The Complex

Marching Orders: The Army's Top General Has to Sell Congress on Troop Cuts He's Loath to Make

This story has been corrected.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno was traveling in Asia earlier this week when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel detailed plans to cut the Army to levels that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago -- and that are far lower than what Odierno has long considered safe.

Odierno was the only one of the Pentagon's service chiefs who didn't attend the rollout of the Obama administration's defense budget. But Odierno, who has tried to hold the line on the Army's so-called force structure and keep as many soldiers in uniform as possible, is said to be behind Hagel on the cuts. Now he must become one of Hagel's biggest pitchmen, helping the secretary of defense persuade a wary Congress that shrinking the Army -- to levels last seen in the years in the buildup before World War II -- amounts to manageable risk.

The Army had already been scheduled to shrink from its wartime peak of 570,000 soldiers down to roughly 490,000. Hagel now wants to reduce the Army to about 440,000. That goes past a "red line" Odierno had signaled he didn't want to cross, so the fact that the Army chief is standing behind Hagel signals that the general is willing to go along with the cuts, at least for now.

Keeping Odierno on board is vital for Hagel and the rest of Barack Obama's administration. The general will be asked about the cuts repeatedly in coming weeks during appearances on Capitol Hill and other public events. Lawmakers opposed to the cuts will press him again and again for his true feelings about the deal. If Odierno wandered off script and expressed even the slightest doubts about the cuts, those same lawmakers would then use his comments as ammunition in their fight to get the White House to reverse course on the Pentagon budget.

"People are on board, but some people have been dragged on board," one senior Army official told Foreign Policy, referring to thinking within Odierno's inner circle.

Of all the cuts contained in the $496 billion Pentagon budget unveiled Monday, sharply reducing the size of the Army was the clearest signal yet that the Pentagon is shifting course after more than a decade of constant war.

It falls to Odierno, an imposing officer with a shaved head and a passionate leadership style, to sell the deal. Odierno, sometimes known as "Shrek," has always been an intriguing figure. First slammed for not "getting the memo" on fighting an insurgency in Iraq, Odierno adapted and led American troops through some of the U.S. military's most successful counterinsurgency operations toward the end of the war. The lesson he would draw from that period was that a successful counterinsurgency mission requires a high numbers of troops. Odierno was initially passed over for the Army's top job and only got it when Gen. Marty Dempsey, Obama's first pick, was tapped to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the summer of 2011. The accidental chief of staff must now become the biggest advocate for cuts to his Army in which he may not truly believe.

The entire military is struggling to adjust to the political and fiscal realities of the postwar period, but the Army is suffering through the biggest identity crisis. Its vast size means it has become low-hanging fruit for Pentagon bean counters during the current belt-tightening phase. Advocates of cutting the Army also point to the fact that its mission remains ill-defined at a time when no one sees an appetite anytime soon for another big land war.

Still, Odierno has fought to keep the cuts to a minimum as he argues the nation must hedge against unknown future risks. He and his supporters argue that maintaining a large force makes sense when there is so much uncertainty and the Pentagon -- by its own admission- - acknowledges it fails to predict the future well.

"We haven't gotten it right yet," said one Army officer.

The service, now around 520,000 soldiers, has been planning to shrink to 490,000 by 2016. But the new budget proposal requires a far sharper decline, to as few as 440,000 soldiers. And if Congress opts to impose a sequester on the Pentagon budget, the size of the Army could drop to 420,000.

As close to the bone as the cuts may be, outside experts believe Odierno will carry the Pentagon's water. And in return, he likely received assurances about readiness and other modernization programs that will help him to keep the Army whole.

"At the end of the day, the budget they put forward had to have all the chiefs stand there at the podium," said Maren Leed, who worked as a senior advisor to Odierno. "If they had not reached some accommodation in that regard, they would not have put this budget out."

Odierno is expected to appear on Capitol Hill in April to defend the cuts, and some close observers question whether he will fully believe in the case he will have to make.

"He's standing behind this, but he's clear-eyed about what this is and what this is not," said Roger Zakheim, a former senior staffer on the House Armed Services Committee.

Zakheim said that lawmakers will be listening carefully for how the Army chief characterizes the amount of risk involved in cutting his force. "This request has gaps and limitations and serious risks, and I think that's what I think members will be listening for," he said.

One defense official believes that when Odierno appears in public settings in coming weeks to defend the cuts, he'll be walking a fine line. "Odierno will stay on the reservation, but on its outermost edges -- you'll hear more alarmist risk assessment," the official said.

Pentagon officials insist the proposed budget document is a "strategy-driven" document -- not a budget-driven one. That's hard for some to accept amid a downturn within the Defense Department's coffers. Still, there are fears inside the Army that the 440,000-soldier Army the Pentagon is now proposing is slightly arbitrary and that it is not really based on any specific strategy.

And there's another reason why the Army is worried and why it will be hard for Odierno to sell the argument on Capitol Hill. Army leaders fear the Pentagon leadership doesn't understand that it needs a certain amount of "rotational depth" in terms of how it deploys its forces.

For years, the Army has executed a kind of "shape-and-prevent" strategy that aims to influence events around the world through training and exercises and other deployments. The Army has fought the notion that it can essentially be held in reserve at a smaller size and then, if world events dictate, the nation can just "break glass at a time of war," as one official put it. Instead it takes time to build a force big enough for a large, unforeseen contingency that could require tens of thousands of forces. And even absent such a mission, the Army needs forces to maintain even smaller deployments around the world.

But the bigger question is how the Army does the drawdown and who it cuts and who it doesn't. Those plans are still under wraps -- if they are even complete. But one thing every Army officer knows for sure is that while it's relatively easy for the Army to grow equipment and privates, it's quite another to grow a "professional middle." That's to say, if the Army guts career officers and enlisted personnel, it will take some time to get them back.

"You can't just make a major or a colonel or a sergeant major," the officer said.

Correction: Odierno was traveling through Asia when the Defense Department budget was unveiled Monday. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Odierno had been at the Pentagon when the announcement was made.

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