The Pentagon's decision to cut the size of the Army by 80,000 soldiers will force the military to rely more on the National Guard and reserves, particularly if the U.S. gets into two major, long-term combat operations at the same time, according to the top Army officer.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, said he is comfortable with the mandate to go from 570,000 soldiers during the height of the Iraq war to 490,000 by 2017. But he suggested that the U.S. will now have to keep its reserve forces at a higher level of readiness than it did before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan pressed tens of thousands citizen soldiers into service to buttress the active duty Army.
He also said his support for the force cuts hinges on the fact that the Army will have five more years to make the reductions, largely through normal attrition. He acknowledged, however, that a small number of officers may have to be forced to leave.
As the Iraq war dragged on, the Pentagon had to recruit thousands of additional active duty soldiers and beef up and repeatedly tap reserve brigades in order to meet the combat demands there and in Afghanistan. For roughly eight years, the U.S. battled in both countries at the same time, stretching and straining the Army nearly to the point of breaking.
Meeting that type of commitment with an Army of 490,000 would not work, Odierno said.
"Do I have the capability to go into Korea and meet the requirements, yes," he said, when asked about the risks of a smaller force. "Do I have the ability to stay there for 10 years? No."
If the military had to fight two large, simultaneous, long-term wars, he said, the U.S. would rely more heavily on its allies in the region and call for a massive mobilization of the reserves.
"Because of the fact that they (Guard and reserves) have been involved in combat operations for very long period of time, we are going to come up with a readiness model that will keep them at a little bit higher level than they have been in the past," Odierno told reporters during an interview in his Pentagon office. And if needed, he said, the U.S. would use reserves to "buy us time to increase the active component" to wage two large, intensive wars.
A battle-hardened leader who commanded troops during three tours in Iraq -- including as top commander there from 2008 to 2010 -- Odierno has taken on a broad restructuring of the Army in order to save money while retaining the fighting capabilities needed to go to war.
Over the long-term, U.S. officials said they are planning to slash the number of combat brigades from 45 to possibly as low as 32. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning. Odierno said eight brigades will be shelved over the next several years, and officials will decide in the next six months or so if additional units should go.
Officials said the changes will likely increase the size of each combat brigade -- generally by adding another battalion -- in a long-term effort to ensure that those remaining brigades are robust and able to perform their missions without straining the force.
A brigade is usually about 3,500 soldiers but can be as large as 5,000 for the heavily armored units. A battalion is usually between 600 and 800 soldiers.
"We will make our brigades more capable to operate across missions, will eliminate unnecessary overhead, and allow us to sustain more combat capability if we do this right," said Odierno, who did not provide any details about the restructuring.
Odierno also stressed that the new defense strategy calling for a greater focus on the Asia Pacific region does not mean that the Army will become less relevant. He said that while some may think it means the U.S. will rely more on the Air Force and Navy, it actually will require the Army to play a major role.
He said the new defense strategy, laid out by President Barack Obama earlier this month, calls for increased military capabilities in countering terrorism, fighting irregular warfare, defeating and deterring aggression, and countering weapons of mass destruction -- all missions that require Army capabilities.
Both Odierno and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have made it clear that the military as a whole must cut back its payroll and health care expenses while still giving troops and their families the support they need.