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Commission voices concern over budget cuts

By C. Todd Lopez

WSAHINGTON (Feb. 11, 2016) -- The decision to draw down the Army budget and end strength was based on a set of assumptions that has proven to no longer be true, said now-retired Gen. James D. Thurman.

"I think we have major warning signs in front of us right now," Thurman said, while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Feb. 11. "Not speaking as a commissioner, I'm telling you what I see as I watch the resurgence of Russia. They are basically in Syria, they are conducting their own National Training Center rotation. They have gone to school on us. As I watch that unfold, and I turn to Korea and I watch what is occurring over there in Korea -- [it] is probably more dangerous today than what it has been in a long time."

Thurman serves as one of the commissioners on the National Commission on the Future of the Army, or NCFA. The commission was tasked by Congress to examine the structure of the Army and policies related to size and mix of the force. Additionally, the commission was charged with evaluating the Army's decision to move all Apache aircraft from the Guard to the Regular Army. The NCFA delivered a report of their findings and recommendations to Congress in late January.

Thurman, along with three of the eight NCFA commissioners, was on Capitol Hill to answer questions regarding the content of that report.

The global security situation has changed dramatically since the decisions were made to draw down the Army budget and end strength, Thurman said, and the assumptions that those decisions were based on have changed.

"We are not out of Afghanistan. We're probably putting more in. We've got ISIS, ISIL, Iraq, Syria, we've got Africa, North Africa -- that whole issue that's going on in there," he said.

Thurman recommended a serious re-look at what size the Army needs to be, and what size its budget needs to be and to include in that look the new challenges that are faced by the United States.

"It's going to be expensive, and I believe we have to come to grips with that," Thurman said.

When the commission delivered its report, one of its primary recommendations, one of a total of 63 was that the total Army should not go below 980,000 Soldiers. That number included 450,000 in the Regular Army, 335,000 in the Guard, and 195,000 in the Army Reserve.

'MINIMALLY SUFFICIENT' ENOUGH?

Now-retired Gen. Carter F. Ham, who served as chairman of the NCFA, said the commission's recommendation of 980K was a bare minimum. The commission was asked to arrive at a number inside a set of fiscal constraints. An end strength of 980K, he said, was the smallest they thought the Army could get, given those constraints.

"We were careful in the words that we chose. We chose 'minimally sufficient,' at an Army of 980K," Ham said. "Minimally sufficient. I think it's a real question to say is that the Army America wants? Does America want a minimally sufficient Army? If additional funding were available, then certainly a larger force. Personally, I'd say halt the drawdown now, and make a much more comprehensive assessment of the operating environment and then see what that cost would be."

In June 2013, the Army announced it would reduce the total number of Regular Army brigade combat teams to 32, down from a total of 45. In 2015, the Army announced additional cuts that would bring the total number of BCTs down to just 30. Today, the Regular Army stands at 32 BCTs.

The NCFA, in their report, suggested in one of their recommendations that cutting an additional two BCTs -- infantry brigade combat teams in particular -- might be an option to free up manpower for other areas of the Army deemed to be at higher risk. Were that to happen, the Regular Army would have just 28 BCTs.

One lawmaker, concerned about that loss of BCTs, asked about the timetable needed to stand up a new BCT, if need be.

Ham said he remembers in the mid-2000s watching the birth of a new BCT. The time it took to stand up that IBCT, he said, was 18 months. But he also noted that it was a period of "unconstrained resources," and that the availability of those resources might have accelerated the development of that BCT.

"On a normal basis, I would say two to three years would be a more likely time frame to start from scratch and build a BCT," Ham said.

GROWING LEADERS TAKES TIME

Now-retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III also served as a commissioner with the NCFA. He told lawmakers that the biggest challenge for building a new BCT from scratch is the leader development part. It's not finding bodies to fill slots, but finding the right Soldiers, with the right experience, to put into the right positions.

"It takes 20 years to make a battalion or a brigade commander," Chandler said. "It takes 20 years to grow a sergeant major, and 15 years to grow a first sergeant. Expansion -- we'll get the people into the Army. We'll get the equipment where it needs to be. But to find the leadership in order to fill out that organization and make it effective takes time. There are just not a lot of them to spare."

Finding young Americans willing to join the Army remains a challenge, the NCFA commissioners said. Among those who want to join, finding those who are qualified presents an additional challenge.

One lawmaker pointed out that that he had seen numbers indicating that anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of applicants to the Army have been rejected for physical fitness reasons. He asked commissioners how important that lack of qualified candidates is to the Army, and to sustaining the all-volunteer force.

"Fundamental to this country is maintaining the all-volunteer force," Thurman said. "That is something easily broken in my view. Having available manpower that you can recruit from, I think, is very important and is something I think we should take notice of in the country, as we see this population decline."

JROTC CADETS OFF-LIMITS

Young Americans in high school can today join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, if their school allows such a program to exist. While the program is good at developing character and promoting physical fitness, it remains off-limits for recruiting, said Thomas R. Lamont, the vice chairman of the NCFA.

"I think we are legislatively prohibited from actually recruiting from that base," Lamont told interested lawmakers. "But the mayors of the cities in which those schools exist, love them. I have had the opportunity to visit JROTC units in Chicago, under Mayor Daley. He said 'give me more.'"

Lamont said he has visited schools with JROTC programs in cities like Philadelphia and New Orleans, and found that the schools have used the programs as a way to keep youth out of gangs, for instance, and that where the programs exist, "we have found their graduation rates, their grade rates, their ability to go into higher education far greater than in our other schools. We'd love to have the ability to recruit from those people. But we can't do that."

Ham suggested the Army provide a "continued emphasis, or perhaps renewed emphasis on the JROTC program," saying that while it doesn't lead directly to enlistments or to service, "I think it does in terms of building character, physical fitness and leadership amongst America's youth, I think is a very wise investment."

When it comes to finding Americans who want to serve in the Army and who are also able to meet the criteria to serve, Chandler said it's not just an Army problem, it's a national problem that is "going to take a great deal of courage and commitment and a long-term vision to solve."

SOLVING RECRUITING CHALLENGES

The former sergeant major of the Army said he sees two possible solutions to dealing with recruiting challenges. The first, he said, is to lower entry standards and to bring those enlistees up to what is needed once they enlist. For that option, he said, the Army accepts risk in that it would need to leave many new Soldiers in the training base for a longer period of time before they can serve.

The other option, he said, is to make the Army a better deal for those who meet existing standards, but who are also looking at other services, universities or businesses.

"You are going to have to increase recruitment efforts, and that's primarily other options and dollars, to get people who are qualified at the current standard to come in," Chandler said.

When it comes to retention -- keeping a Soldier in service for longer -- Ham highlighted for lawmakers an issue that keeps some Soldiers from staying in service: the difficulty of moving seamlessly and smoothly from one component to another. Policies that make it challenging for a Soldier to move from one component into another might keep them from staying in the service at all.

"We heard loudly and clearly from Soldiers of all components that they would like the ability to move between components more seamlessly and more easily, depending on how their life situation changes," Ham said. "If you're 18, the Regular Army might make all the sense in the world. When you get married and want to go to college, the Army National Guard might make all the sense in the world to do that. And then perhaps you find you are attracted to civil affairs, so the Army Reserve might be a good place for you. Right now the policies are constraining of that kind of movement."