I was privileged not long ago to join a gathering of several former Army chiefs of staff. These were the leaders of the Army I grew up in, from the 1970s until my retirement from active service in 2013.
They were, and are still, to me, legendary figures who seem larger than life. Most are Vietnam veterans who led our Army through a period of massive transformation. All served during America’s most recent period of great-power competition—the Cold War. They understood and led change in the Army.
But one of them said something that, at first, I didn’t understand: “We find ourselves in an era that is different than any in our experience.” I’ll confess, upon hearing that, I thought of more than 244 years of Army history, of the legacy of soldiers past, of how the Army, our Army, shaped the history of our nation. I thought to myself (having insufficient moral courage to challenge the former chief), “Really? In all that the Army has been through since the birth of the militia in 1636 and the founding of the Army in 1775, this is the time unlike any other?”
Having had time to reflect on that meeting and think more about that statement, I find that I increasingly agree that we are, indeed, in an era that is different than any in our experience.
America’s Army is on the verge of a series of major advancements to improve our nation’s security, increase the lethality of our force and better protect our troops in battle.
Based on the Army’s six modernization priorities, these advancements follow months of hard work and a series of tough choices by the service’s most senior leaders as they seek to prepare the force for tomorrow’s battlefield. Their singular focus has given the Army needed momentum and a clear path to the future.
This is a great moment in the history of the world’s greatest land force, one we shouldn’t let pass without some reflection. Forward-looking leaders are the chief reason we’ve reached a point where the Army can regain a competitive edge over its great-power competitors.
It was in 2017 that then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley laid out his views on the fundamental change in the character of war, saying that conflicts in the future would be fought under arduous conditions in complex, tough and bloody circumstances. Now elevated to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Milley warned that future wars would place big demands on human endurance and require vastly enhanced weapons and equipment if American soldiers were to fight and win.
“We can do better,” he urged in a somber talk that quickly resulted in action. The Army’s civilian and military leadership agreed on the radical change Milley said was necessary.
Milley had the backing of Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, who at the time was the Army secretary, and then-Army Undersecretary Ryan D. McCarthy, now the Army’s top civilian leader. Gen. James C. McConville, the former Army vice chief of staff who is now the service’s top uniformed leader, our Army’s 40th chief of staff, carries the mantle of leadership in this critical endeavor to ensure America’s Army—the total Army—is ready to meet the demands of a fast-changing and uncertain world.
McConville’s emphasis on people is rightly placed, and his clarion call that winning matters is timely and necessary.
As they worked on this plan, the leaders agreed on six modernization priorities. I suspect, by now, you can recite them from memory.
- Long-range precision fires to restore U.S. dominance with longer range, enhanced munitions and improved target acquisition.
- A new generation of combat vehicles with close-combat capabilities that include better mobility and protection, more lethal firepower and the option of manned and unmanned operations.
- New aviation platforms for attack, lift and reconnaissance that offer better survivability, faster speeds and more manned and unmanned capabilities.
- Network enhancements to infrastructure, hardware and software for mobile and expeditionary operations that would work in any environment.
- Advanced air and missile defense capabilities.
- Improvements to soldier lethality through better weapons, body armor, communications and exoskeletons, along with improvements in training.
To make this all happen, Army leaders determined a new organization with a new mindset was needed. In the largest Army reorganization effort in decades, the U.S. Army Futures Command was established to have big ideas, test them and get capabilities into warfighters’ hands quickly and efficiently.
Led by Gen. John M. Murray, Futures Command is up and running, with a staff that now exceeds 24,000 people at locations across the U.S. and around the world. And it is about to deliver some major advances such as enhanced night-vision goggles that include navigation and targeting aids and even facial recognition capabilities.
It also is building a synthetic training environment so soldiers can conduct training that will prepare them to fight in any domain without leaving their home station, and hypersonic weapons that will dramatically alter how the Army fights.
As these key advances are set into motion, challenges remain. Success depends on breakthrough engineering and technology, but we have every confidence that the greatest minds available are working together to benefit America’s warfighters.
Success depends on long-term and predictable funding so the Army can develop, produce and field these new leap-ahead systems, weapons and gear. Success also depends on a bit of collective patience, as the biggest advancements in Army capabilities in decades won’t happen overnight and are certain to include a few stumbles.
But not too much patience. Speed matters. America’s competitors are moving quickly. So must we.
The Army needs our help—you, me, Congress, industry partners, our association.
Growth across Army components has slowed because while leaders want a bigger force, they don’t want to sacrifice quality. That is a wise decision, and one the Association of the U.S. Army supports, but the need remains to grow the Regular Army to about 500,000 soldiers by 2028 with associated growth in the Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve.
There are many reasons why the Army is having recruiting difficulties:
- College attendance by high school graduates remains high, with 40% of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college today compared with 26% in 1970, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
- The Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the job market appears strong for high school graduates seeking jobs. The unemployment rate is 3.6% for those who did not attend college, 3.2% for those with some college and 2.2% for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
- The divide between military members and civilians grows ever wider. The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service found only 12% of service-aged youth feel they have any connection to military service. While McConville has three children who serve in the Army, 87% of youth say they definitely or probably won’t serve in the military.
AUSA can and is helping by providing speakers to civic organizations looking to learn more about opportunities provided by military service and encouraging our chapters to support local recruiters and ROTC detachments.
Educate, Inform, Connect
But we must do more to reach out and connect our Army with the American people.
At AUSA, we say our role is to educate, inform and connect. Each of us—soldier, veteran, family member, Army civilian, retiree, industry partner—must do all that we can to educate young Americans on the value of service. We must inform Congress, community leaders, teachers and school administrators about how Army service is a valued and worthy choice for smart, fit youth. And we must fulfill our essential role of ensuring America’s Army remains connected to the people it serves.
If we at AUSA do our part, America’s Army most assuredly will be prepared to do its part.
Together, the more than 154,000 members of AUSA stand ready to fulfill our role in keeping America’s Army the greatest land force the world has ever seen.