The Army’s new leaders feel momentum is on their side as America’s foundational force shifts from 18 years of counterinsurgency operations to preparing to face large and growing global threats by creating revolutionary new capabilities.
Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville also expressed a sense of urgency as they guide a transformational change across the force. They see a narrow window to create a new Army intended to leave no doubt that the U.S. Army is the world’s most capable and powerful land force and set the next generation of soldiers on a solid path for growth.
There is no turning back, McCarthy said. “The Army must invest in what we fight with or we risk losing the next war,” he said in a blunt assessment of the future.
“We have built a foundation to shift the Army’s modernization efforts and began the process of replacing the legacy systems that have served us well for the last 40 years,” McCarthy said at October’s Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition, where he and McConville spoke in their new leadership roles after serving as the undersecretary and vice chief, respectively.
In a warning, McCarthy said, “Our adversaries are investing in tomorrow today, unconstrained by a continuing resolution and singularly focused on shifting the current balance.” His Oct. 14 remarks came as Congress had failed once again to pass a defense funding bill by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year, resulting in a delay in executing fiscal year 2020 programs.
“Right this minute, Iran is purchasing and testing weapons systems, from missiles to drones, threatening the surrounding shaky peace in the region,” McCarthy said. “Violent extremist organizations in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to put pressure on the populace, attacking, blending in, reconstituting and then repeating.”
McConville said there are many threats. “We live in a time where committed violent extremists threaten the lives of innocent people all around the world. We live in a time where nations in Asia and the Middle East threaten regional stability. And we live in a time of great-power competition where near-peer competitors threaten to disrupt the world order we strive to protect,” he said.
“We’re aggressively pursuing readiness, modernization and reform to make sure we can always fight and win,” McConville said.
Progress has been steady in getting the Army prepared for future conflict, McCarthy said. “We’ve restored readiness across the force with over half of our BCTs at the highest level of readiness,” he said, referring to brigade combat teams. “We will continue to keep these units ready to support combat operations for the foreseeable future.”
The next step is concentrating on strategic readiness, which is the ability to rapidly mobilize and deploy. This ability will be tested this year with Defender-Europe 2020, the largest deployment of U.S.-based land forces to Europe in 25 years, and tested again in 2021 with Defender-Pacific, a similar but slightly smaller effort.
“The last 18 years of conflict built muscle memory in counterinsurgency, tested our leadership and has hardened the force,” McCarthy said. The downside is “with this focus came atrophy in other areas.”
McConville said the Army has “done a great job of restoring tactical readiness over the last several years. Now, we need division and brigade commanders to stay focused on it.” Commanders will have help, McConville promised. “We will resource it, but I need you to build and maintain it,” he said.
The Army’s “Mc-Era” with McCarthy and McConville at the top is one with a strong sense of teamwork. McCarthy called McConville his “wingman for the last two years” who has “been a steady hand in the E Ring for the Army.”
James McAleese, founder and principal partner of a government contract consulting and legal firm, said the two Mc’s are new to their jobs, but they make a strong team. “There is a clear ‘one-team,’ ‘one-voice’ and ‘one set of priorities’ approach between Secretary McCarthy and Gen. McConville,” McAleese said.
“During the entire AUSA convention, I did not hear one single person compare Gen. McConville to new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley,” McAleese said. “The handoff between Gen. Milley and Gen. McConville was flawless.”
McCarthy said the leaders are close. “Make no mistake, we are a team,” he said. “We eat together, use each other as sounding boards, as a place to vent, to share good news and help each other deal with adversity. We know each other’s families and we know each other’s aspirations.”
Army leaders are pleased with early efforts to streamline the acquisition process. “We have primed the modernization pump, drastically reducing the requirement timelines to 18 months or less and moving quickly from prototype to operational tests, so we can prepare for low-rate initial production,” McCarthy said.
There is concern about having adequate, predictable and steady funding to efficiently carry out both immediate and long-term plans without disruption. McCarthy said funding stability is especially important now. “To fully realize the modernization strategy, we must have the [fiscal] ’20 and ’21 budget deal approved to have the sustained investment necessary for pushing through prototype testing of systems to begin procurement,” he said.
“The Army will stay the course,” McCarthy pledged. “Our priorities—modernization and reform—are not changing.”
“Russia and, especially, China are on a trajectory to surpass U.S. capability. Both seek to modernize, to man, and gain overmatch against the U.S. and our allies. Either you have a sense of urgency today or a sense of regret tomorrow,” the secretary said.
Industry needs to be part of the push, McCarthy said. “In the Army, innovation and industry are inextricably tied.”
The effort has just begun, McCarthy said, but he likes what he sees. One year into a new acquisition culture, McCarthy said the effort “is yielding results.” The U.S. Army Futures Command, established in 2018 and fully operational since July, “has empowered the requirements community, brought precision to our research and development program, and has developed a Modernization Strategy with 31 signature systems.”
“We are in various stages of prototype and experimentation that are yielding results along the development continuum, and we will scale them in our formations over the next five years,” he said.
McConville said modernizing is a way of helping the Army’s future leaders. “I don’t want troops or leaders sitting here 40 or 45 years from now on the Z model of the Abrams,” he said. “We have the unique opportunity to do it right now.”
He views this help for future generations as a sort of payback for the decisions made in the 1970s and 1980s to deliver the so-called “Big Five” weapons systems. These are the Abrams tank, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, Bradley Fighting Vehicle and Patriot missile system.
“We feel strongly that we must do the same for those who come after us,” McConville said.
Bigger budgets would make a better Army, but McCarthy’s scan of the fiscal environment tells him that is unlikely. The best-case outlook is for flat budgets. The worst case would be budget reductions.
“To maintain readiness and enable our ambitious modernization agenda in a flat fiscal environment, the Army must ruthlessly prioritize our resources to achieve our modernization goals,” McCarthy said. That means continually reviewing other programs that could be cut to pay for higher priorities.
This will be an “aggressive” effort, McCarthy said, aimed at internally reaping $10 billion for modernization from 2021 programs.
McConville said the Army must “capitalize on the hard-won momentum we’ve established over the last two years with modernization and reform. We cannot be an industrial age Army in the information age, so we will transform our linear processes to be more effective, protect our resources, and to make better decisions.”
“We have had two good years of budgets,” McConville said of the fiscal 2018 and 2019 appropriations. “We need two more.”