By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Wednesday the U.S. Army has improved its combat readiness this year but is still short of what is needed to defend the nation with minimum risk after being hit with deep across-the-board budget cuts last year.
Hagel said a congressional budget deal late last year had helped to stabilize defense spending and enabled the Army to devote more resources to maintenance and training. But he warned that the gains could be reversed unless lawmakers act to avert a return to the deep spending cuts in October of next year.
"Our soldiers deserve ... a stable and predictable budget that gives them and their families the training and support they need," Hagel said in a speech at an Army convention.
"But sequestration (budget cuts) remains the law of the land. If Congress does not act, it will return in 2016, stunting and reversing Army readiness just as we have begun to recover," he added.
The Pentagon is currently under orders to cut nearly $1 trillion in projected spending over a decade, despite a series of new security issues since the administration and Congress agreed on the reductions in 2011.
Hagel said only two Army active-duty combat brigade teams were trained and ready for major combat a year ago after across-the-board cuts. But a two-year budget deal in Congress gave the Pentagon funding stability and let the Army increase training, bringing fully prepared combat brigades to 12 out of a total 37.
"While this is a direct result of the Army's ability to adapt to unreasonable budget constraints, it falls short of what I believe is sufficient to defend our nation and our allies with minimum risk," Hagel told the Army convention.
The Pentagon chief said unless Congress takes reverses the budget cuts or agrees to the department's proposals for spending reform, the military will have little choice but to cut funds for maintenance and training or further slash the size of the military force.
General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told the Army conference on Tuesday that continued reductions in the size of the military force would reduce its flexibility and ability to respond to strategic surprises.
Since the United States began cutting military spending, U.S. forces have had to respond to the crisis in Ukraine, the rise of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria and the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa while continuing to help Afghan troops fight the Taliban.
"We are witnessing first hand mistaken assumptions about the number, duration, location and size of future force conflicts. ... These miscalculations translate directly into increased military risk," said Odierno, who said military risk was "accumulating exponentially."
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)