WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commended the Army Oct. 15 for its contributions to national defense over the last 13 years of conflict and noted that demand for the things the Army does for the nation will not diminish during the period of uncertainty and change that lies ahead.
Speaking during the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference, Hagel said this is a time of great transition for the Army as the U.S. military responsibly ends its combat role in Afghanistan and transitions to a train-advise-and-assist mission.
“The Afghan national security forces will be fully responsible for their country's security,” he said, “an accomplishment made possible by the tremendous sacrifices of American troops, our [International Security Assistance Force] partners and the Afghan people.”
Army service during volatile times
“As the Army emerges from over 13 years of large-scale combat operations -- the longest in its history -- it faces new challenges,” Hagel said. “The world’s becoming more volatile, less predictable, and, in many ways, more threatening at the same time our defense budgets are declining.”
The theme chosen for this year’s AUSA symposium -- Hagel said, which is “Trusted Professionals: Today and Tomorrow” -- is well-suited to describe the kind of soldiers America will need as it navigates this period of change and uncertainty, the secretary said.
More than 1 million U.S. soldiers have deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 13 years, Hagel noted.
“One out of six of these soldiers was deployed to both countries,” Hagel said. “More than half-a-million soldiers -- 30 percent of them Guardsmen and reservists -- endured multiple deployments. As ground forces, they shouldered a heavy burden”
“Seventy percent of U.S. personnel wounded in action over the last 13 years were from the Army,” he continued, “and countless soldiers have come home with visible -- and invisible -- wounds of war.”
The enduring obligation to take care of them and their families, Hagel said, is a sacred responsibility that the nation must always uphold.
“Through the crucible of combat, and a grinding counterinsurgency campaign, the American soldier fought on,” he said. “As a result, today’s Army is as battle-tested as it has ever been.”
Hagel said of all the soldiers who served in Iraq since 2003, nearly half are still on active duty or in the National Guard and reserves, and of those who served in Afghanistan, almost two-thirds are still in the Army.
America’s Army today
The strength, resilience, and dedication of the Army, Hagel said, is what makes it the foundation of America’s national security and its contribution to U.S. security is as critical today as ever.
“We see it in West Africa,” he said, “where soldiers will soon deploy as a key part of America's contribution to the global effort to stop the spread of Ebola before it becomes an even more of a grave threat.”
Hagel said it is also seen in Poland and the Baltics, where soldiers are reinforcing and reassuring NATO allies in the face of Russian aggression, and in Iraq, where soldiers are deploying to train, advise and assist Kurdish and Iraqi forces in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Soon, he added, it will be seen in Saudi Arabia, where soldiers will help to train and equip members of the moderate Syrian opposition.
“The president has been very clear that he will not commit our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” Hagel said, “or become involved in the war in Syria.” This is not because of a belief that wars can be waged without committing troops to combat, he said. The strategy in Iraq and Syria does require forces on the ground, he explained, but they must be local forces.
“This is not only the best way to degrade, and ultimately defeat terrorists,” Hagel said, “it is the only sustainable path to defeating terrorism and extremism.”
Demand not diminishing
The defense secretary noted that while a another Iraq or Afghanistan-type campaign is unlikely, this does not mean that demand for the Army is diminishing, or that the Army’s place in U.S. national security strategy is eroding.
While there are no longer 150,000 soldiers engaged in ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hagel said, there are still almost as many soldiers either deployed or forward-stationed in nearly 150 locations around the world. This includes 80,000 soldiers in the U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility and nearly 20,000 soldiers in South Korea standing ready to “fight tonight.”
“There are also 40,000 soldiers under Central Command; 28,000 soldiers in Europe, and thousands more in both Africa and South America -- some of whom I visited in Colombia last week,” Hagel said. “The demands on the Army will only grow more diverse and complicated going forward. Threats from terrorists and insurgents will remain with us for a long time, but we also must deal with a revisionist Russia -- with its modern and capable Army -- on NATO's doorstep.”
The Army, Hagel said, will remain essential to helping to deter and confront every national security threat facing the country.
Maintaining a ready and capable force
There will always be a need for a modern, ready, well equipped, well-trained standing Army, the defense secretary said.
“But maintaining a ready and capable Army as we come out of 13 years of continuous large-scale combat will not be easy,” he added. “For the Army to fulfill its role as a guarantor of our national security, our soldiers must continue to be exceptionally well-led, well-trained and well-equipped.”
Hagel said this is especially true in a global security environment that is more unpredictable than ever and that will require America to lead the world in response.
“We must not forget the lessons of history,” he said. “We’ve seen how quickly a battle-hardened army can wither into a force that is ill-equipped and ill-prepared to carry out its mission, and we've seen the consequences.”
In July 1950, Hagel said, five years after America’s military victory in World War II, the soldiers of Task Force Smith were sent to the first battle of the Korean War with orders to halt the North Korean advance. Under-trained, under-equipped, outnumbered and unprepared, they were routed within hours of engaging the enemy, Hagel said, ultimately suffering a casualty rate of nearly 30 percent. Soldiers paid for poor training, equipment and leadership with their lives, the secretary said.
“We’ve also seen how past drawdowns sought to protect the training and equipment that is the essence of military readiness,” he said.
Hagel noted that retired Army Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, AUSA’s president and former Army chief of staff, used the mantra “No More Task Force Smiths” after Operation Desert Storm and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s as the Army made “difficult but necessary decisions” reducing the force in order to safeguard readiness.”
“Today,” the secretary said, “‘No More Task Force Smiths’ must once again be our motto. We need to maintain an exceptionally ready Army.”
Budget challenges and adaptability
Due to “deep, steep, and abrupt defense budget cuts” imposed by sequestration, Hagel said, the Army had to cancel many critical training rotations, leaving it with only two active-duty brigade combat teams fully ready and available to execute a major combat operation.
Army readiness improved, with 12 out of 37 brigade combat teams trained to the highest levels of readiness, Hagel said, thanks to the budget compromise reached in December by President Barack Obama and Congress and the Army’s “relentless focus on training.”
“While this is a direct result of the Army's ability to adapt to unreasonable budget constraints,” Hagel said, “it falls short of what I believe is sufficient to defend our nation and our allies with minimum risk. We must continue to put readiness first in the current budget environment. [That] is why we have modestly reduced the size of the Army and protected training and maintenance in our budget.”
Trading readiness for capacity is the path to a hollow force, Hagel said, and despite temporary relief, sequestration remains the law of the land.
“If Congress does not act,” he said, “it will return in 2016 -- stunting and reversing the Army’s readiness just as we’ve begun to recover, and requiring even more dramatic reductions in force structure.”
The defense secretary said the department could face a $70 billion gap in its budget over the next five years if Congress “prevents us from moving forward … with these changes.”
“DoD's leaders understand that there will be less resources available,” Hagel said. “But the Army -- and our military -- needs Congress to be a partner in responsible, long-term planning and budgeting. We will continue to urge Congress to put an end to sequestration -- an irresponsible deferral of responsibility.”
Challenges the military faces will become far more difficult and dangerous the longer the tough choices are deferred, the secretary added.
Responsibility of leadership
Hagel said the future security environment remains uncertain, and trying to predict it will continue to be as challenging as ever. He quoted former President Woodrow Wilson, who predicted to Congress “a growing cordiality among nations, foreshadowing an age of settled peace and goodwill.”
“He spoke those words 101 years ago,” Hagel said. “We all know that history proved him wrong. The so-called ‘war to end all wars’ was anything but a war to end all wars. A century later, we cannot know for sure what conflicts, challenges, or threats the next 100 years may bring or the next 10 years may bring.”
“We cannot say for certain whether history will be repeated or made anew,” Hagel said, “but we must prepare our institutions for the unexpected and uncertain. That is the greatest responsibility of leadership.”