Army Secretary Christine Wormuth has a pragmatic side that helps guide her as the 25th person to hold the post.
“I knew when I came into this job that I’m never going to have all of the money that I would want to be able to do everything the Army needs,” she said in an interview. “I think the theme for my tenure is likely to be ‘hard choices,’ and I think we are going to have to really ruthlessly prioritize.”
One sign of the potential for hard choices comes in her thoughts about the Army’s modernization priorities, specifically the 31 priority programs leaders agreed were needed to transform the Army by 2035 into a force capable of conducting multidomain operations as part of an integrated joint force. Wormuth believes in the so-called 31 plus four programs (31 programs overseen by U.S. Army Futures Command and four of the highest priorities overseen by the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office) and has been pleased by the progress she’s seen, but she worries about having the time and money to do everything the Army seeks.
“I was pleasantly surprised to see how far along we are and to see how much the way we are approaching acquisition has changed,” she said. To keep up the effort in an era of flat defense budgets, the Army has made difficult decisions to reduce or eliminate billions of dollars’ worth of programs, but that might not be enough. “I think we are at a point where there is no more low-hanging fruit,” she said. “We’ve picked the fruit off the top of the tree, in the middle of the tree and then, last year, at the bottom of the tree. Now, there is not really a lot left on the tree.”
The result, she said, is making more difficult choices about the timing for funds for the 31 plus four modernization programs and further reducing more mature programs.
“We are going to have to really work hard to divest any remaining legacy systems,” she said. This is something that has proven politically difficult because there are champions in the Army and industry for many older weapons, vehicles, aircraft and systems.
The 31 plus four priority programs, which are tied to the service’s six modernization priorities that haven’t changed since they were first announced in 2017 by Army leaders, are also going to get a closer look. “I think what we are really going to have to do going forward is scrutinize the 31 plus four programs carefully,” she said. “I think we have to look at those programs and ask ourselves, are they all on track? What are we learning as we develop these prototypes? Are they panning out the way that we want?”
Those are serious questions that attempt to focus on more than just successful prototypes but also how they’d operate when fully deployed. “I think we have to be looking at how quickly do we have to field these new systems,” Wormuth said. It’s also unknown how widely new items would be fielded. “Those are the kinds of questions I think will be front and center as the chief and I go forward,” she said, referring to Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville.
A lot of testing and experimentation is underway that will help answer those questions, she said, stressing that even as budgets are tight, the Army must make people, readiness and modernization the highest priorities for resources.
For Wormuth, the challenges ahead do not necessarily require a bigger Army. “At this moment, I am not advocating for it,” she said, suggesting the force could be reshaped with a different structure as capabilities and the National Defense Strategy adjust to a post-Afghanistan operating environment. “I don’t accept that the only answer to defending our homeland in a high-intensity overseas conflict is mass,” she said.
“What comes out of the National Defense Strategy will be very instructive for us in terms of helping us think about what the force planning construct would look like,” Wormuth said. It might also be helpful to take a closer look at demands made by combatant commanders, she said.
Wormuth, the first woman to serve as Army secretary, has long experience in DoD but not in the Army. “I’ve spent the bulk of my time in the Department of Defense, but I have spent a lot of time downrange with the Army,” she said.
Visiting Army installations as the top Army civilian has been eye-opening. “What was a surprise to me was just the sheer enormity of the Army enterprise, just realizing the scale of our physical footprint, our infrastructure, the diversity of things that the U.S. Army does has been surprising to me,” she said.
She’s also developed a close working relationship with McConville. They’ve had many frank discussions about the Army’s future, she said. “I put a high priority on our partnership.”
Wormuth is pragmatic about the future, acknowledging that the Army is not going to get everything it wants but must be able to provide options to deal with an endless number of unforeseen crises.
“We don’t have the luxury in the U.S. Army of being able to focus on just one thing,” the secretary said. “As I look at the future, there is likely to be a lot on the Army’s plate.”
She added, “The chief and I have to chart a path to make certain the Army is able to be prepared for those future challenges in an environment where resources are finite.”
Wormuth was on maternity leave from her Pentagon job on Sept. 11, 2001, when those tragic acts of terrorism launched a 20-year war in Afghanistan. “A good bit of my professional career has been post-9/11,” she said.
The global war on terrorism and the sustained U.S. presence in Afghanistan, which ended with a sometimes chaotic withdrawal and evacuation, are certain to get close study of “how it started, the whole middle and how it ended, but I think, notwithstanding all of that, our service members in the entire joint force, but obviously our Army soldiers and their families, should be very proud of their service over the last two decades,” the secretary said.
“It is important not to lose focus on the fact that because of our service there, in 20 years there was not another attack on the United States that emanated from Afghanistan,” she said. “We brought Osama bin Laden to justice, and we gave many thousands of women and girls the chance for education and opportunities outside of home. None of that would have been possible without the dedicated and professional service of our soldiers.”
Ending the war provides an opportunity to refocus U.S. military priorities away from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism to looming global challenges, such as China, Russia and other substantial and sophisticated militaries, Wormuth said. She doesn’t count out North Korea as a threat, one she believes would involve a “tremendous role” by ground forces.
“While we have been very busy in the Middle East and Afghanistan for the last 20 years, the Russians and Chinese have really gone to school on the U.S. way of war,” she said. “Both of those countries have really looked at how they can develop capabilities that undermine our advantages.”
The U.S. needs to recognize that future deployments won’t necessarily be launched from an uncontested American homeland because of the potential for cyber interference and other obstacles launched by adversaries, something that could make it difficult for quick response and/or to deploy reinforcements. There is potential for “fighting from fort to port in a way that we have not done in a very long time,” she said.
“If deterrence fails, I think it is clear that we should expect they will strike the homeland,” she said of America’s adversaries, while listing infrastructure as a vulnerable area. The U.S. also must prepare for the logistics and sustainment challenges of fighting a war in someone else’s backyard, like in the Indo-Pacific where China “has a tremendous kind of home-court advantage.”