The Army chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno offered his "guarantee" that despite the unprecedented budget uncertainty and the continuing specter of sequestration, his service "will remain the greatest Army in the world."
Addressing the Eisenhower Luncheon at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Odierno said he would use the two years left in his term as Army chief to build a globally responsive, regionally aligned force able to adjust and prevail in the complex and changing security environment.
"There are many who are concerned about the role of the Army in the future. But the bottom line is we can’t afford to stand still," he said.
Adding, "Whatever the size of our budget, whatever the size of the future Army, our political leaders and the American people expect our soldiers to be ready for that next security challenge."
He noted, "In the next two years, we will move out to implement the organizational reforms necessary to prepare our soldiers" for whatever the future brings.
Although he focused most of his address on the training and other actions needed to maintain the Army’s combat effectiveness, Odierno issued a warning that the rapidly rising cost of compensation and benefits for service members, retirees and their family members is unsustainable.
The issue affects what is needed "to recruit and retain the best, and how we honor the service and sacrifices of our soldiers, our veterans and our retirees and families," he said.
"We are extremely grateful for the high quality care and compensation our nation provides ... but the compensation costs are very high and are going higher."
He said 46 percent of the Army budget currently is dedicated to compensation and is projected to increase to 80 percent by 2023.
"As we go forward, we must develop compensation packages that reduce future cost, but at the same time recognize our soldiers and our families for their commitment and sacrifices. We must make choices that preserve the high quality of our force, but allows the all-volunteer Army to remain global," he said.
The Pentagon has created an independent panel to consider what changes are needed to slow the rise in compensation costs, although the Obama administration has promised any changes will not affect current service members.
As he usually does, Odierno recognized numerous soldiers for heroism, including the two Medal of Honor recipients who were in the audience: Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, who was honored for his bravery in the vicious battle of Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan in 2009, and former Capt. William Swenson, who received his medal a week ago for his valiant efforts to save comrades and Afghan soldiers in the controversial battle of Ganjgal in 2009.
The two were given a prolonged standing ovation by the audience.
Odierno also took the unusual step of citing two female soldiers who he said showed the courage to report sexual assaults against them.
That is a reflection of the intense fight all of the services are waging to stop what has been described as a growing epidemic of sexual assaults and sexual harassment in the ranks.
He also promised to foster a professionalism "that is free of harassment and will respect the capabilities of every individual soldier and civilian."
He also praised the Army’s civilian workers who, he said, "stood by us every step of the way even as they sacrificed their pay" during the furloughs forced by the sequestration cuts and then the government shutdown.
Odierno listed his "strategic priorities" for the future, which included developing adaptive leaders for the changing security environment, building a globally responsive, regionally oriented force and providing a ready and modern Army.
His modernization priorities were to "enhance soldiers’ lethality and survivability" on the battlefield.
He also promised to regain the Army’s expeditionary capabilities to be able to deploy and fight in austere settings and rugged terrain and to be able to project power even in denied access areas, a reference to the growing threat of anti-access, area-denial capabilities being developed by China and Iran.
He repeatedly emphasized the need for adaptive leaders who not only retained their tactical competence on the battlefield but were able to understand and work in the complex environment of security assistance and allied partnerships around the world.
Odierno also cited several examples of Army units that already are demonstrating the regional focus, including brigades working with Africa and Central Commands.
He concluded by promising that "even though we will have uncertainty in our budget and even though sequestration will hang over our heads, I guarantee everyone here, we will remain the greatest Army in the world."