The Army faces “a tremendous amount of risk” if a potential smaller budget is unable to sustain recent readiness gains and support major modernization developments, the service’s acting secretary said Tuesday.

John Whitley, who also serves as the Army’s comptroller, said that tight margins associated with a declining budget environment would require the service to bring down operational tempo to continue funding other priority areas.

Acting Army Secretary John E. Whitley briefs the media, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Jan. 25, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

“The Army cannot sustain that level of commitment and operating tempo and readiness for such a wide range of things in a declining budget environment. And that’s just simple math,” Whitley said during a Center for New American Security discussion. “We’re going to try to protect readiness at all costs. We’re going to try to protect as much of modernization as we can at all costs. But, there is not a lot of room to maneuver in the Army budget.”

Whitley declined to talk specifics on the Army’s fiscal year 2022 request, including numbers from the latest round of “night court” program cuts, until the full budget is released.

The Biden administration did release topline budget request numbers earlier this month, to include $715 billion for the Pentagon which would represent a 1.5 percent increase over FY ‘21 spending levels, but no details on how the money would be allocated (Defense Daily, April 9). 

While the Army has made strides in recovering readiness levels following sequestration-era budgets and has made progress on its range of modernization initiatives, Whitley said those gains could be “fragile” without “consistent, sustained funding.”

“What that means is, on one hand, the Army is in a very good place. The Army has rebuilt readiness…and is at the beginning stages of what’s, so far, been a very successful modernization program. That’s the good view of the world. The other view of the world is that means there’s a tremendous amount of risk in the Army’s budget today for a couple of reasons,” Whitley said. “One, those readiness gains are fragile. What we learned through the sequester years is if you take your foot off the gas on readiness, it can turn around on a knife’s edge. It can turn around and you can lose readiness very quickly.”

Whitley also said the Army will face tougher choices finding programs to make cuts in order to fully fund modernization efforts, echoing comments from Ryan McCarthy, the previous service secretary, who said “borderline contentious” divestitures decisions were on the horizon (Defense Daily, Oct. 7). 

“When you look at that modernization portfolio…the Army, to a large extent, has self-funded it. Our budget has largely been flat for the last several years. We knew we had a modernization challenge. We knew we were going to have to take it on ourselves,” Whitley said. “What that means now is a lot of what you might think would be excess or available resources…we’ve done that.”

The Army has shifted tens of billions of dollars from lower priority programs toward modernization programs over the last few years, and will have another round of “night court” program cuts and reductions as part of its FY ‘22 budget request. 

“We’ve done some more. It’s pre-decisional, so I won’t discuss it, but we’ve done more in the FY ‘22 budget cycle as well,” Whitley said.