WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the Army doesn't want the number of U.S. soldiers to fall below the already reduced level of 520,000 announced by the Pentagon earlier this year. But he fears it's likely to happen anyway during the budget battle in Washington.
If it does, General Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, warns that there may be repercussions for U.S. readiness -- including the ability to fight two wars at the same time, a cornerstone of current military planning.
"I'm comfortable at 520. Do I think we're going to end up at 520? Probably not," Odierno, who took over the Army's top uniformed job this week, told reporters at the Pentagon.
The U.S. Defense Department is already cutting at least $350 billion from previously projected spending and additional cuts of as much as $600 billion could kick in if Congress fails to find at least $1.2 trillion more in deficit reductions by year-end.
The Pentagon's industrial policy chief said at the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit in Washington that the defense industry would face devastating consequences if Congress fails to find a solution for reducing deficits by the end of the year.
Top U.S. arms makers are set to meet Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon next Tuesday to discuss their concerns.
Odierno, a former U.S. commander in Iraq, said the way that the Army downsizes is important, adding the key wasn't to go "too small, too fast" -- something that could reduce the Army's flexibility when responding to unforeseen events.
"We all know that, with the budget considerations, the Army is going to get smaller. We know that's going to happen," he said. "But it's how we go about doing it that's important."
Odierno said there was still ongoing analysis about whether the Pentagon could still fight two wars simultaneously if the number of soldiers fell below 520,000. But he wasn't optimistic.
"We're still doing some analysis ... We're working through several different scenarios to help us figure it out," he said.
"I think at 520 we could probably do it fairly close. Below 520 we can't," he added, before appearing to qualify his answer by saying "it's all about risk -- how much risk you are willing to assume."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Walsh)