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Once short, Army now retains too many, McHugh says

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WASHINGTON — An Army of One is now an Army of Too Many.

Having spent years building up incentives for soldiers to re-enlist, the Army now has the opposite problem, Army Secretary John M. McHugh said Wednesday: So many people hang on that officials may have a harder time achieving the big cuts in troop numbers planned over the next five years.

“Too many people want to stay,” Mr. McHugh told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on Wednesday, reflecting on the successes and challenges of the all-volunteer force as the Pentagon prepares to shrink the service.

The Army’s consistent record of hitting its retention goals in recent years may present a challenge as the service tries to keep layoffs of active duty soldiers to a minimum while cutting the force by tens of thousands during the next five years; although attrition will account for most of the reduction, some soldiers will have to be let go, Mr. McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno told senators.

The Army has recorded strong retention numbers for months, according to the Defense Department. Beginning this month, however, the Army implements new retention standards to guide commanders from the brigade level up, denying re-enlistment to those soldiers “not deemed best qualified,” the Army reported.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Mr. McHugh cited a need to keep the “best and brightest” soldiers while trimming the active duty force from around 560,000 to 490,000 by the end of 2017.

The end-strength reduction divides lawmakers, with many Republicans expressing reservations about such deep cuts. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said he would be hard pressed to accept the level of reduction the Army plans.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, said several lawmakers have privately expressed concern about the reduction, which reverses several years of buildup pushed by Congress — including by Mr. McHugh when he represented Northern New York in Congress.

Army officials say the risk of shrinking the force is manageable and makes sense given the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to trim budgets; personnel costs account for 48 cents of every Army budget dollar, Mr. McHugh said.

Overall, Mr. McHugh said in response to questions from Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the all-volunteer force remains healthy. The force’s successes during 10 years of war prove that the all-volunteer force can beat any challenge, he said.

Waivers given to recruits who would otherwise not meet Army standards are at an all-time low, and the service has stopped granting waivers with felony records, although that was never common, Mr. McHugh said.

As the active force shrinks, reservists and the National Guard will bear more responsibility, Gen. Odierno said. But stretching the personnel cuts over several years allows officials to minimize the risk to readiness and enables the service to build back up in two or three years if the national security situation demands it, he said.

To many Republicans in Congress, the Defense Department has already burdened a heavy load of budget cuts. Mr. Graham said by eliminating some 80,000 positions, the Army in essence puts tens of thousand of people out of work.

“The Defense Department has paid more than their fair share, in my view,” Mr. Graham said.

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