The US Army’s Biggest Concern Right Now Is Congress

Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mike Milley talk Monday at AUSA.

Army / Michael Burnette

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Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mike Milley talk Monday at AUSA.

The Army, like the rest of the military, says its top worry is trying to prepare soldiers to fight when Congress can’t even give them a budget.

It’s something of a Washington tradition: the parting shot at Congress by a national-security leader on the way out. On Monday, Army Secretary John McHugh criticized his former fellow lawmakers for not providing clear and predictable funding for the U.S. military. McHugh also had strong words for Beltway types who favor a smaller force with a smaller budget.

“If the last 18 to 20 months haven’t proven the necessity of a viable land force, I’m not sure what will,” McHugh said, at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention in Washington, the largest annual gathering of Army leaders.

McHugh departs a Pentagon that is relying yet again on temporary funding to keep the doors open and troops paid. The current measure lasts through December, and there’s talk on Capitol Hill of extending it through next year.

“The critical issue” facing the Army right now, McHugh said, is getting beyond budget caps, continuing resolutions, and the uncertainty they foster.

McHugh wants more room for Army planners to breathe and for commanders to operate in the face of fast-moving and unpredictable threats.

“I didn’t foresee the U.S. Army to be the foundational force to fight the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa,” McHugh said, nor did U.S. leaders predict the “rapid pace of expansion of terrorist cells” through Africa. And, he said, “We really didn’t plan for Putin.”

For the near future, the Army secretary fears “what don’t we see,” he said. “Will we have an army agile and ready enough to meet that challenge?” he asked, or will Obama’s next secretary face a “future where the Army is built for a fantasy world that does not exist”?

McHugh’s chosen successor is Eric Fanning, acting undersecretary of the Army, former chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and former acting Air Force secretary. McHugh urged Congress to confirm Fanning swiftly.

Another new face atop the Army, chief of staff Gen. Mark Milley, called the budget talk worrisome. But he spoke first about global threats.

“As I look around the world today, there’s no doubt in my mind that the United States is safe,” Milley said. “But having said that, the world outside the boundaries of the United States, the velocity of the instability is increasing as we sit here.”

Therefore, he said, it warrants the U.S. maintaining the capabilities of plus-sized forces, budgets, and equipment stores.  

What does McHugh think is behind the push to shrink the size and budget of the Army?

“At its core, it’s probably an unsupportable abundance of optimism,” McHugh said, including “the wish that we could win wars totally from the air and from the sea…While optimism is a nice trait to have, it’s probably not the best foundational basis upon which you build a military strategy.”

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