Considering how life has changed since the start of 2020, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy is proud of how the Army is performing and optimistic about the future.
“Our people are working very hard. They’ve been asked to do extraordinary things, and they have delivered. The results are undeniable,” McCarthy said.
“Now and over the next five years, there are a lot of things to be excited about, but one of the things we are most concerned about is our people. We are running them hard,” he said. Like helicopters, tanks and other equipment, people depreciate as well from hard work with no respite, McCarthy said. “They have to be taken care of. You have to make investments in people.”
Investing in people requires the luxury of time, he said. That means time for training, time for counseling and time for rest. The Army intends to be “much more conscious about time” in the future, McCarthy said, adding that he and other leaders have been talking about how to put this into action.
Investing in Soldiers
McCarthy and other Army leaders have embraced fundamental culture change, pushing for an Army of equity, fairness and cohesive teams to overcome issues of gender and race, reduce incidents of sexual harassment, assault and bullying, and make everyone feel part of the same effort. “It is not about slogans,” he said. “This is not creating another office, a T-shirt or a coin.”
The idea, he said, is from the top down, to have leaders invested in their teams, providing feedback and talking about opportunities and fairness. “We need to give people opportunities to see themselves and their future,” he said. That means going beyond mundane issues like making certain your soldiers get their teeth cleaned and other things on the checklist. Otherwise, “nobody is going to think you really care about them.”
The Army is filled with millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, who are eager to learn, McCarthy said. “They want to be mentored. They want to be invested in. They want to have a conversation,” he said. “This is a very intelligent generation. They are smarter than we were. They have more access to information than we did. They are making informed decisions as young people, and they need to be presented options.”
This provides an opportunity and challenge for leaders if they want to keep talent in their organizations, McCarthy said. “If you invest time against it, it happens,” he said, suggesting leaders should regularly talk to their soldiers about how they are performing and about the soldier’s future.
In an interview timed to coincide with AUSA Now, the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army, the 24th secretary of the Army said he knows there has been tremendous pressure on the institution, and especially on soldiers. “If you look at the breadth of this institution and how it can support every national objective, it is amazing, but it is not without cost,” McCarthy said.
Over four years, the Army has made great gains in readiness, going from just two brigade combat teams at the highest level of readiness to 26 today. The Army also has made tremendous progress on modernization, starting from scratch four years ago to having 31 signature programs across six investment portfolios McCarthy said are funded across the five-year defense plan. The result has been an increase in research and development investment by industry.
A lot has happened since New Year’s Eve 2019, when the Army looked in excellent shape with a congressionally approved budget that covered Army priorities including readiness, modernization and people. “Even with 170,000 people deployed for 19 years on sustained combat operations in the Middle East, there was a lot of momentum,” he said.
Then things started changing. Learning that Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was planning attacks in the Middle East, the U.S. killed him on Jan. 3, an action that “ultimately took us to the brink of war with Iran,” McCarthy said. “We moved thousands of troops to the Middle East to secure infrastructure and support our allies. That created a new dynamic for us.”
Weeks later, the House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump. Forty-five days later, “a flu pandemic on the scale of the Spanish flu of 1918 hit the world, fundamentally changing our lives. Sixty days after that, an African American male is murdered by a policeman, and he became a catalyst for civil protests that we have not seen since the 1960s. We put more than 43,000 National Guard troops on the streets.”
The combination of Middle East unrest, protests and a pandemic put extra stress on the Army as active, Guard and Reserve troops augmented medical staffs, built hospitals, delivered food and ran nursing homes, McCarthy said. They are also supporting law enforcement while there are troops deployed overseas.
McCarthy said he’s pleased with how Army leaders at every level have responded to the turmoil of competing priorities. “One of the things that is just amazing is how well leaders have responded,” he said.
Focus on the Future
On modernization, McCarthy said the Army has “made tremendous momentum over the last three years” and is “right at the point of making it irreversible.”
The effort is important, he said, because “when you look at our near-peer competitors, they haven’t slowed down. There is unrest in Eastern Europe. There is tension in the South China Sea. Combat operations remain in the Middle East.”
“We have to continue to modernize the force. We have to remain ready. We have got to take care of our people,” he said.
Asked if he’s worried about future Army budgets, McCarthy replied, “Absolutely.” Flat or declining budgets could stop or even reverse the almost-irreversible progress the Army has made. The threat looms because of the trillions of dollars being poured into economic recovery that will greatly increase the national debt. He anticipates the Army could start to feel pinched in the fiscal 2022 budget or slightly later.
What the Army might do in a flat or falling budget isn’t clear. Modernization can be slowed, readiness funding could drop, or troop strength could be flattened. “Those are the really monumental type of choices that are in front of us,” McCarthy said.
What happens would depend on the level of cuts. If the reduction is large, “everything would be on the table,” he said. “Choices would have to be made about what knobs you turn.” Troop strength and force structure, readiness and modernization could all be cut, and modernization priorities that are slow to produce results might also suffer, he warned.
“If it were to be cut, it would be because one of those 31 systems [is] not performing,” he said. “We need them all,” he said, but if cuts are required, “we would have to be ruthless.”
Ultimately, the secretary of defense and president will have to determine the choices, he said.
“The excitement and energy we have right now has taken years to build,” McCarthy said, describing four consecutive years of disciplined budgets that have “energized the defense industrial base.”
Honored to Serve
McCarthy, an Army veteran, has served as the Army’s top civilian since August 2017, sometimes as undersecretary, sometimes as acting secretary, and, since Sept. 30, 2019, as the 24th secretary of the Army. He served in the Army from 1997 to 2002, including deploying to Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment during Operation Enduring Freedom.
McCarthy loves his job, saying the greatest—and worst—days of his life have involved soldiers. “Soldiers are the most humble, hardworking and highest-value people I think I’ve ever met,” he said. “What they do for this country is just amazing. It is the greatest honor of my life to be part of it, especially in this capacity.”
You can tell how much he likes the job from the hundreds of photos of a grinning, laughing or beaming McCarthy greeting soldiers, Army civilians and family members during his many installation visits. He gave a lot of hugs before the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now a master of the elbow bump.
McCarthy said he brings a lot of energy to the job because “that’s what they deserve. That’s why you see me smile, because I get to be their teammate.”
He was not smiling in early August when he visited Fort Hood, Texas, to talk about Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was killed by another soldier. At a news conference there, he said, “We let her down,” and pledged the Army would change. “We will do everything we can to protect her legacy,” he told her family.
In the AUSA Now interview, McCarthy said Guillen’s death hit him hard. “When you have an instance where one soldier kills another, it is heartbreaking. When you see instances like that, it tears us apart because trust is the foundation of who we are.”
“In a business of life and death, trust is everything,” McCarthy said, adding that Guillen’s death violated the trust of soldiers and teammates. “How do we rebuild that? We fight for trust every day, to protect it, to strengthen it, and something like that shattered it. It hurt. It hurt really bad.”