Balancing Act

Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. seeks to steady an Army out of whack due to the debilitating demands of two ongoing wars.

When Gen. George W. Casey Jr. began his four-year tour as the Army chief of staff in April, one of his first initiatives was to put together two analytical teams. One he tasked with studying today's Army and how it's weathering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other he tasked with examining future security threats and how wars will be fought in 2020.

The internal review told him the Army is out of balance, in part because "the demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply," he says, and it's too focused on fighting today's irregular wars and not enough on the conventional wars it might face in the future. Casey's comments came during a Sept. 6 breakfast discussion with Government Executive Editor and President Timothy B. Clark.

Casey went on to say that Army readiness is declining as too many units do not have time to adequately train because they are recovering from combat deployments. "You can't just take these formations and put them away without fixing them up because they won't be ready for the next time," Casey said. The Army is struggling to fund its transformation from a Cold War force to a 21st century force. "We're about halfway through the largest organizational change in the Army since World War II," Casey said.

Recruitment and retention are major concerns as the Army plans to grow by 65,000 soldiers over the next five years, an expansion that comes with a hefty price tag, estimated at $70 billion between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2013 for both personnel and equipment. While retention rates remain high, Casey worries about the potential damage from never-ending deployments to Iraq: "We just cannot keep asking our soldiers and families to carry that burden." He said this is the first time the Army has had to sustain an all-volunteer force during a protracted conflict since the Revolutionary War.

One of Casey's highest priorities is to restore balance by shifting to a policy that will keep soldiers at home two years for every year deployed. But before that goal can be realized, he said, "the demand for our forces worldwide is going to have to come down some."

Casey worries the Army might again become a "hollow force" due to wartime stresses. Retired Gen. Edward "Shy" Meyer, who originally coined the phrase to describe the 1970s post-Vietnam Army, warned Casey to look out for the "invisible red line out there . . . . you cross it, it's too late." The warning signs are when captains, majors and senior sergeants, the soldiers the Army has invested eight to 10 years to train, "perceive that they're not getting the support they need from the country . . . and start to walk," Casey said. It took the Army 10 years to repair the last hollow force, he added.

For many Army leaders, including Casey, restoring balance means reducing the focus on nation-building and irregular warfare, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, and increasing attention to high-intensity, conventional combat, the service's traditional mission. "We have to have a versatile enough force to be able to operate across that full spectrum," Casey said. Looking into the future, he forecasts a world of persistent conflict, driven in part by growing populations in developing countries and the uneven distribution of globalization's benefits.

There are around 1,200 known terrorist organizations, some of which are bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and he fears they'll find safe havens in the ungoverned spaces of the world.

On the likelihood of success in Iraq, Casey said he remains hopeful, though skeptical, that the Iraqi government will make the tough political choices that could lead to a stable central government. "The question in my mind has always been whether the opportunities created by the military can be taken advantage of by the Iraqi political leadership," he said.

Casey was replaced as commander in Iraq earlier this year by Gen. David Petraeus. Casey had publicly advocated a smaller American military footprint in Iraq, believing that training Iraq's army and police should be U.S. troops' top priority. He was criticized by Bush administration officials and leading Republican lawmakers for his handling of Iraq. President Bush, in his Sept. 13 speech to the nation, said the new American strategy in Iraq would be to begin to hand off security responsibilities to Iraqi security forces and draw down American troop levels. An edited transcript of Casey's Sept. 6 remarks follows.

On the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder among returning soldiers:

What you're seeing is the cumulative effects of six years at war on the force. And it's a reality-war is horrible and brutal, and when you're exposed to it, it affects you no matter who you are. If you look at a sample of 100 people who were exposed to war during a serious incident, 70 percent to 80 percent of that group would be affected by it. A much smaller portion, maybe in the 20 percent to 30 percent range, would have symptoms of some type of psychological effect. And a much smaller group than that, probably less than 10 percent, would have problems that required significant treatment. So everybody's affected by the horrors of war. We're human beings.

We have recognized this, and we are working very hard to, one, raise awareness about the psychological effects of this type of combat, and two, reduce the stigma on people seeking mental health counseling. And we, a month or so ago, put out what we call a chain-teaching package. It's the chain of command. Every leader teaches his or her immediate subordinates about post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. We did that, one, to educate our leaders to recognize these types of psychological challenges, and two, to reduce the stigma. One of the questions on the security form, another Cold War relic here, is have you ever sought mental health counseling. Talk about stigma. We've asked to have that changed, and the secretary of Defense has ordered a memo saying, look, we've got to fix this.

On the stress on soldiers' families:

We are asking far more from the families than I would've thought possible. This war is very, very difficult and stressful on the families. Your spouse or your son or daughter is in a combat zone, and always in the back of your mind is the threat of that knock on the door, that they've been killed or severely wounded. And that grates on you over time. As my wife, Sheila, and I went around and visited bases, we talked to groups of families and family leaders and what they said to us was, running a family readiness group for the third deployment isn't the same as it is for the first. People are more stressed. It's just much more difficult to do that. I asked them, isn't the decision of the soldier to stay with the all-volunteer force so dependent on the family's happiness that we should treat families as a readiness issue? And everybody always said, "Yeah, what took you so long?"

On recruitment challenges:

It's a tough recruiting environment. If you look at what we deal with, the propensities to serve are down. The economy is up. And as we look at the population of 17- to 25-year-olds that we normally recruit from-just for starters, only three in 10 of that population are eligible to compete for the military because of the standard we've set. And so it is a tough recruiting environment.

That said, in the first nine months of this fiscal year, over a quarter of a million men and women have enlisted or re-enlisted in the Army, Army Reserve and Army Guard. That is not insignificant. There are still a heck of a lot of folks out there around this country who understand the challenges that we're up against here and are committed to the ideals the country stands for. Quality is down slightly from where we were a few years ago. But we are right at the goals, the policy goals, of about 80 percent high school graduates and about 4 percent what we call category four, the folks who test out at the lower end of the spectrum.

So we're right around those goals; we're not as high as we were, and I don't intend to go much below those.

On the junior officer shortage:

We do have shortages in captains and majors, and they are by and large a result of the modular organizations that we are converting to. Having watched these organizations on the ground in Iraq, they are far more capable organizations in this environment than are the Cold War formations that we are transitioning away from. We look at captains' retention at about the five- or six-year point, which is when their applications are generally up. And [the attrition rate among junior officers] is a little higher, but it's within 2 percentage or 3 percentage points of the norm. So it is not wildly out of whack. But I've talked to some of my predecessors who dealt with the Army after Vietnam, and what they said is, "Look, there's kind of an invisible red line out there, and even though you'll track indicators, you won't know it until you cross it, and once you cross it, it's too late." And that's why putting ourselves back in balance is so important to the long-term health of the force because people are making decisions based on what their future looks like. There are bonuses out there, but when we went out to our commanders and said, what is it that captains are looking for to stay with the Army, they said graduate school, station of choice, getting assigned to the post that they wanted to be assigned to, getting a particular military school. And what they said was-and this is not surprising because you have captains talking to colonels-the money's not important to us.

On the Future Combat Systems:

The Future Combat Systems program is only 3 percent of our 2008 budget. So 97 percent is going to other things, about 3 percent toward the future. That's a pretty minimal investment to give us the type of Army that we're going to need in the future. The [House Armed Services Committee] cuts are too deep; cuts of that size would cripple the program. We've got good support on the Senate side, and I think you know that the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee came in with about half of that cut. FCS is our first major modernization effort in about 20 years. And you know, they say that's not your grandfather's Oldsmobile. Well, in a few more years, it's going to be your grandfather's Abrams tank.

FCS is already yielding technologies that are being used by our soldiers in Iraq. We have this little unmanned aerial vehicle that's actually out there now that allows a lieutenant or a sergeant to see what's down the alley or up on top of the roof. These organizations that we're changing to-these modular organizations-came out of a design for the FCS organization. We have unattended sensors that a soldier can leave in a building and monitor from a distance. There are a lot of good things that are continuing to come out of this program that are helping us today, and it's also a bridge to the future.

On combat deployments for National Guard and Reserve:

We have a different paradigm right now for our reserve components than we had in the Cold War. In the Cold War, they were a strategic reserve, and the plan was the balloon goes up and you throw the switch, and we start cranking out units to go fight on the plains of Europe.

Clearly, that is not what we are doing now and haven't been doing for five years. We are looking to define that paradigm for reserve components to say, OK, one year [deployed], five years back. I mean, right now, we are about one year out for the reserves, about three and a half back. And so I believe we owe it to the men and women who are going to join the Guard and Reserve to . . . tell them what they can expect. We are moving toward a position where they are more of an operational augmentation force. Can our employers sustain the burden of deploying men and women for once every five or six years? That is something we need to discuss at the national level.

On contractors on the battlefield:

I had a group of my logisticians in yesterday, and we were discussing what our logistical force structure should be in the future. One question that comes up as you're discussing that is how much should you rely on contractors, on outsourcing, as you say. And that is a tough one, because if you look at what I said about the spectrum of conventional war to peacetime engagement, in conventional war, much like you saw on the attacks into Baghdad in the early days of the war, all of that support is provided by military logistical units in military vehicles. As you move away from conventional fighting to irregular warfare or counterinsurgency operations or engagements, you can move toward fixed bases. In conventional war, you put a fixed base up and the enemy fires artillery on it or bombs it with jets. Once you start operating on fixed bases, then you open up the possibility of contractor support because they are operating in a secure environment. Security contractors are a whole different situation, and it's much more challenging as we look at that. So I can't give you a maxim that says these are the areas where I think you could outsource more. But I do think that as we look at this, we will depend on contracting support in a range of areas to do the types of operations that we are going to be doing in the future.

Do I want a lifetime employee who I am going to invest in and pay their salary and health care and all of the rest of that, or can I better accomplish it by contracting for specific needs at a specific time. The cost of bringing a young man or woman into the Army through a 20-year career, as you can imagine, is getting more and more. And so do we keep folks on the books to take care of all of the logistical needs, or do we contract for them when we need them?

On the need for interagency cooperation:

It's not just the armed forces that are going to cause this nation to succeed at what it's doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror. In this type of war, it's the political; it's the economic elements that have to reinforce what the military is doing. So there are huge opportunities for the rest of the government to contribute to what is going on here. And I think that is going to take some real cultural change in the different organizations of the government. The military wasn't the only one that was downsized as a result of the Cold War.

USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development], the United States Information Agency, those things were really taken down, so we don't necessarily have the capability anymore to go out and do the things we need to. What do the other agencies or governments need to do to operate in the environment we're going to be operating in for the next decade or so?

Editor's Note: The Army took issue with our characterization of some of Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey's remarks during an interview I did with him at the National Press Club last month. We'd said that Casey thought more focus should be placed on preparing for conventional wars. Casey, the Army said, has been emphasizing the need to prepare for a broad range of conflict. Here's the Army's statement.--Timothy B. Clark
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