WASHINGTON: In war, as in stand-up comedy, timing is everything, and Gen. Ray Odierno’s timing could hardly be worse.
This week, in the prestigious journal Foreign Policy, the Army Chief of Staff published an essay on “The Force of Tomorrow” that is long, thoughtful, a little bland –- and completely overtaken by events. It hit the Pentagon’s Early Bird news digest, for example, on Tuesday, when Washington policymakers were riveted by the back-and-forth between the White House and Republicans over how to fix sequestration and the continuing resolution, which the Army’s own (leaked) documents show could cripple training and readiness, making them by far the most urgent issue facing the service.
“The word ‘sequestration’ doesn’t even appear in this piece,” said one Congressional staffer. “If anyone is talking Army issues right now, they are talking about the CR [continuing resolution]/Sequestration and what it means for the Army today, next year, and ten years from now.”
“The Chief deserves credit for pushing the Army to think beyond Afghanistan, but the timing of this piece means it will fall on deaf ears up here,” continued the staffer, one of four Congressional aides interviewed by Breaking Defense –- representing both chambers and both parties –- who responded to Odierno’s essay with a resounding “meh.”
“It isn’t specific enough to really help the Army in any serious way,” agreed another Hill staffer. “It’s a great argument for why we have an Army of some kind, but there is nothing in there to justify the currently planned size/composition of the future force. I could just as easily use that article to justify cutting the active duty force to 400,000.”
In fact, the only reference to budgetary realities in the 3,000-word article is the second half of a single sentence: “We remain the only nation with global reach, but our resources are not unlimited — and, in fact, are decreasing.”
It’s a truism to say that budgets shouldn’t dictate strategy, but it’s equally true that a strategy made without reference to the resources available to execute it is no strategy at all.
“What’s most notable about this article is what not’s here — and it doesn’t actually talk about what ‘the force of tomorrow’ should look like,” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at CNAS, the Center for a New American Security “It doesn’t even set up the fact that there may be tough choices.”
Across the Defense Department, “more cuts are coming, even if they’re not at the trillion dollar level of sequestration,” Bensahel told Breaking Defense. “The Army in particular is going to get smaller; the only question is how much.”
The essay boils down to Odierno saying, “‘We do many, many important things and we need to keep doing them in the future,'” Bensahel summed up. “It doesn’t set any priorities.”
So while retired Army officers who spoke to Breaking Defense were pleased, if not excited, by the Chief’s article, it seems to have bounced off audiences outside the Army – reaching whom was presumably the point of publishing the essay in Foreign Policy instead of, say, the Army War College’s quarterly, Parameters.
Odierno’s specific points in Foreign Policy are all ones he and other Army leaders have made before (and that we’ve covered on this website):
– “Conflict by its very nature involves people,” Odierno writes, and that the best way to prevail in war — or better yet prevent it altogether — is to understand and influence the human beings on the other side.
– New, hybrid threats are emerging that hide amongst civilians like guerrillas but wield “technology and weapons once reserved to states”;
– The Army must preserve its hard-won counterinsurgency capabilities while restoring “those fundamental warfighting skills” it had in 2003 to project power abroad and wage blitzkrieg-style warfare;
– A new Cold War stand-off with a nuclear-armed “peer competitor” –- i.e. China -– is something our strategy should avoid, not seek;
– The Army needs to move away from deploying brigade-sized packages on a set schedule to Afghanistan and provide regional commanders with “forces scalable from squad to corps” tailored to their needs;
– The Army supports the other services’ operations in a host of unglamorous, “often overlooked,” but essential ways, from hauling ammunition supplies to operating communications networks.
It’s all true, and it’s all important -– but it’s not enough.