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Leading Our Way to the Army’s Future

Thursday, September 25, 2014

It’s been said by some that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly does rhyme. I’m a firm believer in that whimsical proverb, especially when it comes to the business of running the U.S. Army.

Forty-one years ago, the 26th Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr., and one of my predecessors, Secretary of the Army Robert F. Froehlke, began the long, slow process of rebuilding, resizing and modernizing the U.S. Army after more than 12 years of heavy fighting in the Republic of Vietnam. By March 1973, all U.S. combat forces had been withdrawn from Vietnam and all U.S. prisoners had been released.

Faced with declining defense budgets and force cuts of more than 785,000 soldiers from a Vietnam War end strength of 1.57 million, the duo was tasked with creating a significantly smaller, more capable, “high-risk” force comprised completely of volunteers. Then, as now, leaders routinely questioned whether or not such a force could fulfill all its obligations around the globe and still retain an adequate contingency force for an unpredictable world.

Abrams and Froehlke often found themselves at odds with Congress over the proper size and role of the Army. Abrams was adamant that the U.S. should remain immune from terror and coercion around the world. He also believed that a robust, lethal U.S. Army was the key ingredient in that calculation.

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Soldiers from a 1st Cavalry Division reconnaissance squadron unload from a UH-1D helicopter hovering above a ridgeline west of Duc Pho, Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam, in 1967. (Credit: U.S. Army)

Hard to deny, it all sounds much like the landscape currently facing our nation. Today, with the end of America’s longest war in sight, it certainly feels that way to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and me.

Our shrinking federal budget, coupled with the Army’s withdrawal from active combat in Afghanistan, have the Chief and me continually assessing the impacts on Army end strength, modernization and readiness. As I see it, history, at this moment, is repeating itself as much as it rhymes.

The bad news: Here we are … again.

The good news: We’ve seen this all before.

The best news: Thanks to the magnificent soldiers, officers and civilians of the U.S. Army, we are leading our way through our 21st-century adversities. This modern, professional force—the greatest landpower the world has ever seen—knows all about tough times and even tougher challenges. Just as we’ve done in the past—as when Abrams and Froehlke painfully sowed the seeds for the Army we are blessed to have today—we will again prevail.

As Abrams liked to say, “It is our job to persevere in the atmosphere of the facts.”

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Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr. (Credit: U.S. Army)

Seizing Opportunities

Now that we’ve ended combat operations in Iraq and our scheduled drawdown in Afghanistan is well underway, we are seizing new, imaginative and innovative ways to manage smaller budgets and fundamentally reshape our Army. That’s exciting work, and work we must embrace lest others decide our fate for us.

Our efforts continue to provide dynamic options for our elected leaders as they work to balance the military instrument of power with other aspects of American might—all designed to help stabilize the world and support and protect our nation’s interests.

I will kid you not: It hasn’t been an easy reach, and it continues to challenge us. The requirement to generate sustained landpower in new ways in the face of declining budgets and with fewer experienced soldiers is difficult, to say the least, but these are simple, if unpleasant, facts that our Army is adapting to at every echelon.

During these times, I believe we have two core responsibilities: the readiness of this Army and the well-being of our people. We must remain globally responsive and regionally engaged while providing our combatant commanders with versatile and trained forces for both ongoing and contingency operations. At the same time, our first and most important responsibility is to continue providing our soldiers and their families everything they need to successfully execute the fight they are in, as well as help them transition to a garrison or civilian footing.

That means things like providing the proper care and support to our wounded warriors. It means harvesting, harnessing and retaining the hard-fought—and eagerly sought—experience, judgment and talents of our battle-tested officers, NCOs and the dedicated Army civilians who have supported them. At the same time, as an institution, it means we must regain our expertise as trainers after extended conflict.

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Upon his return from nine months advising Afghan National Security Forces in Regional Command-East, Spc. David Gooden, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), holds his child for the first time. (Credit: U.S. Army)

As I have previously stressed, as the Chief and I consider and implement changes to our structure, organization and processes, we remain beholden to a guiding principle to keep things in balance: balance among readiness, end strength and modernization. Thanks to a thoughtful and appropriate mix of manpower, training and equipment, we are starting to achieve those balanced goals. We are skillfully transitioning capabilities such as maneuver, special operations, cyber and missile defense in both the operating and generating force. In addition, as I wrote in these pages last year, we remain convinced that a smaller, well-equipped and highly trained force is better able to meet contingencies than a large force denied training, or modern equipment without the people necessary to use it. Our imperative is to avoid creating a hollow Army.

That notion will, no doubt, occupy a lot of time at this year’s AUSA Annual Meeting & Exposition.

I reiterate to you what I’ve already—and repeatedly—told Congress. This is the time for protection and predictability, not politics. The Chief and I maintain that we must have predictable, long-term funding in order to help keep America and her allies free from coercion around the world. If sequestration, as is the law, returns in fiscal year 2016, the gains we have made will be eroded and another round of indiscriminate cuts will gut our force to the point where we’re unable to meet the president’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. That’s the simple fact. This extraordinarily capable, flexible, agile, combat-tested force that is rightly proud of what it’s done, and capable of doing almost anything our leaders ask it to do, will be at risk of wasting away.

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Soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division participate in a divisionwide alert at Camp Casey, South Korea, in January. (Credit: U.S. Army)

I believe that our Army, under current budget plans, is properly sized, but we’re still not supporting it with proper readiness dollars despite the budget relief we gratefully received. It doesn’t mean we can go every place in the world, whenever we want, but it does mean that if we’re deliberate and thoughtful about our priorities and our interests—that precious balancing act—then our Army, together with our tremendous joint force, can manage the security interests of the nation. Again, we’ve got to work to find the proper balance, and we will.

If sequestration continues, however, the Army will be required to slash end strength much lower than the 450,000 reflected in the fiscal year 2015 budget. At that lower level—somewhere around 420,000—both the Chief and I have stated that the Army would not be able to execute the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. That would limit America’s strategic options. It also, in my mind, poses an unacceptable risk as even executing one prolonged, multiphased major contingency operation would be in doubt.

I am also convinced, as Abrams once feared, that with those lower force levels, America would no longer be immune from coercion—at least not as immune as I believe we should be.

Paradoxically—and frustratingly—we may be the victims of our own success. As our soldiers, officers and civilians have bent over backwards and squeezed everything they can to absorb the cuts we’ve had to make over the past year, we’ve often made the very difficult look too easy. To some, it might seem that if we were able to accomplish these cuts so easily, then there must be room for more. Nothing could be further from the truth, but when you try to articulate things like risk and readiness—the things each of our soldiers grapples with each and every day—it is often not as persuasive as I certainly would like it to be. Regardless, it’s my job—our job—to keep telling the Army’s story and dispelling such baseless notions.

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Gen. John J. ‘Black Jack’ Pershing (Credit: U.S. Army)

That the Army must change is a strategic and fiscal reality, and that means we will get smaller. As a result, thousands of brave and noble men and women will hang up their uniforms. Some will leave willingly; other fine soldiers who have served honorably are being asked to depart. That’s a tough reality for all of us, for I believe in the adage that soldiers are not in the Army; they are the Army.

Still, this drawdown in no way diminishes the dedication, sacrifice and patriotism these soldiers have demonstrated by their service, both in and out of the combat zones.

The Chief and I believe we have a moral obligation to tell these soldiers the unfortunate news as soon as humanly possible in order to help them best prepare for the next chapter in their extraordinary lives. And even though they will leave our ranks, I remind them: “Once a soldier, always a soldier.” We are a better Army for their service.

Seeing the World as It Is

On Aug. 11, I had the pleasure of leading an American delegation to Belgium to commemorate 100 years since the outbreak of World War I. As the press described it, the dignitaries gathered on a forested hill overlooking the city of Liege, just a few dozen kilometers from the border where German soldiers took their first fateful steps, triggering a war that would engulf the world like none other before it. In the end, it was the American Expeditionary Force—America’s Doughboys—led by Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing that tipped the tide of battle and secured victory for the Allied forces.

The speeches that day paid tribute to the fallen and included messages of reconciliation, but the remembrance was also tinged with anger that the world today is not quite as peaceful as many had hoped after the sacrifices of a century ago, and warnings that the ties that bind can so quickly be broken.

As I look around the world today, I see no shortage of risk and instability. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its egregious actions in greater Ukraine, the ongoing Syrian civil war, the intractable Israeli and Palestinian conflict, the proliferation of terrorist syndicates like the Islamic State, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, missile launches by North Korea, and more should remind us all of the complexity and uncertainty inherent in the current international security environment.

One constant in this maelstrom of uncertainty is the U.S. Army. We can and should remain the “Nation’s Force of Decisive Action,” a battle-proven force that can guarantee the agility, versatility and depth to “Prevent, Shape and Win.”

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Sgt. Michael Misheff, a crew chief assigned to the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, flies the American flag from the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter over Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in August. (Credit: U.S. Army)

Ethics, Integrity Matter

While we are busy guarding the country, we must also accept being the guardian of the finest ethics. As Abrams rightly said, “The country needs it, and we must do it.”

Abrams’ biographer, Lewis Sorley, wrote, “The night before he left Vietnam, General Abrams had all the sergeants major in for drinks in his quarters. In remarks after dinner that evening in the command mess, he told his senior associates: ‘The longer I serve the more I become convinced that the single most important attribute of the professional officer is integrity.’”

I couldn’t agree more. In order to ensure that we remain a trusted institution with the American public that we serve, the Army is evaluating ways to further develop our professional military force and ensure that an uncompromising culture of accountability exists at every level of command. I believe we are making a difference. We must.

As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said earlier this year, “Ethics and character are absolute values that we cannot take for granted. They must be constantly reinforced.”

Sexual assault, for example, is a crime and cannot be tolerated at any level. We have an obligation to do all we can to safeguard America’s sons and daughters as well as maintain trust among soldiers, civilians, families and the nation. The Army’s leaders, at every level of the chain of command/supervision, are doing this through prevention, education, investigation and, when appropriate, prosecution.

We are taking back our Army from those who harm or assault our soldiers, taking back our Army from those who ignore the values and stain our honor, taking back our Army from those who fail to lead.

That soldiers are stepping up is not merely anecdotal. The number of reported sexual assaults from 2012 to 2013 is up by 51 percent. I credit the rise in victim reporting to a number of factors, including increasing the number of well-trained victim advocates and sexual assault response coordinators who have had extensive background checks done on their fitness to serve in these vital posts. Also, prosecutors and investigators are receiving better training.

The dynamic is changing as more and more soldiers feel a sense of trust between themselves and their leaders. I truly believe that more and more soldiers are looking out for their “battle buddies.”

Sorley wrote, “After General Abrams died a small monument was erected in his memory at the Army War College. It was just a chunk of rock, really, but positioned so that every student could see it every day upon leaving the main academic building. On it were these few words of Abrams’ own: ‘There must be, within our Army, a sense of purpose and a dedication to that purpose. There must be a willingness to march a little farther, to carry a heavier load, to step out into the darkness and the unknown for the safety and well-being of others.’”

Today’s Army has nobly lived up to that epitaph.

The remarkable success our Army has achieved can be attributed to what Abrams once called “one weapon more effective than any arm or service or equipment, the weapon upon which the future of the Army depends—teamwork inspired by objective and selfless leadership.”

Together, we will selflessly lead our way into the uncertain future before us. We will share uncommon lives and common challenges and do what our country requires of us, for, as Abrams said of his own soldiers, you represent “those essential virtues of mankind—humility, courage, devotion and sacrifice.”

Like Abrams, I am so very proud to travel in such gallant company.