If sequestration forces the Army to reduce troop strength to 420,000 soldiers, it will not be capable of supporting the current national defense strategy and the nation may be forced to return to the draft in the event of a major military conflict, the Army’s top officer warned Thursday.
“We will not be able to execute the defense strategic guidance at those levels,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, who provided a preview of his upcoming congressional testimony during a conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “If we got into a large contingency, it’s my assessment that we would have to go to a national mobilization,” he said.
Odierno’s blunt assessment is one of the few times a senior military leader has warned of a return to the draft if a major military conflict erupts amid the mandatory spending caps called for by sequestration. The only other mention of a possible draft was in one line of the chairman’s assessment of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, in which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, recommends a review of the nation’s “preparedness for the potential of national mobilization.”
Odierno said he has established 450,000 as the minimum level of troops required to carry out the national defense strategy. That would include 335,000 National Guard troops and 195,000 in the Army reserves. But even at these levels, the Army’s ability to support the national defense strategy is at high risk because of the lack of depth and the inability to tap excess forces to respond to unexpected crises.
During the early stages of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it took the Army an average of 32 months to build a new brigade from scratch, Odierno said. “The world today does not allow you 32 months,” he said. At that point, national mobilization would be necessary, he said.
“And I’m not talking about mobilizing the [National Guard],” Odierno added. “I’m already assuming that the guard and reserves are mobilized. I’m talking about a national mobilization. Are we willing to do a national mobilization? I don’t know.”
The U.S. discontinued the draft in 1973, replacing it in 1980 with the Selective Service System, which requires all males between the ages of 18 and 25 to register for emergency military manpower needs in times of national crisis.
The manpower and budget challenges facing the Army have far-reaching implications for the U.S. military as a whole, from the role of women in combat to the balance between technology and personnel at the tactical level.
Maren Leed, a senior adviser and the Harold Brown chair in defense policy studies at CSIS, said it remains to be seen how well Odierno’s message resonates with Congress. “But it does raise an interesting question of whether or not women will be required to register for Selective Service,” Leed said.
The Defense Department is in the process of opening thousands of combat jobs to female troops — front line positions women have been barred from holding. The Army’s Special Operations Command is studying how women might be integrated into Ranger and Special Forces units. And the Marine Corps announced this week it is establishing an experimental unit that will be composed of 25 percent female Marines.
Beyond the issue of women in combat, Odierno is also wrestling with other questions that challenge the fundamental building blocks of the Army’s infantry. “Is the nine-man [infantry] squad right?” Odierno asked. “Does technology allow us to move away from it?”
The technologies that could one day drive that change include unmanned systems, robotics, and even 3-D printing for parts and logistics purposes, Odierno said.
Leed, however, doesn’t think advances in technology will necessarily lead to a reduction in the size of the infantry squad. “The more likely utility of it is that you would need fewer squads to deal with the same [geographic] area,” Leed said. “The size of the squad has been fairly consistent for a long time, with some redundancy to account for casualties. Technology can’t substitute for that in many respects.”