Maintaining Momentum: Army’s Top Civilian Looks to Deliver on Readiness, Modernization Gains
Ryan D. McCarthy, the former Ranger and Afghanistan War veteran called on for the fourth time to be the civilian leader of the U.S. Army, is both optimistic and concerned about the future of America’s foundational force.
Confirmed by the Senate on Sept. 26 to be the 24th secretary of the Army, McCarthy already has a lot of experience in the job. In the 25 months before his appointment as secretary, he served several times as acting secretary or as the senior official performing the duties of secretary, including a 108-day period in 2017 and about four months in 2019. That experience gave the Senate Armed Services Committee confidence that he was well prepared for the job.
In the time since his Aug. 1, 2017, appointment as Army undersecretary, he’s seen dramatic improvement in the force’s combat readiness and watched over the biggest reorganization of Army commands since World War II.
“If you look across the key priorities, we have a great deal of momentum at this point in time,” McCarthy said. The readiness posture “is very robust,” and there is much energy and focus being applied across the Army to meeting key performance parameters, he said.
“It is very encouraging when over half of your brigades are at the highest levels of readiness,” he said. “That is a huge change.”
With experience as an international banker, a House Foreign Affairs Committee aide, defense executive and special assistant to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the 46-year-old McCarthy knows there are many reasons for the Army’s improving posture—and there are also many reasons why things can go bad.
McCarthy credits the Trump administration’s larger defense budgets for funding improvements, but he also points to what he calls the “extraordinary leadership” of both uniformed and civilian leaders.
“I am very proud of the work that has been done and the trajectory that we are on,” McCarthy said.
Two years into a pivotal and revolutionary modernization effort that McCarthy and other military leaders believe will regain U.S. land power advantages in future great-power competitions, he feels confident the Army is on the right track. At the same time, he is urging those monitoring the effort to have patience. “We really put our money where our mouth is,” McCarthy said, describing the effort to allocate $41 billion to the Army’s investment priorities by reallocating money from programs deemed to be of lower importance.
“We organized against the problem, we’ve moved billions of dollars against the problem, and we’ve remained focused on what is about 31 signature systems,” he said, predicting a “very interesting fall” as prototypes start being delivered to the cross-functional teams focused on specific capabilities.
“The real litmus test here will be how patient senior leaders are if the prototypes don’t perform like we hope they will … and how patient Congress will be,” McCarthy said.
Focus on Modernization
He knows some things won’t work or won’t work exactly as envisioned, requiring a lot of explaining to key stakeholders, DoD, Congress and industry leaders, to convince them to stay on course. “We will have to learn from these things and be able to adjust,” he said.
“We have tremendous momentum,” he said, adding that he hopes to avoid undoing a course set in 2017 when a decision was made to allocate 80% of the Army’s science and technology funds to the service’s top modernization priorities. The Army further dedicated itself to modernization through the so-called night court process, in which senior Army leaders met and found ways to move money from other programs into the service’s priorities. The result was $31 billion reallocated during the preparation of the fiscal 2019 budget and another $10 billion while working on the 2020 budget, with most of that money earmarked for the modernization effort over the next five years.
That is a big shift that McCarthy said resulted in less resistance than expected because Army leaders “aggressively” communicated to Congress on why the adjustments were made.
McCarthy said he is “grateful” to Congress for giving the Army “a lot of latitude in pursuing this modernization strategy. I think they are doing this because we have been extremely aggressive in the way we communicated back and forth our intent of where we are going.” The same effort was made with the media and CEOs of defense companies.
“When you are very aggressive with communication, you can reduce the pushback or resistance that you could normally expect,” he said.
It also helped that McCarthy, then-Army Secretary Mark T. Esper, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and then-Army Vice Chief Gen. James C. McConville agreed to accept no changes in modernization priorities. “We were in a four-man stack in the hallway. There was no turning back,” McCarthy said. Esper has since become defense secretary, Milley is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and McConville is Army chief of staff, but the Army’s modernization priorities remain unchanged, McCarthy said.
During the senior leadership meetings to discuss priorities, McCarthy said, nobody wavered. “We would go over the requirements to a painful level and detail, and then look everyone in the eye and say, ‘We are not changing.’ ”
What could alter the future is money, or the lack of it. Fiscal 2019 and 2020 will be good, assuming Congress wraps up the 2020 defense budget without much delay, McCarthy said. Modernization efforts will depend on some initial low-rate production in 2020 and 2021, and even bigger commitments in 2022.
Predictable and adequate budgets are needed to keep programs synchronized with industry, he said. “The Greek tragedy here is we are in lockstep on what we want, we have focus about what we want, we are working very hard to look at requirements and stay consistent so these manufacturers can work on a configuration that they could build at scale,” he said. To do this, the Army needs four budgets in a row that provide consistent and focused funding.
Fiscal 2022 and 2023 will be “seminal moments” for the Army in seeing capability advances, he said. “This isn’t just showing up. These will be formations, and they will be deployable.”
“It is critical in manufacturing to have smooth, sustainable, predictable budgets,” McCarthy said. “That is a business where you have to buy parts long-lead, you have to pay engineers to develop and design the systems. They have to work back and forth with us to test the capability.”
Pressure to Deliver
Some things won’t be perfect. “The Army has moved a lot of money toward these priorities, and if we don’t yield success on this system or that system, we’ll have to defend it. We have to be very clear about what happened and what we learned and how you’ll adjust it,” he said. “One of the things I learned when I was in the defense industry was maybe the capability doesn’t have the ambition that you set out for, but it brings more to the fight than you’ve got today. The key is harvesting something from the test.”
There will be pressure to deliver, especially because DoD appears headed into a new fiscal environment where there will be little or no increases in the budget. “The pressure on us to deliver, to put points on the board, will only get tougher.”
There will be competition for funding with the other services as well, with the ramp-up of the Air Force’s F-35 program and the Navy’s need to replace the Ohio-class submarine, McCarthy said, adding that he wishes the other services well as they face their own resource challenges while also intending to make certain the Army does well, too. “We need to continue to do better with what we have.”
This article has been updated from the print edition.