By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army is far more heavily engaged around the world than projected when it began slashing force size several years ago, and its commitments will be hard to maintain in the long run as troop numbers shrink, General Ray Odierno said on Friday.
Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said decisions about cutting the size of the force from 570,000 to the current 490,000 were made several years ago when Pentagon planners expected a peaceful Europe, a declining commitment in Afghanistan and no return to Iraq.
Instead, he said, the Army is regularly using three brigades in eastern Europe because of concerns about Russia's support for rebels in Ukraine. It has another three brigades in Afghanistan, a brigade in Iraq, a brigade in Kuwait and is rotating a brigade to South Korea, Odierno added.
"These are all pretty significant requirements. If they do not reduce, it will be hard for us to maintain that over a long period of time," he told reporters.
Odierno, who is due to leave office in a few weeks, said he thought insecurity in eastern Europe and the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria were both long-term problems.
He predicted defeating Islamic State could take 10 to 20 years, far longer than the administration has projected. But without some relief, either in budget cuts or the breadth of commitments, the Army may not be able to sustain the pace.
"At some point we're going to have to say what we're not going to do because we're not going to be able to do everything we're being asked to do right now," he said.
Odierno said he had been warning for two years that tight budgets would require the Army to cut the active-duty force to 450,000 troops from the current 490,000. He said he was surprised by the recent outcry when the service specified which bases would be hit in the coming years.
"We've been very clear that the Army will have to move down to 450,000 with the current budget we have," he said, noting that a further reduction to about 420,000 could be required if spending reductions continue.
The Pentagon is currently trying to absorb nearly $1 trillion in projected cuts to spending over a decade. The reductions were ordered as part of the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.
(Reporting by David Alexander)