Army Renaissance: Esper Expresses Sense of Urgency, Warning ‘We Must Act Now’
America’s Army has entered an urgent and risky period of reform that Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper calls “Army Renaissance.”
Speaking at his first Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting since he became the Army’s 23rd secretary, Esper said, “Seventeen consecutive years of irregular war, extended periods of budget uncertainty and an increasingly complex security environment have eroded our competitive edge. Our adversaries meanwhile have taken advantage of this to better their positions.”
The Army has been responding, he said. It has improved readiness, is increasing lethality and has taken the bold step of creating the U.S. Army Futures Command to streamline the acquisition process and more quickly put new, smarter technology in the hands of soldiers. The Army Vision unveiled in June presents a 10-year plan for a bigger, better-trained and better-equipped force that Esper said “charts our path.”
“While 2028 may seem like a long time away, achieving our vision requires a sense of urgency. We must act now to ensure we are ready today and even more lethal tomorrow,” he said. “Ready Today, More Lethal Tomorrow” was the theme of AUSA’s Annual Meeting and Exposition, held over three days in Washington, D.C., in October. More than 31,000 people attended.
“We are in a renaissance,” Esper said. “I feel it in my bones. … This renaissance means we look at everything differently. We turn it upside down and inside out. We look for efficiencies, and we look for better ways to be effective.”
Hard Work Ahead
Esper said he is under no illusion that this is going to be easy. “Getting there requires hard work,” he said. “We will need to reform the way we do business. In today’s environment, we must make difficult choices and prioritize what is most important to modernize the Army.”
There are big plans, especially focused on Futures Command’s ability to dramatically reduce the time it takes to move from requirement to fielding technology. “Technology is changing too fast, and our enemies are too adaptable,” Esper said, explaining why the modernization process needs overhauling.
“We’re also developing a new generation of weapons and equipment to guarantee overmatch for years to come,” Esper said. “Our legacy platforms have served us well for decades, but we’re running out of upgrades that will keep us ahead.”
“It is an exciting time to be in the Army,” Esper told reporters at a news conference following his opening ceremony address. “Change is underway, and change will remain underway during our tenure,” he said, nodding toward Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, who was at his side.
“Amidst all of the headlines of today, our country is still at war,” Milley said. “We still have 180,000 soldiers in 140 countries, at freedom’s frontier, so to speak.”
Saying he was attending his “fourth and last AUSA as chief of staff of the Army,” Milley said he was “very, very proud of what the Army has done for the last several years.”
“When I became chief, we were in a situation in respect to readiness that was on a downward slope in all of the metrics and measurements of readiness. Because of Congress and because of the work of a lot of people in the Army and outside the Army, we have stopped the bleeding and are on an upward swing.”
“We have turned the corner,” he said, predicting it will be 2022 or 2023 before the Army fully meets its readiness objectives. “We are not out of the woods yet. We have a way to go.”
Futures Command ‘Moving Out’
The Austin, Texas-based Futures Command “is promptly moving out to unify and focus our modernization enterprise,” Esper said. “It will ensure that we stay true to our established priorities.”
While not predicting instant successes, Esper said he expects to see prototypes “in the next few years” for Next-Generation Combat Vehicles, squad automatic weapons, mobile short-range air defense systems and a strategic long-range cannon.
While the Army is trying to move fast, Milley cautioned that some patience is required. “Realistically, you are not going to modernize an Army in 12, 24 or 36 months,” he said. “That is not going to happen.”
“What we have been able to do is refocus our efforts and reorganize the institutional Army to more effectively modernize in the future,” Milley said. “I am very, very comfortable and pleased with what the Army has done to reset its stance as we go into the future.”
Congress has been of “tremendous support,” Esper said, with fiscal 2017, 2018 and 2019 budgets providing needed money and support. “We needed to stop the bleeding and start rebuilding readiness,” he said.
The 2019 defense appropriations and authorization bills were passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump before the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year, the first time in a decade that has happened. This has helped the Army manage its money, he said, adding that he hopes for a similar stable budget process for the 2020 budget.
Esper is aware that 2020 defense spending is likely to be flat, requiring savings to come from within. “To sustain the renaissance, we must reform now,” he said. “Reform is not an end unto itself but rather the means by which we take control of our own destiny. Reform allows us to optimize the use of our time, money and manpower. Effective reforms generate efficiencies and ensure we are putting the right resources into the right activities.”
It also means looking for resources, he said. “We look for reform in every nook and cranny and every seat cushion to make sure we free up the time, money and manpower to focus on readiness and modernization.”
This has been successful. Through a process informally termed “night court,” Army leaders identified $25 billion that could be cut from lower-priority programs to spend on more critical needs. It was a process that required about 60 hours to review more than 500 programs in what Esper said was a “program by program, activity by activity look at each one.”
The assessment was simple, determining if the program was “more important than a Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, is this more important than a squad automatic weapon, is this more important than long-range precision fires,” Esper said, speaking about some of the Army’s modernization priorities. “We had to make those trade-offs. It resulted in reductions and cancellations and consolidations.”
Milley said, “What we have been able to do is refocus our efforts and reorganize the institutional Army to more effectively modernize in the future.”
The Army must do better managing the people it has and a better job recruiting, Esper said.
One thing he’s pushing is “giving back time to our junior leaders.” That’s his description of efforts to reduce “the cumulative weight of mandatory reporting and training tasks,” things he believes “hurt our ability to build ready, lethal units, let alone forge trust and confidence in subordinate leaders.” His efforts to eliminate and reduce these mandatory requirements have been well-received in the ranks.
“We have made good strides in taking care of soldiers and their families,” Milley said. “Soldiers will perform best in training and soldiers will perform best in combat zones if they know their families—their spouses and their children—have good homes, have good medical care and a good education system.”
Esper’s call for a rebirth of the Army doesn’t mean he thinks today’s force is weak. “Make no mistake about it, our Army stands ready to defeat any adversary that threatens the United States of America,” he said, crediting Milley for rebuilding readiness. “No one has done more than Gen. Milley to get us where we are today,” Esper said.
The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative public policy group, raised its annual Army fighting power assessment largely because of readiness improvements. Of the Army’s 31 brigade combat teams, 15 are now considered combat-ready, Heritage said in its 2019 Index of U.S. Military Strength that gave the Army a readiness rating score of “strong.” “On average, the Army needs 21 brigade combat teams to fight one major regional conflict,” the report says.
Milley has the same assessment. “We are looking pretty good in terms of a rise over run,” he said, describing the results as “a steady climb in readiness of the United States Army from just a few years ago.”
“We are very, very happy; very, very pleased with that, which is the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” Milley said.
While weapons and equipment are key elements of Esper’s renaissance, so are soldiers. Initial training is being extended by two months, “making it the longest and hardest in the world,” Esper said. “Additionally, we have instituted the Army Combat Fitness Test, which will improve the fitness and fighting readiness of soldiers.”
Soldier performance is important because “the future battlefield will be unrelenting. Our force, regardless of age or gender, must be physically and mentally tough,” Esper said.
Modernizing doctrine is an important part of the Army Renaissance, Esper said. “The importance of the space and cyber domains has rendered the AirLand Battle doctrine inadequate, if not obsolete. The military domains have become too interconnected to fight each in isolation. Even coordinated action is insufficient.”
The Multi-Domain Battle doctrine unveiled in 2017 by then-U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Commander Gen. David G. Perkins is being updated with plans to reveal Multi-Domain Operations 2.0 sometime in 2019, Esper said. “To this day, I can still remember the tenets of AirLand Battle doctrine. Agility, initiative, depth and synchronization were drilled into me as a young officer in the 1980s.” That doctrine was unveiled in 1982, only to be replaced in 2005 by the Full Spectrum Operations doctrine that added sea, undersea, psychological and extraterrestrial aspects.
Esper wants Multi-Domain Operations doctrine to be “institutionalized across the Army in the same way, beginning with the schoolhouses and training centers.” He has great hopes for the outcome. “Organizing for Multi-Domain Operations will increase the complexity of our formations and demand more of our leaders that will pay big dividends when employed correctly,” he said.
Filling a growing Army with quality soldiers is another challenge, Esper said. “One of the most important and urgent steps in this reform is to rethink our recruiting strategy,” he said. His speech came shortly after the Army acknowledged it missed its fiscal 2018 recruiting goal. It had expected to end the year with 483,500 soldiers, a 7,500 increase, but ended up growing by just 1,000.
Esper said recruiters worked hard in an “increasingly difficult” market, and that it was better not to lower requirements just to meet a manning target. “We will not sacrifice quality for quantity,” he said. “The recruiting environment has changed so we must change with it.”
Missing the recruiting goal “certainly is a warning light, but it is not by any means catastrophic to us,” Milley said. “On balance, we have had a couple of very good recruiting years,” he said, predicting the Army would catch up on recruiting in fiscal 2019. Congress authorized a 4,000 increase in Regular Army troop levels.
“With the unemployment rate at a 50-year low, there is a lot of opportunity out there, and we are in a highly competitive environment to recruit good quality talent,” Milley said. “We are making some adjustments going forward in our recruiting strategy and marketing strategy, increasing the number of recruiters and looking at where they are located.”
Esper agreed, saying, “We can, and we will, make some progress on recruiting but it is going to take some time.”
An ambitious goal is to have Army units manned at 105 percent of authorized strength, a level that would allow some cushion for inevitable situations when soldiers are temporarily nondeployable, Milley said. Those percentages work because the Army has dramatically reduced the number of soldiers who are not able to deploy, he said.