Gen. Raymond T. Odierno steps down as chief of the U.S. Army at a time of uncertainty and transition.
The troop drawdown that began when Odierno became the Army’s 38th chief of staff in 2011 continues, with no definite resolution in sight.
“The whole four years I was chief of staff all we have seen is deadlock,” Odierno said Aug. 12. As a result of political gridlock over government spending priorities, the military is at risk of being “degraded,” he said. “In my opinion we have held the military hostage because of the arguments we’re having over spending in the rest of the government. It’s coming to a point now where we think we should be careful.”
Odierno ends his 38-year military career Aug. 14, when he hands over the reins to Gen. Mark Milley.
Odierno’s term has been largely about managing the post-war downsizing and keeping up morale as the Army prepares for whatever comes next. From day one as chief of staff, he has been vehemently opposed to the budget law that capped military spending through 2021 and compelled the Army to shed more than 100,000 troops since the 2010 war peak. Under current budget plans, the Army’s active-duty force would fall to 450,000 by 2017. Further cuts are a possibility if the budget caps stay in place.
In parting words at a Pentagon news conference, Odierno cautioned against further downsizing of the military and ran through a list of flashpoints he expects will create security challenges for the United States in the coming years.
“This nation is at an inflection point,” he said. “The security environment remains uncertain and dynamic.” He cited Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, China’s military buildup and bellicose behavior in the South China Sea, a Middle East shrouded in instability, the rise of the Islamic State and an endless Sunni-Shiite conflict. He also called for the U.S. military to stay engaged in Afghanistan to make sure the current government survives Taliban insurgencies. Further, he said, terrorism is growing in other parts of the world and North Korea is becoming more provocative.
He characterized Russia as the “most dangerous” threat on that list. Its military forces are more “mature” and motivated by that nation’s unhappiness about how the Cold War ended. “And they have shown significant capability in the Ukraine to do operations that are fairly sophisticated,” Odierno said.
“There are a lot of issues out there,” he asserted. “The problem we have today is the increasing requirements on our military while we continue to have decreasing resources. This is a great concern to me personally.”
Odierno warned that his successor will have to contend with the reality that the military is stretched thin and there is not enough money to modernize and do sufficient training. “We’re sacrificing the long-term viability of our military to meet current requirements. I worry about decreasing readiness, modernization and the impact that might have two, three, five years from now. These problems are persistent that won’t be solved overnight.”
One bit of good news for the incoming chief is that the Army has settled on a new “operating concept” for how forces will be equipped and trained for future conflicts. “We have a good understanding of what we need,” said Odierno. The priorities are “lethality, protection and situational awareness.” Army forces must be “agile, innovative, expeditionary, interoperable with the other services and with allies,” he said. That means future funding for modernization programs will focus on those capabilities, although the budget picture is now tough to predict, he lamented. “We have programs to do that. We have to continue to push on those programs.”
During the past 18 months, Army combat brigades have started to train for hybrid warfare, a blend of conventional and guerrilla warfare of the type Russia is conducting in Ukraine. Ten U.S. Army brigades trained in major combat rehearsals this year, in addition to eight last year.
This is significant, Odierno said, because the Army had limited its training only to counterinsurgency for a decade during the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations. About one-third of combat brigades today are trained for hybrid or conventional warfare, and the goal is to reach 60 percent over the next couple of years.
Having served as the U.S. top commander in Iraq, Odierno described the current situation there as “frustrating.” When U.S. forces left in 2011, the country was “headed in the right direction. … But as it turned out, they weren’t prepared” to take over. At this point, the United States should be realistic about the situation, he cautioned. “The region has to solve the problem. The U.S. can’t solve this,” he said. Military interventions tend to be short-term solutions, he added. The U.S. military should continue to help train Iraqi forces and Syrian moderates, he said, but if the Islamic State continues to gain ground, the United States should consider committing soldiers “and see if that would make a difference.”
Odierno commanded troops in Iraq under Gen. David Petraeus from 2006 until 2008. He then became the top commander of U.S. forces there until September 2010. From October 2010 until August 2011 he headed U.S. Joint Forces Command. He was nominated as chief of staff to replace Gen. Martin E. Dempsey when he was selected to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.