting too deeply in the future.
"We're working through a deficit right now because of 12 years of war," Cone said in a short press conference following his address at the Maneuver Warfighter Conference taking place this week on post.
"We've got 35,000 NCOs that haven't been to the school commensurate with their grade, and 5,000 majors that haven't been to the right schools," he said. "So the worst thing that we could do at this point would be to slow down what we have going on in this great schoolhouse."
Fort Benning is home for a wide range of training, including Infantry, Armor and Cavalry courses for noncommissioned officers and officers. Entry-level recruits also receive initial combat training on the installation, while the Airborne School, Ranger School and Officer Candidate School all have long histories here.
Tuesday was the opening salvo of a weeklong conference designed to bring troops together for critical thinking through presentations and panel discussions and speeches such as those made by Cone and Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commander of Fort Benning and its Maneuver Center. Thrown into the mix are defense contractors showing off their latest technological wares.
"We don't want fair fights, right? We want the enemy to worry about whether or not they're going to live, not what they're going to do to us," said McMaster in his Marshall Auditorium session, explaining that combined arms training -- with all elements of the military working together efficiently and intelligently -- will be the key in future conflicts.
"We have to be able to accomplish the mission in increasingly complex environments and against increasingly evasive enemies," said the general, honing in on the fact that doing so starts with training and fielding top-notch military leaders.
Sophisticated air-defense capabilities, disruption in communications and long-range missile systems -- including those possibly with weapons of mass destruction -- all will be major threats to the military moving forward, he said.
That's why the Maneuver Center is currently updating field manuals that will serve to guide troops as they deploy to far-flung locations, he said. That includes manuals centered on Infantry, Stryker and Armor brigades, which are expected to be a centerpiece of the Army's fleet-footed combat strategy in coming years.
"There is a perception, I know, that there's no more money. And what can we do to improve our combat capability since resources are diminishing?" McMaster said. "I think there's a lot that we can do."
Finances will undoubtedly be a factor in the coming years, however, with the military in a downsizing mode following the dual wars and a federal budget deficit that political leaders are struggling to get under control.
In the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the Defense Department was forced to find $37 billion in savings under automatic budget cuts called sequestration. Fort Benning sliced expenses where it could, with its civilian employees called upon to take unpaid furlough days until U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reduced those last month.
An additional $52 billion will be on the cutting block by the military in the next fiscal year unless Congress and the President come up with an alternative solution.
TRADOC chief Cone said the last round of funding reductions were particularly painful because they came midway through the fiscal year. He was tasked with eliminating about 20 percent of his $5 billion budget, "which wouldn't have been bad if I had it at the start of the year," he said. "But when you get it in the sixth month and you've already committed about $3 billion of your $5 billion budget, you're left with about 50 percent" in cuts.
The four-star general said his organization already has reduced business with civilian contractors, with soldiers picking up slack in some areas. That includes common chores such as guarding gates and driving buses, duties previously performed by hired civilians.
Cone also said the Army is training more with simulated activities and equipment, while also managing its use of training ammo. Outside the Maneuver Center headquarters where he was speaking Tuesday, the pop-pop-pop of gunfire could be heard at a range in the distance.
"The thing you have to understand is we are soldiers and we get paid to accomplish the mission," he said. "But the problem is the risk to the force over time. When you tinker with training and education, you don't understand what that impact is until you need it the next time, and someone says, 'Oh, we did away with that course.'"
Asked by a reporter about Syria and the reluctance by the American public to commit ground troops to the Mideast nation now embroiled in civil war, Cone steered clear of the subject specifically. But the general said he understands the U.S. populace is leery after Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When you put America's sons and daughters into harm's way, that is an irrevocable commitment. It is decisive," he said. "It says that we are there to win. And the fact of the matter is, frankly, people after 12 years of war know that cost and they're very concerned about doing that in the future."
But, on a cautionary note, Cone added: "What we have to do is make sure people do have a sophisticated understanding that there are times in our nation's interests when boots on the ground are absolutely essential to those outcomes."