McHugh acknowledged in a wide-ranging exclusive interview that the Army is heavily stressed, strained and drained after years of combat deployments and is facing challenges stemming not only from the wars but also from a Defense Department-wide review of strategy and capabilities that could change the Army’s size, shape and missions.
“The right size of the Army is not just a matter of numbers,” McHugh said. “You can find yourself in an era of persistent conflict where 10 million troops may not be enough.” The Army, McHugh said, does not necessarily have to be larger than it is now — and may even be smaller as a result of the Quadrennial Defense Review, due to be completed early next year.
“The unsettling thing to me about persistent conflict, other than that you have no rest, is that in this era, there is no one defined threat,” he said. “And normally, if normal is the right word, we have configured our forces against one enemy or one type of enemy. We don’t have that luxury anymore.
“It is a daunting challenge, but we do think, within a number that could be close to the current end strength or perhaps a little bit less, if you configured those forces properly and resourced those forces correctly, you could meet the range of challenges,” he said.
If a decision had to be made today about whether to maintain the current temporary increases in Army end strength, McHugh said he doesn’t think the number of soldiers would be reduced.
Temporary increases in the size of the Army by 22,000 soldiers have been important to carrying out missions in Iraq and Afghanistan while also making headway in giving troops more time at home between deployments. It also played a hand in eliminating the use of stop-loss orders that force people to involuntarily stay on active duty.
With the U.S. set for a significant withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, it looks as if the increase in soldiers does not have to be permanent. But the Iraq situation could change, and no decisions have been set about troop levels in Afghanistan, McHugh said.
He also talked about his views on taking care of troops and families, weapons modernization challenges, and the demanding role he may end up playing at the center of the debate over potential repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars gays from serving openly in the military.
As Army secretary, he is responsible for 1.1 million troops, 221,000 civilian employees, 213,000 contractors and a budget of more than $200 billion.
McHugh likes to talk with troops and their families, believing that as a member of Congress serving on the House Armed Services Committee, some of the best and “most eye-opening” information he received was while sitting down with enlisted personnel. He said he very much wants to keep doing that.
He does not want to hear happy-talk reports that everything is fine because, he said, he sees one of the main functions of his job as learning early about problems and solving them before they blow into something bigger.
“Good news will take care of itself,” he said. “The challenge is to get out in front of the things that are not so good. My job is to try to resolve things before they become national headlines.”
The military’s “can-do” spirit is something he admires, but he also recognizes it can mask problems.
“We spend a lot of time taking pride in what the Army does well, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean the Pentagon. We really have to focus on where we are falling short,” McHugh said.
As he prepares to visit soldiers — arrangements are being made for him to travel to U.S. and overseas bases — McHugh is mindful of the extra burden facing units when a dignitary visits.
He said he will try to avoid too much disruption, but can’t give any guarantees. “I don’t want to do it in a way that upsets an already pretty robust schedule for these people,” he said. Weekend visits, he knows, are something to be avoided if possible. “That normally is family time,” he said.
When talking with rank-and-file soldiers, McHugh said, “The first thing I would do is kick out the officers and get the enlisted folks in the room so they would feel free to talk.”
He wants the unvarnished truth: “What are we doing wrong? What do we need to we do better? What are we doing that makes your life miserable because of our actions?”
McHugh finds himself at the center of debate over Obama’s pledge to repeal the law banning open service by homosexuals.
In the interview, McHugh carefully avoided offering his personal views on the issue, saying his job now is to provide input to Obama on how to make the change and to talk with members of Congress about the issue.
Selling the idea to Congress, which has the final say, could depend on exactly what the administration tries to do in terms of the timing of repeal and how it is applied, McHugh said.
It’s possible, for example, that homosexuals could be allowed into some occupations or units but barred from others, McHugh said, stressing that he was not aware of any such plans but only discussing how the issue might play out.
“I don’t want to prejudge the situation,” he said. “I am saying if he did that, it would be my job to explain it when the appropriate time comes.”
When asked specifically if lifting the gay ban would seriously disrupt the military, as predicted by those who oppose repeal, McHugh said there is no reason to think major turmoil would ensue.
“Anytime you have a broad-based policy change, there are challenges to that,” he said. “The Army has a big history of taking on similar issues, [with] predictions of doom and gloom that did not play out,” he said.
As he makes his initial assessment of the Army, McHugh said he sees a “mixed” picture.
He said there are “reasons for concern” in the continuing stress on the force, seen in a variety of ways, including suicides and attempted suicides, domestic violence and divorce.
A key element in dealing with those issues is giving troops more time at home, but the ultimate goal of having soldiers deployed for one year and then home for three years remains elusive. Now, the ratio of dwell time is 1:1.5 — just slightly more time at home than deployed.
“It is not where we want to be, but it’s an improvement,” McHugh said.
He said the plan remains to eliminate stop-loss and increase time at home, which he thinks will be possible even with a potential troop increase in Afghanistan.
“We are making progress,” he said, “but there still is a ways to go.”