Operating on the Ragged Edge

By Staff Writer | November 1, 2015
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With the uncertainty of stopgap funding that could expire by year’s end and draconian budget cuts on the horizon, the U.S. Army is operating on the “ragged edge” of its capability, the service’s outgoing civilian chief said Oct. 12.

In the six years John McHugh has served as Army secretary–the second longest tenure in the service’s history–he has not received a budget on time. For much of the time, the Army has been on a downward trajectory in manpower and resources. The prospect looms in December that the continuing resolution funding the federal government could lapse, followed by drastic cuts that could snap into effect if Congress does not repeal sequestration before January.

“We are on the ragged edge,” McHugh said at the Assn. of the U.S. Army’s annual exposition in Washington, noting that the Army is in the “extraordinarily rare position” of having budgets come down while missions increase. “The problem we have been most befuddled by is not the challenges we saw, not the ones we planned for, that we budgeted for. It’s the ones we didn’t see, we didn’t budget for, we didn’t plan for.”


While the Army was winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, budget hawks and a weary public began looking for peace dividends. Almost as soon as the service was no longer significantly engaged in those combat operations, the Islamic State emerged and Russia began its adventurism in Eastern Europe, he said.

Failure to enact the President’s proposed budget or the appearance of another unforeseen challenge “will put this Army and this nation in a very dangerous place.”

The Army will remain the core of the U.S. military’s ability to fight and win wars despite the Pentagon and Capitol Hill’s continued emphasis on technologies that allow the military to fight from afar at sea and from the air, McHugh said.

“If the last 18 to 20 months haven’t proven the necessity of a viable land force, I don’t know what will,” he said, referring to the year-long air campaign against Islamic State militants. Military officials and civilian Pentagon leaders recognize the limited effects an air campaign and have said that a ground force offensive–at the present without U.S. combat troops–will be necessary to roll up the terrorist group in territory it already controls.

During his first AUSA appearance as the 39th Army chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, said precision weapons and advanced ships and aircraft are effective military tools and Americans have always had a reliance on and a love for technology. “The problem is history has told us a different story about the ability to prevail in war with only a reliance on weapon systems that deliver effects from great distance,” the general said. “The first and opening shots of any conflict are likely fired from the sea or from the air, but the final shots are usually delivered on the ground.”

It is essential that the Army maintain its current capabilities and internalize the lessons of the past 14 years of war while preparing for a range of threats, Milley said. He has promised to focus first on increasing the readiness of the total force and then on shaping the structure, equipment strategy and training of the Army out to the 2040s. That will require refocusing the Army’s training regimen from counterterrorism to a broader spectrum of possible contingencies.

“We do not have the luxury of a single particular place or opponent,” Milley said, but must be prepared to operate across the entire range of military operations and “to do that anywhere in the world.”

After nearly 15 years of ground combat, the Army is highly skilled in counterterrorism and counter insurgency operations. The Army must sustain those skills, Milley said. What the service needs is to re-energize the atrophied skill of combined-arms maneuver warfare that would be necessary in a near-peer fight, he added. The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command already has issued a plan that soldiers deploying to a named operation, like Iraq or Afghanistan, will train specifically for that contingency.

“Opposite a named operation, we are expecting our formations to go ahead and train against a hybrid threat,” Milley said.–By Dan Parsons, Defense Daily

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