The U.S. Army's top officer said the service should have at least 450,000 active-duty soldiers or it may not be able to adequately respond to conflicts around the world.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said the Army's minimum end-strength should be 980,000 soldiers, including at least 450,000 in the active component, 335,000 in the National Guard and 195,000 in the Reserve. The service requested authorization for almost 1.1 million soldiers, including 520,000 in the active component, 354,200 in the National Guard and 205,000 in the Reserve, according to fiscal 2014 budget documents.
But after more than a decade of ground operations in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, the service's active-duty component is slated to shrink, possibly to as low as 420,000 soldiers over the next several years, under automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Odierno said such reductions would make the military "too small."
"Losing that last 30,000 makes a huge difference in the capabilities that we have," he said during a panel discussion on Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., referring to the number of active-duty soldiers.
Odierno also pushed back against the idea of downsizing the military simply because the wars of the past decade were coming to an end.
"It's easy to say, 'I just don't see us having another conflict again,'" he said. "Well, I heard that in 1980. I heard that in 1990. And I heard that in 2000. And yet, we're constantly engaged."
Odierno cited potential risks from Kim Jong Un, the young North Korean leader who last year tested a nuclear bomb and threatened to attack U.S. allies in the region, the civil war in Syria, and sectarian divides surfacing in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East.
The Army is "about deterrence and compelling others not to do things," he said. "If you get too small, you lose the ability to deter."
Odierno, who commanded the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq and later became the top U.S. military commander there, said the country could still recover from a recent spate of deadly violence, but wasn't sure how long it might take. The U.S. is sending more missiles and unarmed drones to the Iraqi government to help it fight an increasingly deadly insurgency.
Odierno was candid at times during the discussion, saying Army leaders had "no idea" of "what would push back on us" in Iraq "until we got in there." He also said he's not sure leaving U.S. troops in the country after 2011 "would have made much difference."
However, on Afghanistan, Odierno said he supports leaving a contingent of American service members there after this year to help train its security forces and rebuild its economy.
Separately on Tuesday, Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said Afghanistan remains his No. 1 war-fighting priority while confirming that the number of U.S. and NATO special operators in the country will decline this year in line with the overall drawdown of foreign troops.
The Pentagon wants to keep about 10,000 U.S. troops at a few bases there to help maintain security after 2014. Negotiations on a security agreement have stalled amid resistance from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who wants the U.S. to take a greater role in encouraging Taliban fighters to enter talks with the government.