New Approach to the Coming ‘High-End Fight’: Esper Plots Course for a More Lethal Force
The Army must retain its current skills but be able to crush adversaries in full-scale combat as it faces an approaching era of global competition threatening U.S. overmatch, Army Secretary Mark T. Esper says.
In an interview at his Pentagon office, the 23rd secretary of the Army addressed the changing operational environment faced by the Army. He outlined some of what is coming to ensure the force has the lethality it needs and the means to prepare for something bigger than irregular warfare.
A new approach to organizing, training and equipping the force will be essential as the Army emerges from years of deploying large numbers of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and pivots toward “an era of great-power competition.”
“We’re not going to be able to move away from irregular warfare much like the Army did after Vietnam. Instead, we’re going to have to retain those skills and capabilities, yet relearn how to fight the high-end fight and do so as a priority,” Esper said.
This means giving soldiers greater lethality, making sure there are enough of them, modernizing doctrine and personnel systems, and adjusting combat formations to “deal with what the Russians and Chinese may present to us,” Esper said. The Army must saturate the force with capabilities overmatch “in every category” and invest in “the munitions and other systems to ensure success on the battlefield, assuming diplomacy or whatever else fails,” he said.
“If I could wave my magic wand, the Army 10 to 12 years from now would look much different than it does today,” Esper said. “We’re just in a completely different era than we’ve been over the last 15 to 20 years. We’re entering an era of great-power competition and it requires a more modern Army.”
Esper spent his first 12 weeks on the job visiting with soldiers in Europe, the Pacific, Afghanistan and at home, soaking up the details of today’s Army through the lens of an experienced infantryman. A 1986 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Esper was an infantry officer who served on active duty for 10 years, including during the First Gulf War. He served for 11 more years in the National Guard and Army Reserve, retiring in 2007.
In the decade before he was named Army secretary, Esper was a senior defense industry executive and a senior Senate and House adviser and professional staff member, and he served at the Pentagon with DoD and the Army.
In a visit to the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, Esper found the weather was the only thing that remained the same. The game changer was how soldiers were training—in a complex multinational exercise with Poland in the lead, with digital communications, American-style tactical operations centers, drones, electronic warfare and opposing forces using Russian tactics learned from recent events in eastern Ukraine.
“When I went through [as a company commander], it was U.S. units training against U.S. opposing forces, and I think this is absolutely fabulous. We have allied units going through, facing OPFOR and training as a multinational force. I’m seeing soldiers and units get back to training on the high end, which is very familiar to me,” Esper said.
At the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., where Esper last went through as a platoon leader, the level and complexity of training were at once familiar and new.
“If you rewind the clock 30 years when I went through NTC, we didn’t face drones and we didn’t have cyber. We didn’t deal with irregular warfare, crowds of people coming out in the city, so it’s the whole nature of warfare has changed,” he said.
Esper also visited troops in Korea and Afghanistan, made stops in the U.S. at his alma mater and talked with troops in Hawaii, North Carolina, California and Alabama. While uniforms have changed, he noted, the equipment he saw—Bradley Fighting Vehicles, M1 Abrams tanks and Black Hawk, Apache and Chinook helicopters—underscored the Army’s need to modernize.
Asked to focus on what could be done to enhance soldier lethality, he said, “This is one area where I have a little bit of experience.” He believes it begins with physical fitness, an area that is poised to change as the Army examines options for a new physical fitness test and fitness regimen, and better survival equipment, a next-generation squad weapon and binocular night vision goggles.
Most importantly, the Army’s bid to increase soldier lethality, he believes, must include a purposeful change in the way and frequency with which the Army’s nine-man squads train at home before they go into combat. Esper wants to give them the means to repetitively practice battle drills, react to contact and conduct platoon raids in a virtual, real or constructive environment “where they’re seeing enemy contact, experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the battlefield, where they’re really given that virtual experience without real casualties being taken or lives being lost.”
He envisions modeling a squad-level exercise after the battalion- and brigade-level exercises that take place at the Army’s combat training centers, but shrunk down to squad size so soldiers can practice their tactical skills and build their teams with the same intensity larger formations get over 14 days of training.
Getting Out of the Classroom
Before extra squad training can take shape, Esper acknowledged something else must be eliminated to free up the time. It could be mandatory training, such as drown-proofing, which may not need the required frequency if soldiers are not expected to be around water. Having experienced such mandatory training, Esper knows there is room for change.
“It’s all about restoring authority back to commanders, to junior officers and NCOs. It’s about them making their own assessment of what the needs of their unit are based on the environment they face and about getting away from the classroom,” he said. While online training can be a good supplement, nothing can beat a discussion about the laws of land warfare or the code of conduct with an NCO. “Those are things that don’t need to be taught in the classroom. In fact, I’d argue you’re better off teaching them in the middle of a field training exercise,” he said.
Esper’s personal involvement and boots-on-the-ground experience promise to upend the issue of an overabundance of mandatory training, which occupies large amounts of home station time. He wants to eliminate or reshape some training and give better guidance on the frequency or method of doing other training.
“If I can give them more discretion based on their judgment, then I can give them more time for them to do squad ambush drills,” Esper said.
A Ready Force
More efficient training can also help with managing soldiers’ time at home. Esper expressed his intention to address the frequent permanent changes of station (PCSs) and deployments experienced by many soldiers, pointing out that it hurts team cohesion, affects families and costs the Army more money than it needs to.
While the system needs careful examination before any changes can be made, a new DoD policy that separates soldiers after 12 consecutive months of nondeployable status is set to become mandatory by Oct. 1. With this policy, Esper hopes to get a leg up on keeping units filled and a more equitable system of deployments. The Army had more than 100,000 soldiers in nondeployable status as of February, which Esper said was “hurting Army readiness.”
He also intends to enhance readiness by managing the critical skills found among individual soldiers, but not visible to the Army’s personnel system. A task force co-chaired by Esper and Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville, the Army’s former personnel chief, will study talent management options used by the private sector and the Army to examine ways to work with soldiers’ preferences and still serve the needs of the Army.
“Our personnel system is working now, but I think we can get to a more optimal solution,” Esper said. Giving people choices, such as allowing them penalty-free leave to pursue a degree or have a family, or creating multiple career tracks “that meet the Army’s needs without boxing people in,” could create more opportunities for broadening assignments or advanced school.
“I’d love to slow down the pace of PCSing or the disruption on families by allowing them more choice in the system,” Esper said, adding, “If I could slow down the churn, I just think it would help the health and welfare of the force.”