With big Pentagon cuts coming, Gen. Raymond Odierno said the Army will likely shrink below the 520,000 troops called for in the current Pentagon plans.

“Do I think we are going to end up at 520,000 soldiers? Probably not,” said Odierno, the Army’s new chief of staff. “So what is the right number?”

The need to reduce the deficit will mean big cuts to the defense budget for all the services. In the case of the Army, that means cutting the size of the force, which has grown in recent years to deal with the strain of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army currently has about 569,000 soldiers on active duty, including a temporary increase of 22,000 that is already scheduled to lapse in 2014.

Senior Army officials had hoped to hold the line at 520,000 soldiers. Odierno said that the Army is currently trying to determine how many and what kinds of soldiers it will need for the future.

“We have to be careful,” he said. “We have to look at this from a strategy viewpoint and what is expected from us. If we make an egregious mistake now we will pay for it later.”

Before leaving office, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates seemed to play down the likelihood of the U.S. committing troops to another extended occupation or counterinsurgency war.

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Gates told an assembly of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy.

After the speech Gates said that he was trying to press the Army to think more broadly about future wars.

Odierno, however, said that he could not afford to assume that the Army would never be asked to fight another large-scale counterinsurgency war. “I am not willing to say that we will never do that again,” he said. To prepare for an uncertain future, the service must keep enough mid-level officers and sergeants so that it can grow quickly to face new threats, he added.