Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who led U.S. forces in Iraq through some of the most deadly years of the war, says he opposes sending U.S. combat troops back to Iraq in response to the recent gains there by Islamic militants. (Cliff Owen/The Associated Press)
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The Army may be growing increasingly expeditionary, but its top officer on Tuesday quickly dispelled claims the service is encroaching on Marine Corps territory.
“There is no conflict with the Marines,” Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said. “We’ve fought together for 12 years.”
Odierno’s comments came at a wide-ranging news conference Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Soldiers are partnering more with Navy ships, and it’s led some to question the Army’s intent, especially as it boosts its Pacific presence. But Odierno, at the press conference, shrugged it off with a laugh and labeled the supposed brouhaha as “a Washington thing.”
Though he would not directly address the cuts to military retirement pay contained in the budget signed in late December, Odierno said the Joint Chiefs of Staff are not looking to cut pay and benefits. Rather, they are trying to reduce rate of growth of pay and benefits.
Odierno said the military had closed the gap in pay disparity and, in some cases, even exceeded it. Now the service leaders need to look at pay and benefits to ensure the package is accurate and sustainable. Otherwise, the growing cost will force the services to reduce end strength.
“We have to look at this as a total package,” he said. But as the Pentagon looks to reduce future cost, it has “to be very careful because we don’t want to undercut the foundation of an all-volunteer Army.”
Odierno warned that “six years of vulnerability” will result if full sequestration is enacted. He also emphasized the pressing need to protect networks and systems, and improve cyber capabilities. He called cyber “a new form of maneuver” and a “relatively inexpensive way to attempt to impact issues around the world.”
The increasing number of problems faced by Iraq — from within and without — proved a hot topic. The chief said it is “disappointing to see deterioration inside of Iraq” but he does not support sending U.S. combat troops. The United States left it in a position to “move forward,” and that came at great cost to many American families.
Still, Iraq stands as a key strategic location and partner, and it is necessary to build on relationship to build security in the region. Though Iraq is “looking a bit shaky,” it still has potential and the United States will continue to work hard to help them because it ultimately helps us, he said.
Leadership development of native forces is an issue in Afghanistan, as well, as U.S. forces draw down.
Institutions that will sustain defense forces are needed to ensure longevity and success, Odierno said. But many things remain up in the air until Afghan President Hamid Karzai —who has been called everything from reluctant to defiant — signs the Bilateral Security Agreement.
Turning his attention back to the troops, Odierno continued to stand against a congressional plan to move sexual assault trials outside the military chain of command. To take away the Uniform Code of Military Justice would be a mistake, he said. Instead, leaders who are not using the tool properly should be held accountable. While he conceded that there are commanders who are not doing the right thing, the four-star stood firm on his conviction that the chain of command is “the essence of who we are” and must remain the primary tool to stop sexual assaults.
There are no changes — yet — to Army end strength. The plan remains to cut about 20,000 per year. Any more would be too costly. The active-duty Army started this drawdown with 570,000 soldiers. It now has 527,000 and will be at 510,000 by year’s end and 490,000 by the end of 2015.
“Then we have to make decision on where to go from there,” he said.
But don’t expect the National Guard to take a dominant role, as has been the suggestion of a few lawmakers and Guard leaders.
“The Army is structured to be complementary” and capabilities in its three components “are not interchangeable,” Odierno said. The active duty is more expensive because it provides a higher level of readiness. And while he commended the job done by the reserve components, Odierno pointed out that the National Guard “trains 39 days a year.”
On the other hand, the active duty cannot replace the National Guard, the chief said. They each have a role and mission and will move forward as such. But the reserve component will have the lion’s share of personnel. During the surge, 51 percent of the Army was active duty. That will drop to 46 percent — a number determined by “substantial analysis,” Odierno said.