Ten months into the Trump administration, the Army finally got a secretary of the Army on Nov. 20.
Mark T. Esper brings to the job three decades of experience working on national security issues, with 21 years of combined service in the Regular Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve, plus work on Capitol Hill, as a Defense Department policy executive and with broad participation in the private sector.
“Mark is an excellent choice to lead the Army, having distinguished himself as a soldier, public servant and senior executive,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the House Armed Services Committee chairman. “Throughout his career, Mark has proven himself to be a solid leader, someone who is smart, does his homework, and is engaged. His experience and expertise in national defense will serve him well.”
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who like Esper is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, said the combination of public and private-sector experience from the new Army secretary provides a “unique perspective.”
Esper is for the most part beating the same drum as the Army’s uniformed leaders. He said his top priority is “readiness of the Total Army to deploy, fight and win today against a near-peer threat.”
In written answers to questions provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said, “This means prioritizing the Army’s budget, leadership focus and all associated efforts to ensure units are fully manned, weapons and equipment are well maintained, munitions stocks are sufficient, and training is ample, rigorous and realistic.”
Modernization comes next, Esper said, supporting the idea of acquisition reform in organizations, policies and participants. And, likely drawing from his experiences as an executive for the Aerospace Industries Association and Raytheon, the nation’s third biggest defense contractor, Esper said there “needs to be greater engagement with industry, and a closer partnership with the commercial sector, to ensure that the weapons and equipment our soldiers need are delivered on cost and schedule.”
The need for newer, better and more lethal weapons is becoming critical, Esper said. “I do not believe the Army has all the capacity or the capabilities it needs to win decisively against a near-peer adversary today without considerable risk,” he wrote. “A key to future readiness is modernization, ensuring our soldiers have the best weapons and equipment available to ensure clear overmatch against a near-peer adversary in a high-end fight.”
Not a Simple Task
He understands this is not a simple task. “Doing so means significantly upgrading or replacing many of our current combat platforms to maximize mobility, protection and lethality,” he wrote. “Our combat formations are as robust as possible, with capability gaps closed and force multipliers enhanced. My initial assessment is that the Army needs more heavy forces and greater capabilities when it comes to, among a number of things, short-range air and missile defenses, long-range fires, electronic warfare, offensive and defensive cyber operations, and assured communications.”
Esper acknowledged past problems with Army weapons programs. “The U.S. Army is the best ground combat force in the world, but has had a mixed record when it comes to delivering the weapons and equipment its soldiers need to be successful. The Army has had several high-profile acquisition failures over the last two-plus decades that have squandered billions of dollars and many years.”
There have also been successes, he said, citing “substantial improvements” in body armor, upgrades in Apache, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters, and improving lethality of Stryker vehicles.
“I believe the Army is moving in the right direction by fundamentally reforming the requirements process and involving senior Army leaders more in the prioritization of required capabilities,” Esper wrote.
The Army needs to be more efficient in modernization programs, which Esper said requires working with the private sector. “One path is to work more closely with industry on technologies that are available now and/or quickly to upgrade existing systems,” he said. “Looking for off-the-shelf solutions with items that can meet military specifications with minimal modification is a second option,” he said. “A third approach is to look at what weapons and equipment our allies are successfully using, and either incorporating them in whole or adapting them to the Army’s specific needs.”
Getting earlier feedback from soldiers about new systems, a goal of modernization reforms announced in October while Esper’s nomination was still pending, could produce big returns, he said. Getting prototypes into soldiers’ hands in realistic scenarios, in training or deployments, would help avoid missteps, he said.
While he wants to work with the private sector, he doesn’t want to lose experienced members of the acquisition workforce to industry. Pledging to look at size, capability and performance in determining how to improve acquisition, he said, “I will also make sure the Army can compete with the private sector for talent to attract and retain the highest quality of professionals.” He intends to “signal to the acquisition workforce and the Army the importance I place on them and the critical work that they do.”
Bigger Army Needed
Esper supports a bigger Army and a predictable budget to support it. “I believe that current national defense objectives necessitate a higher Total Army end strength,” he said. His comment came before congressional negotiators agreed to an additional 8,500 soldiers, with 7,500 more for the Regular Army and 500 more each for the Army National Guard and Army Reserve. That leaves authorized end strength at 483,500 for the Regular Army, 343,500 for the Army Guard and 199,500 for the Army Reserve.
Agreeing with the Army’s priority of filling openings first in deploying units, then growing capabilities in air defense, artillery and security force assistance brigades, Esper said that may not be enough. He pledged to use additional soldiers to improve readiness while also being careful to not grow the Army so quickly that it might need to reduce quality standards to meet recruiting goals. “Recruiting and retaining high-quality soldiers in the future will likely be more challenging as the Army endeavors to grow the force,” he said, citing private-sector competition for talented service-aged youth at a time when the economy is growing.
For example, when asked about opening combat arms units to women, he talked about his own experience. “Having served as an infantry officer in airborne and air assault units, I know that being able to draw upon the entire pool of eligible recruits, across all career fields, makes the Army stronger and more agile for meeting mission requirements,” he said. “I believe that any soldier who can meet the physical, mental and skill standards for their contracted career field, and who can help make the units in their career field more effective, deserves the opportunity to serve in that career field, regardless of gender.”
He supports morale, welfare and recreation programs, believing the most important ones need protection at a time when funding is being cut. “My family and I enjoyed the Army’s MWR programs when we were on active duty,” he said.
“During my military career, I had the privilege of leading soldiers in both wartime and peace, in a broad range of command and staff assignments, and in locations extending from the United States to the Middle East and to Europe,” he said. “All of this experience gives me an invaluable understanding of the Total Army—its culture, organization, and functions—and the critical role that our soldiers, their families and the civilian workforce play in defending our country.”
He knows about some of the hardships. “The year after we married, my wife experienced anxious days and nights during my seven-month deployment with 101st Airborne Division to the Gulf War,” he said. His wife Leah “gave birth to our first son at an Army hospital in a foreign country while I was commanding an airborne rifle company that trained throughout Europe as part of the NATO rapid-reaction force,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his November confirmation hearing. “We moved four times in five years, but she always made a home for our growing family wherever the Army sent us.”
After leaving active duty, Esper spent another 11 years in the Virginia National Guard and Army Reserve, and he noted the burdens on his family continued. Leah “shouldered additional parenting duties during those long drill weekends, annual training and everything in between,” he said.
“I was privileged to serve in some of the Army’s best active and Guard infantry units, attend the Army’s top training and leadership schools and serve on three separate continents in defense of our country,” he said. “I understand well the challenges of military service, the importance of readiness, the rigors of wartime deployment and how it all impacts our soldiers and their families.”