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Army chief warns of deep personnel cuts without budget deal

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WASHINGTON — Already set to shrink by tens of thousands of soldiers over the next five years, the Army could lose as many as 100,000 additional troops if Congress doesn’t find a way to spare the military from broad cuts set for next January across the government.

That was the prediction from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who Tuesday outlined some of what he sees if budget “sequestration” takes effect.

That is the process required by the Budget Control Act last year, which required the sequester in January 2013 if the congressional deficit reduction “supercommittee” failed to reach a deal on budget cuts and revenue enhancements by last November.

Cuts would hit the military hard, and commanders would have limited ability to choose where to cut because the law requires across-the-board reductions. One area sure to feel the brunt is personnel, Gen. Odierno said at a breakfast with defense reporters.

While the National Guard and Reserve are not being reduced much now — the active-duty Army is the focus of the trimming through 2017 — that will change if sequestration takes effect, he said.

“You’re going to see reductions in both, and they’ll be pretty significant,” Gen. Odierno said.

Pressed for figures, Gen. Odierno said, “It’ll be in the tens of thousands” and could reach 100,000 between the active and reserve forces.

He said he was reluctant to give figures because he has not decided on the balance between how the active and reserve will be treated.

The active duty Army stands at about 560,000 soldiers and is slated to come down to 490,000, a reduction that could mean fewer troops assigned to Fort Drum. The Army National Guard stands at 350,000, and the Army Reserve has 205,000 members, Gen. Odierno said.

In addition, the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, directed agencies not to plan for the effects of sequestration in their budget proposals for next year. So congressional leaders who oppose further defense cuts have had a hard time squeezing estimates from the Pentagon.

“There’s no planning to be done,” Gen. Odierno said. “We have no choice where it comes from.”

Lawmakers have been scrambling for a way to avoid the across-the-board cuts but have yet to come up with a solution that will also satisfy the White House. President Obama has threatened to veto legislation that specifically exempts the Defense Department; in the White House’s view, painful cuts are part of the consequences of Congress failing to meet its obligations under the Budget Control Act.

Undoing the law, the White House has said, would take Congress off the hook for reducing the deficit.

Further reductions in troop strength may convince adversaries the United States doesn’t have the capacity to fight, Gen. Odierno said, a miscalculation which could invite military challenges. Indeed, that is part of the reasoning behind making the Army’s current drawdown gradual, he added.

On the prospect of military base closures proposed by the Pentagon, Gen. Odierno said the Army did so much consolidating in the 2005 round that the next base realignment and closure will just be “culling around the edges” and that larger installations will “just reduce populations.”

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