The self-described “outside voice” of the U.S. Army, Gordon Sullivan has spent more than six decades thinking about his beloved service. The former Army chief of staff will soon step down after 18 years as the head of the Association of the United States Army, but he’s not going quietly.
As Army chief of staff under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Sullivan oversaw a post-Cold War drawdown that slashed the force from 770,000 active duty soldiers to just over half a million. Today, the Army has about 490,000 active duty troops, and it’s on track to sink to its lowest levels since the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Sullivan sat down with Defense One a few days ahead of AUSA’s Global Force Symposium, which begins Tuesday in Huntsville, Ala.
Defense One: What’s your near-term advice for the Army?
Sullivan: First thing, I think we ought to take a pause in the drawdown. We must either stop or pause the never-ending downward trend of manpower until our national security strategy can be updated. Take a timeout for a couple of years to get this thing figured out. No more “Let’s just hold what we got.”
I know there’s this big debate in Washington asking, “Where is the U.S.?” And our friends and allies are beginning to question: Is the U.S. serious anymore? Are they serious about being the leader in NATO, in particular, given the crisis in Ukraine? U.S. leadership is important. And the viability of our defense establishment is critical because nuclear deterrence is based on the perception of strength and willingness to act.
But we’ve got an Army that is under-resourced, over-committed. And it’s in danger of being put into a death spiral where there’s no dollar stream that would support the force.
Defense One: How do you fix that? America already spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined. It’d be a hard sell; one recent survey found that most U.S. voters would like to see defense spending cut.
Sullivan: The defense spending disparity — it’s an abstract thought to most of the public. But when you’re competing with things like strategic bombers and planes, and ships, it’s apparent that people in the high places have decided that the strategic lead is in the future. And if we don’t develop these programs, we won’t get there. But the danger is that something will pop up in the middle and we won’t be capable enough to handle it.
Most people tend to say the Army isn’t doing much. Just think: We never left the Sinai. We’ve only been there now forever. It’s now getting more dangerous there since the extremists have already attacked down in Sharm el-Sheikh. So that’s added a new dimension to it. And we’re still in Kosovo. We still have some stuff up in Sarajevo in a headquarters. Not many, but there are troops still throughout the Balkans. And now we’re in the Baltics, and we’re starting to plus-up there. And I just saw on the TV just outside here in the reception area that the brigade which we were sending to Korea was actually over there. This was a full-up mechanized brigade in Korea. And it’s the first time we’ve sent a complete brigade to Korea.
What we have is the full spectrum of war. All the way from the use of the military for forest fires down at the low end of the spectrum, you know domestic issues, distributing water in Flint, Mich., or whatever might be the mission of the day. All the way out to nuclear war.
What’s intriguing to me is that people tend not to pay any attention to it.
Defense One: Why do you think this isn’t getting through to lawmakers or the broader public?
Sullivan: It has to be thrust upon them in ways which are unavoidable. Then they’ll be concerned about it. The problem is U.S. leadership is needed. There’s no lack of dictators today.
Defense One: Are there Army specialties that are feeling more of a strain than others?
Sullivan: Certainly. We are deploying, in significant numbers, our air defense assets [to] Korea, Guam, the Gulf states, plus the homeland defense. It’s a big number and it doesn’t diminish, whereas the rest of the Army does. And given the nature of the Army — in some cases, the executive agent for supporting the other services with capabilities like theater intelligence; theater medical support; sustainment support, like moving petroleum around, water, so forth and so on — you have a lot of the sinews of war which come from the Army. Okay, so that’s number one.
Number two is the balance between the five domains of warfare: land, sea, air, cyber and space. And when you look at the long-term modernization, most of your money is going into air systems and naval systems which are directed against a future threat. It’s relatively far out in the future. I think the challenge is to have some kind of balance as we move along the continuum of time so that we can respond in each of the domains.
One question I have is: Why doesn’t the chief of staff or the secretary of the Army have the ability to utilize the cost-savings from manpower for readiness or modernization? Most of that money disappears, frankly. But clearly the Army needs modernization and it needs dollars. And I worry that in some cases, we are presuming a level of risk at the front end where we are using Army forces, that if we’re not careful, we’ll wind up with an Army which can’t react when we need it to if something really happens.
Defense One: An increased reliance on special operations doesn’t exactly alleviate the pressure on the Army.
Sullivan: Raids are important; they’re a part of the larger strategy. But in some cases, like going into Ramadi in Iraq or Helmand in Afghanistan and controlling those places after you get there—that involves a lot of troops.
Defense One: How do you define “readiness” for non-military folks and families that may not be versed in all the jargon?
Sullivan: I want your son or your daughter, husband or wife or nephew to know that when they go to war—as dangerous as it is—that he or she has as good a chance as we can give them at coming out of this alive. They may fight to the death, but they will equip themselves and we will have given them the best chance we can.
The Army’s assigned missions overseas are up 20 percent over the last year, and the force is still shrinking along with our readiness. I think we seem to have this notion that we can continue to put the troops in the sights. So I’m gonna start blocking your cost-of-living allowance because we need money for other things….Every year we are “modernizing” the retirement system, or we’re capping pay. Water torture, all of it. Talk about uncertainty.
I think we have to be very careful that we’re not putting our troops and families back into this cycle where you finish one deployment and then you’re into another. People have to pay attention to this.