Odierno: Ukraine Shows Us ‘You Never Know What’s Around the Corner’

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno talks about the future of the Army and the threats posed by an unstable world.

National Journal
James Kitfield, Defense One
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James Kitfield, Defense One
May 7, 2014, 7:32 a.m.

In the wan­ing days of the Vi­et­nam War, with anti-war fer­vor and the Wa­ter­gate scan­dal roil­ing the na­tion’s cap­it­al, le­gendary com­mand­er and soon-to-be Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Ab­rams lamen­ted to his col­leagues that they would nev­er know what it was like try­ing to bring the Army home from an un­pop­u­lar war while the gov­ern­ment back in Wash­ing­ton was com­ing apart at the seams.

As it turns out, Gen. Ray Odi­erno knows just what Ab­rams was talk­ing about. As the cur­rent Army chief and former com­mand­er of U.S. forces in Ir­aq, Odi­erno has at­temp­ted to bring the Army home from an un­pop­u­lar war in Afgh­anistan, and to downs­ize it, even as polit­ic­al para­lys­is has gripped Wash­ing­ton and mil­it­ary lead­ers ar­gue cuts im­posed by se­quest­ra­tion have cre­ated a read­i­ness crisis. The res­ult has pro­duced the most dire warn­ings about mil­it­ary pre­pared­ness from the Joint Chiefs of Staff since former Army chief Gen. Ed­ward “Shy” Mey­er pub­licly de­clared in 1979 that the na­tion had a “hol­low Army.”

De­fense One: You have said that se­quester cuts have led to “the low­est read­i­ness I’ve seen in our Army since I’ve been serving for the last 37 years.” Are we headed back to the “hol­low Army” of the post-Vi­et­nam 1970s?De­fense One con­trib­ut­or James Kit­field spoke with Odi­erno about the health of the Army, les­sons learned from a dec­ade of war and the threats posed by an un­stable world. Here are ed­ited ex­cerpts from the in­ter­view:

Odi­erno: Well, we’re not hol­low yet, but I would def­in­itely say that the in­stru­ment of se­quest­ra­tion is caus­ing un-read­i­ness. Be­cause of the im­me­di­ate, sig­ni­fic­ant cuts in our planned budgets, se­quest­ra­tion has up­set this pyr­am­id of ‘read­i­ness,’ ‘end strength’ and [equip­ment] ‘mod­ern­iz­a­tion’ that forms theU.S. Army. To be suc­cess­ful we need to keep that pyr­am­id in bal­ance, which is im­possible when we have to ab­sorb ma­jor fund­ing cuts so quickly. Even un­der cur­rent plans we have to re­duce our end-strength of sol­diers in or­der to in­vest in read­i­ness and mod­ern­iz­a­tion. That takes time, so we have about a 3- to 5-year win­dow where read­i­ness is go­ing to suf­fer, and to a de­gree our mod­ern­iz­a­tion will also suf­fer, as we get down to a re­duced end strength. And all of that is go­ing on at a time when we’re not at peace. I still have tens of thou­sands of sol­diers de­ployed today.

De­fense One: What does it mean when you say mil­it­ary read­i­ness “will suf­fer?”

Odi­erno: Well, I’m already pri­or­it­iz­ing read­i­ness such that a cer­tain por­tion of U.S. Army forces are really ready, and oth­er por­tions are not ready. So we have ‘tiered read­i­ness.’ And we’ll prob­ably have to con­tin­ue with [tiered read­i­ness] through about fisc­al 2019. I worry that dur­ing that 3-to-5 year win­dow, we are go­ing to be vul­ner­able. The thought that keeps me awake at night is that something unanti­cip­ated hap­pens and I’m told we need to de­ploy 20,000 sol­diers and they are not ready.

De­fense One: The Pentagon’s re­cently re­leased budget pro­pos­al calls for shrink­ing the Army to its smal­lest size since be­fore World War II, with end strength drop­ping from a post-9/11 peak of 570,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000 sol­diers. Yet if se­quest­ra­tion caps kick in again in 2016 as man­dated un­der cur­rent law, won’t you need to re­duce end strength even more?

Odi­erno: Yes. What is hap­pen­ing is that sol­diers cost double today what they cost in 2001. If we con­tin­ue to lose money, we will have to get smal­ler and smal­ler than we are now. We are sup­posed to go to 420,000. We might have to go to 250,000. Then we are be­com­ing an Army that no longer is cap­able of do­ing the things the na­tion needs its Army to do. So when we start to bring read­i­ness back in­to bal­ance around fisc­al 2019, I’m con­cerned the Army is go­ing to be too small to meet all of our re­spons­ib­il­it­ies. We’ll be back in bal­ance in terms of read­i­ness and mod­ern­iz­a­tion, but will we be big enough to do what’s asked of us? I worry about that be­cause when you look around the world, we’re in the most un­cer­tain peri­od that I have ever known. I’m not say­ing this is the most dan­ger­ous peri­od I’ve seen, but it’s the most un­cer­tain.

De­fense One: Giv­en that the Army has seen most of its ma­jor ac­quis­i­tion pro­grams delayed or can­celled out­right over the past dec­ade, are you wor­ried that your equip­ment mod­ern­iz­a­tion plans will also suf­fer dur­ing the cur­rent draw­down?

Odi­erno: Well, I still be­lieve we have the best tank in the world in terms of the M-1 Ab­rams, so I’m sat­is­fied with that as­pect of the force. We’re put­ting in a new ar­til­lery sys­tem. We have stretched out and as­sumed more risk in our Army avi­ation pro­grams, so it’s go­ing to take five to 10 more years to mod­ern­ize Army avi­ation than we planned. That’s risky be­cause avi­ation is a key part of all our mis­sions. Where I see a prob­lem right now is with the re­place­ment for the Brad­ley In­fantry Fight­ing vehicle, be­cause the Brad­ley has lim­it­a­tions in terms of its abil­ity to carry the com­mu­nic­a­tions and in­form­a­tion sys­tems up­grades that we’re de­vel­op­ing. The Brad­ley also can’t carry a full squad, and it doesn’t have the pro­tec­tion that we want. So for me, the re­place­ment for the Brad­ley is the one ac­quis­i­tion area where we have a real prob­lem.

De­fense One: As you look to downs­ize and re­shape the Army after a dec­ade of war, what are the pri­or­it­ies that drive your de­cisions?

Odi­erno: First, we have to get the shape of the force right in terms of the bal­ance between act­ive-duty and re­serve forces. With a smal­ler Army, we really need the depth the re­serve com­pon­ent gives us in case we get in­to an ex­ten­ded con­flict. That’s really im­port­ant. And the one area where we con­tin­ue to in­vest heav­ily is in the in­di­vidu­al sol­dier, and the cap­ab­il­ity of the squad. We’re go­ing to have the best equipped sol­diers and squads that the Army has ever fielded, and to me that’s the baseline of our cap­ab­il­ity. If you want to sus­tain a qual­ity, all-vo­lun­teer force, we also have to in­vest in it, and that means giv­ing sol­diers the right be­ne­fits and re­sources. Be­cause of se­quest­ra­tion we are now con­sid­er­ing wheth­er or not to re­duce cur­rent be­ne­fit levels that may not be af­ford­able. Will that af­fect the will­ing­ness to stay in the Army of sol­diers who have stayed with us through 13 years of con­flict? I don’t think so, but it’s something we have to watch very care­fully. I will tell you the all-vo­lun­teer force is the way to go, but you have to in­vest in it.

De­fense One: With re­cord levels of sexu­al as­saults, sui­cides and post-trau­mat­ic stress, how do you judge the phys­ic­al and psy­cho­lo­gic­al health of the all-vo­lun­teer Army?

Odi­erno: I have al­ways be­lieved that the Army is re­flect­ive of so­ci­ety in gen­er­al. I think sui­cides are up in our so­ci­ety. Sexu­al as­sault has been ig­nored for too long in our so­ci­ety, which is why you’re see­ing it arise as a prob­lem on col­lege cam­puses and else­where. The Army re­flects those prob­lems. I will also say that stresses we have placed on the all-vo­lun­teer force have led to high­er levels of sui­cide, and per­haps mis­be­ha­vi­or like do­mest­ic ab­use and sexu­al as­sault. So we have to be very cog­niz­ant of the role that such stress plays as we try and un­der­stand these prob­lems. That’s why we have tried to build re­si­li­ency in­to the force. Those stresses are an­oth­er reas­on why I worry about be­com­ing too small as an Army, be­cause when you’re con­stantly ask­ing few­er people to do more and more, you are go­ing to ex­acer­bate those prob­lems.

De­fense One: Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and destabil­iz­a­tion of Ukraine has many NATO al­lies re­think­ing the al­li­ance’s mis­sion of de­terrence in Europe. Has the Ukraine crisis af­fected your plans?

Odi­erno: It hasn’t really changed my think­ing be­cause I’ve said all along that crises will oc­cur that we nev­er an­ti­cip­ated, and they will drive us in unanti­cip­ated dir­ec­tions. Three months ago no one was talk­ing about Rus­sia and Ukraine, and NATO wasn’t a big pri­or­ity. Now the Ukraine crisis has awoken our NATOal­lies to the threat, and they un­der­stand the need to start think­ing about de­terrence again. So the crisis is a per­fect ex­ample of the tru­ism that you nev­er know what’s just around the corner.

De­fense One: Has it changed the Army’s think­ing on pulling all heavy tank forces out of Europe?

Odi­erno: Well, we left a little less than a bri­gade of heavy equip­ment pre­posi­tioned in Europe, and we could fall in on that if ne­ces­sary. I also made a con­scious de­cision two years ago to main­tain and con­tin­ue re­sourcing the Joint Mul­tina­tion­al Train­ing Com­mand at Grafen­woehr, Ger­many, as NATO’s premi­er train­ing ven­ue. We con­tin­ue to hold a lot of train­ing ex­er­cises there with our joint part­ners in NATO, and that is help­ful in in­sur­ing that our forces are in­ter­op­er­able and that we can all work to­geth­er. I also re­cently de­ployed 600 sol­diers to East­ern Europe, where they are ex­er­cising with loc­al forces in Po­land, Latvia, Es­to­nia and Lithuania.

De­fense One: Do you think the Ukraine crisis has provided a wake-up call to mem­bers of Con­gress about the de­bil­it­at­ing ef­fect of se­quester?

Odi­erno: We’ll have to see wheth­er it has been a wake-up call for Con­gress. I have no­ticed a marked im­prove­ment this year over last in terms of how these is­sues are un­der­stood on Cap­it­ol Hill. I’ve seen a grow­ing con­cern over our de­fense pos­ture, and less chal­lenges to some of the as­ser­tions we make.

De­fense One: If you had to point to one takeaway les­son from the past dec­ade of con­flict, what would it be?

Odi­erno: The most im­port­ant les­son we learned was about the need to de­cent­ral­ize re­spons­ib­il­ity. Over time we have de­cent­ral­ized de­cision-mak­ing to the point that we now talk about “mis­sion com­mand.” As I go around and talk to the force, for in­stance, as a lead­er I just set the right and left lim­its, and then give them the flex­ib­il­ity to op­er­ate with­in those para­met­ers. We’ve learned that brings out in­nov­a­tion and ad­apt­ab­il­ity that we didn’t have be­fore. I’ll give you an ex­ample of how we con­tin­ue to try and de­vel­op lead­ers who can think crit­ic­ally and be in­nov­at­ive as the situ­ation re­quires: a few days ago I had a young Army cap­tain on the de­ploy­ment to East­ern Europe, and he was giv­ing a joint present­a­tion with the pres­id­ent of Es­to­nia! We would nev­er have al­lowed that even four years ago.

So we will con­tin­ue to de­cent­ral­ize de­cision-mak­ing and re­spons­ib­il­ity in the Army, be­cause it op­tim­izes our lead­ers, makes our forces more ad­apt­able to many more mis­sions, and it causes us to up our game. That’s the kind of Army we need to be in the fu­ture, be­cause the com­plex­ity of the en­vir­on­ments we will be op­er­at­ing in will be great­er than 10 years ago, five years ago or today. Any op­er­a­tion we un­der­take in the fu­ture is go­ing to be joint, in­ter­agency and mul­tina­tion­al. That’s the fu­ture, and we need lead­ers and sol­diers com­fort­able op­er­at­ing in that en­vir­on­ment.

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