How Small the US Army Will Get is 'Up in the Air,' Top Officer Says


Just how much the U.S. Army will shrink is still a matter of debate, according to the service's top officer.

When asked what he considered to be his unfinished business, the Army's departing chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno, whose term ends in September, was quick to respond. 

"The major thing that I thought we would have settled by now was what the end-strength of the Army would be," he recently told a group of reporters in Washington, D.C., referring to the size of the service. 

"I thought we'd be done by now, we'd understand exactly what the number is, we'd know exactly when it's going to be finished, and, frankly, that's still very much up in the air based on what happens with the Congress and the president as they continue to wrestle over what the budget should be."

The U.S. military's largest branch of service continues to downsize after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were 492,000 soldiers on active duty as of April 30, according to Pentagon statistics. The active component will shrink to 470,000 soldiers in fiscal 2016, according to budget documents, and may further contract in coming years -- to as few as 420,000 soldiers -- if federal spending caps known as sequestration remain in effect.


Odierno has described the latter figure as "too small." He said at least 450,000 active-duty soldiers are needed to adequately respond to conflicts around the world. "Losing that last 30,000 makes a huge difference in the capabilities that we have," he said at an event last year.

The overall size of the Army, including the reserve components, will total more than 1 million soldiers next year, with 470,000 on active duty, 342,000 in the National Guard and 198,000 in the Army Reserve, according to budget documents. 

The general has also warned of potential threats around the world and correctly predicted the rising sectarian divides in Iraq. "It's easy to say, 'I just don't see us having another conflict again,'" he said last year. "Well, I heard that in 1980. I heard that in 1990. And I heard that in 2000. And yet, we're constantly engaged."

Just months after Odierno's remarks, President Obama authorized airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria after militants affiliated with the Sunni extremist group overran swaths of both countries and seized U.S.-supplied weapons and equipment, including Humvees and M1 Abrams tanks. On Wednesday, Obama approved the deployment of as many as 450 more American military advisers to Iraq -- a move that will bring the number of U.S. troops in the country to more than 3,500.


The president, meanwhile, is threatening to veto defense spending legislation proposed in the Republican-led Congress because it would use emergency war funding to get around spending caps on the Pentagon's base budget.

The White House and Congress agreed to the spending limitations as part of deficit-reduction legislation known as the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Odierno, who was confirmed as the Army's chief of staff in 2011 and plans to retire after his current term ends in September, said the indecision on the size of the Army is creating angst among soldiers.

"About a month after I took over is when we started all the budget discussions, and so it's been all about budget and end-strength, and I thought by now we would have had that resolved," he said. "The thing I worry about is, it's put a lot of turbulence in the Army and given a lot of angst to our soldiers."

--Brendan McGarry can be reached at

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