By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army chief told Reuters on the eve of a major Pentagon budget announcement that he's comfortable with plans to shrink the size of his force and shift the military's focus to Asia, saying the Army will remain relevant and capable.
General Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, declined to disclose figures the Pentagon is due to unveil that envision a smaller Army and the withdrawal of two brigade combat teams from Europe. Those fixed brigades will be replaced by rotational units.
"We're now out of Iraq, we're reducing our commitment in Afghanistan, so we can now bring the size of the Army down. And I feel comfortable with how we're going to do that," Odierno said in an interview from his Pentagon office.
"It's more about the timeline we bring it down on, and I'm satisfied with that timeline."
The Pentagon will preview President Barack Obama's budget proposal for the Pentagon on Thursday. It is expected to cut $260 billion in projected defense spending over the next five years and favor services like the Navy and the Air Force over the Army and Marines.
A U.S. official confirmed media reports that the Pentagon plans to slash eight Army brigades and reduce the overall force to as few as 490,000 over the next decade from around 565,000. But Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have said they will not hollow-out the force with the kind of cuts the military endured in the wake of the Vietnam war.
Indeed, U.S. officials have pointed to concerns about China's military buildup and North Korea's nuclear advances as they explain plans to focus more on the Asia-Pacific region.
Odierno, fresh from a trip to Asia, acknowledged the need for naval and air assets in any military strategy for the Pacific. But he stressed that the Army will keep playing an important role in the region, and pointed to the 19,160 soldiers deployed in South Korea as a deterrent against the North.
MORE TROOPS IN ASIA
Indeed, Odierno saw no downsizing of the Army presence in Asia and said it will further supplement its forces with troops who rotate in and out of the region.
"That's what we got to decide: How much rotational presence will we be able to do," Odierno said.
Odierno noted that the Army could play an important diplomatic role engaging with militaries in Asia, given that 22 out of the 28 chiefs of defense in the Pacific are army officers. Seven out of the world's 10 largest land armies in the world are in the Pacific, he added.
That common army background "will help us to build relationships," he said.
Odierno, who in the past commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, has put together "Marching Orders," a pamphlet explaining his vision for the future of the Army that he intends to start distributing next week. In it, he says his intent is to maintain "the most decisive land force in the world."
"We're going to be an Army in transition. We'll be in transition for the next five or six years," Odierno said.
"But as we come out of this transition, we're going to take the lessons we've learned over the last seven or eight years," he said, adding the future Army would be more versatile and flexible.
"The president, the secretary (of defense) have been very clear, that they need a strong, capable Army. We will continue to have a strong, capable Army," he said.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Eric Beech)