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The number of Army leaders who believe that the largest military branch is heading in the right direction has hit an all-time low, according to an independent survey of 17,000 commissioned and non-commissioned officers.

In a global survey conducted in November and December of 2011, only 26 percent of Army leaders who participated agreed with the statement that the Army "is headed in the right direction to prepare for the challenges of the next 10 years."

That compares to 33 percent who agreed with that statement in 2010 and 38 percent in 2006.

The survey was taken in the midst of more than a decade of war, a shrinking force and the development of a new U.S. defense strategy, announced by President

Barack Obama in January 2012, that rejects prolonged ground wars and foreign stabilization efforts such as those and Iraq in Afghanistan. Instead, the military will focus on a leaner, more agile force across the Asia-Pacific region and in the Middle East.

Commissioned by the Center for Army Leadership at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the survey provides not only a picture of Army morale but also what Army leaders think of each other.

Among the top reasons for the grim outlook cited in the survey were "ineffective leaders at senior levels," a fear of keeping the best leaders after the post-9/11 wars and a perception, particularly among enlisted non-commissioned officers, that the Army lacks sufficient discipline and is "too soft."

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High morale was reported by 59 percent of the Army leaders overall but remained lower in Afghanistan (48 percent) and Iraq (43 percent).

Army leaders commenting to the survey team showed fears that troop reductions ahead would change the service for the worse and make it difficult for the Army to protect national interests abroad.

"The wrenching difficult experience of the last 10 years, bumping up against the uncertainty about the future, is probably one of the things that is creating unease inside the Army," Nathan Freier, a former Army officer and strategist now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told NBC News.

In addition, Freier said the reductions in force may create the perception that leaders aren't making their case for the Army strong enough, and whether true or not, that many young career officers aren't in the Army for the long haul and are planning to get out.

In a memo, the Army's top officer, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, said the survey results are taken seriously and in the past have led to important changes. The Army did not respond to requests by NBC News for comment on the survey.

Army leaders in the survey also chided government policy makers in their comments.

"These comments generally cited the negative influence of government policy makers (outside the Army) as being detrimental to the future of the Army," the survey report said, "and indicated that senior Army leaders themselves felt the need to bow to 'politically correct solutions' to appease policy makers, or to 'play politics' within their own organizations."

Generally, Army leaders rated favorable for getting results, preparation and leading others, though were shown to need work on developing others.

"Senior leaders need to translate their guidance into more practical terms for more junior leaders," retired Brigadier General Thomas A. Kolditz, who now teaches at the Yale School of Management, told the Boston Globe, which first reported on the survey. "If that transmission isn't being done, those junior leaders could feel disconnected."