By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR.
WASHINGTON: The Army has had to cancel so much training that only two of its 42 combat brigades are ready for combat, Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters at the Association of the US Army conference here today. It’ll take until June to get a solid force of seven brigades ready for any unexpected contingency — and that’s assuming no further budgetary disasters.
While the service has been able to protect funding for brigades headed for or deployed in Afghanistan, Odierno explained, those units aren’t available for a contingency elsewhere — and they’re not properly trained for one. “They are trained as advisors,” he said. “They’re not trained as brigades to conduct combat operations because that’s not their mission in Afghanistan.”
Training a unit to fight as a unified, brigade-sized force against high-firepower adversaries is very different from training it to disperse into small training and support teams assisting someone else’s army. So when it comes to readiness to deploy to an unexpected contingency for all-out combat, “right now in the Army, we have two brigades that are trained,” Odierno said. “Two.”
It’s not clear whether these two brigades include the “ready brigade” of the 82nd Airborne, the so-called “Global Response Force” that’s always on call to airdrop into crisis zones. Since the Army has said previously they were able to protect GRF funding, it’s likely that the two brigades Odierno mentioned are in addition to the Airborne — which would make three brigades available in a crisis — but we’re still checking that with the Chief of Staff’s aides. Last we heard, the brigade in South Korea was fully funded as well, so it’s also possible that Odierno is also omitting that unit and perhaps other units permanently stationed overseas.
What is clear is that Army readiness is deep in a hole. “Because of what happened last year, we were not able to invest in our readiness, we had to stop training basically for six months of the year,” Odierno said, except for Afghanistan-bound units and the Global Response Force. “Now we’ve had the shutdown [and] the continuing resolution.”
“We have two brigades right now that are prepared if we have to do something” outside Afghanistan,” he said. “We hope to get to seven by June.” That’s seven months from now.
For fiscal year 2014 — which began 21 days ago — the Army has decided to focus training dollars on a subset of its force (an approach sometimes called “tiered readiness” to which the Army once vowed never to return). Those brigades will get priority to go through the full train-up, culminating in intensely realistic wargames at Fort Irwin, Calif. and the Army’s other Combat Training Centers. “But they’re not going to be trained until June of next year, [and] that’s been slowed down by the shutdown.”
Given the potential of spillover of the Syrian civil war, the perpetual threat from an erratic North Korea, the possibility of a breakdown in negotiations with Iran, and all the “unknown unknowns” lurking around the world, this is the kind of situation that should give policymakers nightmares.
“The worst case scenario is you ask me to deploy thousands of soldier somewhere and we have not properly trained them to go because we simply don’t have the dollars,” Odierno said.
What he didn’t say is the last time the Army did just that: the beginning of the Korean War, when “constabulary” units patrolling occupied Japan were hastily cobbled together into the infamous Task Force Smith and thrown in the path of North Korean tanks. It did not end well. Since then “No More Task Force Smiths!” has been an Army rallying cry. Even with all the budget cuts, the Army is still far better trained and equipped than it was in 1950, relative to its likely opponents. But it’s still nowhere near where our national strategy needs it to be unless you assume that large-scale ground combat is a thing of the past.
Updated 6:30 pm: We’re touching base with our contacts in Congress and elsewhere to get reactions on and off the record.
Former Clinton Pentagon official and defense analyst Gordon Adams emailed me a blast of icy skepticism:
“Seriously?” Adams scoffed. As budgets tighten and the Army shrinks, he said, “Gen. Odierno seems stuck at the bargaining stage of grief. The assertion that only two brigades are ready if we have to invade Iran is both strategically meaningless and a distortion of the meaning of readiness. Courtesy of two very unfortunately pursued wars, he has the most ready Army we have had in decades. But he decided not to count those units, which are decidedly more than ‘advisors. And the idea that a unit is only ‘ready’ when it meets the conventional ground war test – when everything we fight is not that – suggests that the Army needs a more realistic definition of readiness.”
“The wars we are fighting are the ones we are ready for,” Adams concluded. “Time for the Army to get to the acceptance stage of grief, downsize, redefine readiness in a more useful and usable way, and stop whining.”
Off the record, some Congressional staffers are also (albeit more quietly) skeptical that Odierno has his definitions of “readiness” and even his numbers straight — see our caveats above about what might or might not be included in his count. But there’s no such hesitation from three of the top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee.
“Gen. Odierno’s readiness update is deeply concerning but not at all surprising,” HASC Chairman Buck McKeon said in a statement to BreakingDefense. “Repeated deep cuts to defense have created a genuine readiness crisis in our military. The world isn’t getting safer. As threats to national security require more from our men and women in uniform, Washington — the President and Congress alike — bewilderingly insist on giving them less. It is unconscionable, and it has to stop.”
With an eye on upcoming negotiations between the House and Senate over 2014 spending figures, McKeon added: “I hope that the budget conference heeds the General’s warning and reverses these unwise cuts.”
Then there’s this from occasional BreakingDefense contributor Rep. Randy Forbes. As Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, Forbes doesn’t normally oversee the Army, but he’s been pushing hard for the classified details on just how bad sequestration’s impact is getting:
“That the Army has only two combat-ready brigades due to sequestration is sadly consistent with what our service chiefs recently told Congress: Under continued sequestration, our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps will be unable to meet the requirements of the National Defense Strategy,” Forbes said in a statement to BreakingDefense. “This is exactly why I have asked the House leadership to conduct a classified readiness briefing for all Members of Congress so that there is no doubt amongst our elected leaders about the dangerous, and worsening, degradation of our military’s combat capabilities under sequestration.”
And finally, from the Chairman of HASC’s readiness subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman:
“This is yet another example of the decaying readiness posture of our nation’s armed forces. We will soon reach a point where we will have decreased capability and capacity to respond as a result of sequestration, and our troops left unprepared to face future threats. If we stay on this path, we will continue to witness similar examples that demonstrate the increasingly vulnerable position we are asking our all-volunteer force to assume. To put it bluntly, if we allow sequestration to continue, our forces will be unprepared to deploy, they will face increased risk, their safety will be jeopardized, their missions compromised, and there will be an increased likelihood that more Americans will be killed in action as a result. Congress must not stand idly by and watch the dangerous degradation of our nation’s military persist.”