The U.S. Army’s bold plan to develop and deliver critically needed, cutting-edge capabilities to the force faces a monumental test in 2021 involving funding for the evolving programs.
In a flat budget environment, with a new administration coming into the White House and a more narrowly divided Congress, the Army, more than ever, needs an adequate, timely and reliable source of money to pay for continued development and ultimate production of a new generation of weapons and systems.
Great sacrifices have been made by the Army in cutting existing programs, including legacy weapons systems, so there is money to modernize, but in 2021, Army programs and other national security programs will face stiff competition from a growing list of other immediate needs such as addressing the national COVID-19 health crisis and rebuilding a devastated economy.
For Army leaders, the test of 2021 will be convincing the Biden administration, Congress and the American people that transformation of the Army is vital to the nation’s future.
This won’t be easy during a time when economists predict the U.S. will face large federal budget deficits from addressing its many other needs.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville sees the Army at a pivotal point. “The Army is changing to meet our future challenges,” he said in October during AUSA Now, the virtual annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army. “These changes cannot happen through incremental improvements. We must transform the Army, and the time is now.”
“We must transform quickly so we have continued overmatch against those who wish us harm and those who threaten our national security,” said McConville, the 40th Army chief of staff. “While we were investing in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations over the last 19 years, our competitors have been aggressively investing in modernizing their forces with new technology and new weapons in order to maintain overmatch.
“We must modernize now. It is not about fighting the last fight but better. It is about winning the next fight. In order to do that, we must transform,” McConville said.
Note of Caution
Not everyone is on board with the rush to transform. The Senate Appropriations Committee says in its report on the fiscal 2021 budget that it appreciates the Army’s effort to modernize but remains cautious. One example is the highly touted Integrated Visual Augmentation System, multi-function googles with thermal and light sensors, assistance in target identification, navigation and other advanced capabilities. Field testing began in 2019, with great success. The 2021 budget includes about $906 million to begin procurement, but the Senate committee says the system has not been operationally tested. “While the committee appreciates the potential leap-ahead in capability that this weapons system offers, it is essential that an appropriate amount of testing, including use by soldiers in realistic combat conditions with production representative units, inform the Army decision to move to large-scale procurement.”
Despite that caution, the committee supported an increase in Army research, development, test and evaluation funds, an overall endorsement of the transformation effort.
Army transformation is more than weapons and systems. McConville said the Army also needs to change in other ways. One important transformation involves people.
The Army must change “how we care for our people and how we compete for and manage their talents,” McConville said. “People are our greatest strength and our most important weapon system.”
People means more than uniformed soldiers. It includes the Regular Army, Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve, and it also includes Department of the Army civilians, families, retirees and veterans.
McConville is not the first Army chief to declare that people are the top priority, but there is meat on the bones of his statement.
The Army is recruiting and retaining soldiers through better personnel management, with efforts to put both officers and NCOs into assignments where they will flourish because it fits their skills, desires and temperament. Additionally, progress is being made to improve barracks and housing for single and married soldiers. To make a more family friendly environment, child care and spouse employment initiatives are underway, and changes are being made in one of the biggest headaches for personnel by overhauling permanent change-of-station programs and support.
Also launched was Project Inclusion, an Army-wide effort aimed at improving diversity, equality and teamwork by making procedural and organizational changes. Launched in June, there is a five-year plan behind the effort that focuses on what individuals bring to the Army. The goal is to create more cohesive teams by accepting soldiers’ differences—in background, gender, race and religion—as potential advantages to executing core Army missions.
“‘People First’ is not only our philosophy. It’s also now our No. 1 priority,” McConville said. “When we take care of our people, we get them in the right jobs at the right time. That is how we win.
“I believe when we take care of our people and treat each other with dignity and respect, we will have a much stronger and more committed Army,” McConville said. “It is our people who will deliver on our readiness and modernization priorities.”
Talent Management Campaign
One of McConville’s top focus areas is talent management, and how the Army must do better when it comes to matching soldiers to the jobs best suited to their skills and interests.
McConville views talent management as a campaign, with a battle plan for action. “We are doing a lot to move to a 21st century talent management system,” he said. “We are in a war for talent. We need the best and brightest men and women to come into the United States Army, who represent the diversity of the nation.”
The talent management plan focuses on managing each person’s unique skills and taking care of people and their families. It launched with a program to assess officers vying for battalion command, and the Army is testing a similar program to select command sergeants major. “These assessments are critical for us to select the right leaders for the most consequential positions in our Army,” McConville said. Changes are also coming in assignment and promotion processes. “We are no longer treating the population as interchangeable parts.”
This shift requires knowing more about soldiers as individuals, their skills, behaviors and preferences, he said.
The talent management initiatives and Project Inclusion combine into a wider effort to make people feel like they are valued members of the team, McConville said. He sees this as essential for the Army after considering the “pain of systemic social injustice” that he believes has existed in the Army.
As protests over discrimination and unfair treatment grew in the U.S. in 2020, the Army looked at itself, determining it has “issues” of its own that need to be confronted. “We listened to the stories from our diverse professionals that brought to life where we can improve to be more inclusive,” he said.
High State of Readiness
An area where the Army has shown great improvement is readiness. And it remains a critical mission. “To compete, fight and win, we must be ready tonight and ready in the future,” McConville said. “No soldier or unit will ever be sent into combat that is not highly trained, disciplined, fit and ready,” he vowed.
“We are currently at our highest state of readiness because of the hard work of our people and the timely, adequate, predictable and sustained funding from Congress,” he said.
In the Army, “winning matters” is an attitude, McConville said. “When the nation calls on the Army, we don’t go to participate. We don’t go to try hard. We go to win. There is no second place or honorable mention in combat. In order to win, we must transform the Army now.”
The Army’s transformation will also change the way soldiers fight in the future. “It starts with the way we are going to fight,” McConville said. This is why the Army is focused on multidomain or all- domain operations. “We recognize that in the future we will be contested in all five domains, on land, in the air, at sea, in space and in cyber,” he said. The Army has been working for several years on its Multi-Domain Operations concept. The Joint Staff is overseeing an effort that will get the services working together more closely in future conflicts.
In October, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy was optimistic about the Army’s transformation. “The payoff is starting to arrive,” he said of the progress. “The time of transformation and modernization for the future fight is now a reality.”
“Our modernization efforts and investments are maturing,” McCarthy said, with “tranches of advanced equipment such as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System and the Integrated Air and Missile Defense [Battle] Command System within reach of our soldiers’ hands.”
In tests, the evolving hypersonic missile has shown it can hit within 6 inches of a target, another sign of what dramatic improvements are ahead, McCarthy said.
Transformational advancement in weapons, equipment, formations and doctrine to fight and win on future battlefields remains the highest priority among leaders. They have remained faithful to an ironclad pact to not stray from their list of top initiatives. They’ve also made what they openly describe as “ruthless” decisions about what programs to cut to ensure modernization funding.
Early Soldier Input
It hasn’t been easy. The Army’s 31 signature programs are moving forward using the soldier- centered design orientation that was the fundamental reason for establishing the U.S. Army Futures Command. Some are moving faster than others. There have been setbacks to overcome, like rethinking optionally or minimally manned fighting vehicles.
Still, the concept based on getting warfighter input early in the process to eliminate unexpected hurdles as programs advance seems to be working.
McCarthy is unlikely to be around for the 2022 budget discussion as a new administration takes over, but McConville will, and he knows the Army must keep evolving.
“We find ourselves in a period of great-power competition,” McConville said. “Great-power competition does not have to mean great- power conflict. The way to ensure this does not happen is by having a strong Army.”
“We have the unique opportunity right now to set the Army on a course to ensure that we can compete and deter great-power competitors for years to come,” he said. “Our nation’s competitors are more determined than ever to exert their will and
influence. That is why the time is now for transformational change to build the Army that we need for the future.”