WASHINGTON – "We are the greatest land power the world has ever seen. We are the indispensable Army of the indispensable nation," Army Secretary John M. McHugh said Oct. 13, referring to recent remarks by President Barack Obama regarding the United States being the world's go-to nation when trouble arises.
The Army has a capability and capacity that no one else can replicate, McHugh said in his keynote address at the opening ceremony of the Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
Soldiers are now in some 150 countries, he continued, including the 10th Mountain and 1st Cavalry divisions in Afghanistan. In the Philippines, soldiers from the Joint Special Operations Task Force are part of the Army's rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. In Korea, soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division are ensuring stability in that volatile region. And in Ukraine, soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade were taking part in Exercise Rapid Trident.
Soldiers went to Ukraine at government’s invitation
"Our soldiers went to Ukraine by invitation of the government, unlike the naked aggression displayed by Russian forces," McHugh said.
More recently, he said, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and Army engineering units deployed to Liberia to help fight the Ebola epidemic. And soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division headquarters deployed to Iraq.
"Yes, we are the indispensable nation," McHugh said. "When trouble comes, no matter the challenge, they don't call Beijing. They don't call Moscow. They call us, the United States Army. And, despite predictions of many, the calls keep coming."
Airplanes and ships alone can't win wars, the secretary said.
"As important as they are, no Hellfire-equipped drone ever reclaimed lost territory," he said. "No Tomahawk missile ever conducted a ground counteroffensive. No bomber ever mentored or trained soldiers of allied nations building up capacity. Now, more than ever, we, this nation, need our soldiers."
Army must balance readiness, modernization, manpower
As budget constraints force a drawdown, the Army must maintain a balance between readiness, modernization and manpower, McHugh said. But that could be even more difficult next year, he added.
If sequestration returns in fiscal year 2016, as current law requires, the tough choices and gains made during the reprieve this past year will dissipate, and "another round of indiscriminate cuts will gut our force so we're unable to meet the president's defense strategic guidance," the secretary said.
"As I've told Congress repeatedly, this is a time for predictability. This is not a time for politics," he said, referring to the need for predictable, long-term funding.
Immediately following the opening ceremony, McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno held a joint news conference.
Odierno noted the next eight to 12 months will be one of the most important times in the nation's history, as decisions are made about what the nation will do with its military. He was referring primarily to budget decisions and how that will impact the force and future operations.
Even as the uncertain legislative process grinds on, he said, the Army is busy planning for a range of options.
Army Operating Concept will show the way ahead
The Army Operating Concept, to be unveiled this week, will show the way ahead for the Army in the next 10, 15 and 20 years, Odierno said. "I'm excited about it, and I think our soldiers are excited about it."
In response to a reporter’s query, Odierno said that the Army has to continue planning, even as unpredictability and uncertainty increase. "The intellectual has to precede the physical," he noted. Also, he said, the Army Operating Concept itself addresses the Army amid global turmoil and uncertainty.
While the Army Operating Concept will be the intellectual guiding force, the development of leaders who can operate in unpredictable environments will be vital, McHugh added.
Buying time to train Iraqi forces
When asked how well the U.S. military was doing against the terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Odierno said, "We're watching the situation very carefully."
"We were surprised by [ISIL’s] capability," the general admitted, but, he added, "…the airstrikes are helping slow down the [enemy] advance. It's buying us time so we can continue to train the Iraqi security forces," the general said.
But it's more than just training the Iraqi forces, he acknowledged, something the Army has been doing for a number of years. The problem over the last few years is that the security forces haven't trusted their leaders, so they "abandoned their posts, which was really disappointing to me," Odierno said.
"While airstrikes are not going to solve the problems by themselves, you'll need forces on the ground," he continued. "[The air operation] buys us time so we can train Iraqi forces on the ground as well as the [Kurdish] Peshmerga forces in the north."
It will be a coalition effort, the general said, and will not be resolved overnight.
"People don't realize how difficult it is to conduct airstrikes, making sure you don't have collateral damage," he said. "So we're going to be very careful."