Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno testifies May 6 at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill. (Mandel Ngan / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The Army wants no part of it and the top leadership of the Army Guard and Reserve remain split, but powerful factions in Congress are moving to set up an independent commission that would examine the sweeping force structure changes the active duty Army says are necessary.
On May 6, Sens. Patrick Leahy D-Vt., and Lindsey Graham R-S.C., co-chairs of the Senate National Guard Caucus, led a bipartisan group of 19 senators in introducing the National Commission on the Future of the Army Act, which would establish just such an independent panel.
At the same time, Rep. Joe Wilson R-S.C., is expected to introduce an amendment to the fiscal 2015 defense budget that would require the Government Accountability Office to study Army force structure and report back to Congress by March 2015.
Wilson’s proposal would also hold end-strength reductions to 490,000 for the active duty and 350,000 for the Guard while blocking the Army from taking the Guard’s Apache attack helicopters and absorbing them into the active force, as the Army has proposed.
Under current Army planning, the current force of about 520,000 would be reduced to 490,000 by the end of 2015, followed by a further reduction to about 450,000 by 2017. The National Guard would also be reduced from 350,000 to 335,000 soldiers by 2017.
In a statement, Leahy said that current Army plans put the service “on a path to major, irreversible changes” that would be difficult to rebuild quickly in case of a national emergency.
“So as the Congress considers how best to approach the structure of our Army in order to retain the capability of the total Army, it is essential we remain unbiased by requesting an independent review,” he said.
Graham added that the Army’s plan would “fundamentally alter what it means for the National Guard to be a combat reserve of the Army, and they would render the nation’s operational reserve insufficient in its ability to retain gains in experience and readiness the Reserve has achieved over a decade of deployment.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee is drafting its own version of the White House’s fiscal 2015 defense bill, which it will debate on May 21.
The National Guard Association (NGAUS) today came out strongly in support of the measure, with the organization’s president, retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett saying that “such a look would give the Army National Guard the fair hearing it didn’t get in the Pentagon.”
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 8, Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said, “who would not want an independent look?” at the Army’s proposals. “This committee is going to have to help us through this. I would think you’d want an independent look, as well.”
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, chief of the Army Reserve, broke with Grass however, saying, “it’s not clear to me why we need an Army commission” to study the cuts that the Army has already studied.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, disagreed strongly with Grass and members of Congress who oppose the sweeping force structure changes. “We believe that such a commission is unnecessary,” he told the panel.
“No one is fully satisfied with the final outcome, including myself,” he continued. “However, the reality is the funding in the future will not allow us to have everything we may want. These cuts will still occur, even if we delay our decisions or fail to address the issue as the total Army. The results will be hollowing out of our Army. Our soldiers will be less prepared and this will cost more lives in the next conflict.”
He estimated that if the end strength and helicopter cuts were held up, the Army would be on the hook for an extra $1 billion a year in costs.