WASHINGTON – Soldiers deployed to Afghanistan next year may see their war tours extended because budget cuts will drastically limit training for brigades to replace them, the top Army general said Friday.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said the military will be able to fund training and operations for combat units in Afghanistan now and for those deploying in the summer and fall. But he says there will be delays in training for those deploying in 2014.
If those training delays can't be made up, Odierno said he would have to send forces to war that aren't ready or extend deployments of units already there. A number of combat brigades will be deploying later this year and next year, even as the U.S. winds down the war.
"We will try to divert money so we do not have to extend people in Afghanistan," Odierno told a conference at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "That's a very big concern of mine."
He said that right now the Army is facing a shortfall of as much as $8 billion in operating funds for Afghanistan, and there could be an additional $5.4 billion in cuts if Congress can't resolve a budget standoff and automatic reductions — called sequester — go into effect.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Friday that he expects the sequester to go into effect March 1, triggering $46 billion in automatic cuts to the overall Pentagon budget through September. "I think it's going to happen," McKeon told reporters. "We have just not been able to get past the politics of it to really focus in on the devastating effects."
President Barack Obama announced this week that he will cut the size of the U.S. force roughly in half by a year from now. There are currently about 66,000 U.S. troops at the warfront, and he said he will withdraw about 34,000 by this time next year.
Longer deployments have been a difficult issue for the Army.
In 2007, the Army extended the yearlong deployments to 15 months in order to meet the demands of the Iraq war, including the surge of troops ordered by then-President George W. Bush. In many cases, combat brigades returned home and were ordered to deploy again 12 months later, leading top military leaders to worry that the force was being strained almost to the breaking point.
Over time, as the Iraq war ended, the Army deployment times were scaled back to a year, and most are now about nine months long.
Among the units scheduled to deploy later this spring is the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, but the Army has not announced what units will go to Afghanistan later in the summer in fall.