In her second year as Army secretary, Christine Wormuth faces many challenges, but she is also upbeat.
“I think the Army is in a good place,” Wormuth said in an interview timed for publication as the Association of the U.S. Army hosts its Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, D.C. The Oct. 10–12 meeting is shaped around a theme focused on the future: “Building the Army of 2030.” Wormuth is satisfied about the path the Army is on.
Transformation of the force, more focus on people and talent management, and an array of other initiatives are starting to show success, Wormuth said. “I recently heard some [people] who served more than 30 years in uniform say the audio now matches the video,” she said about the Army’s efforts to take care of people. “Every time I go someplace, I meet soldiers doing amazing things or talk to spouses who are doing amazing things.”
The Army’s ambitious transformation plan to develop and field new capabilities that give soldiers a definite advantage over potential adversaries had skeptics when the effort began because of past failed programs such as Future Combat Systems, which cost about $18 billion but had little to show after a six-year effort. For a variety of reasons, funding for the program was delayed and then cut before the program was canceled in 2009.
That is not happening again, Wormuth said. “I feel really good about where we are on modernization and the pace of our modernization,” she said. “The results so far, in my view, speak for themselves.”
“Coming soon, we will have either prototypes or will be fielding 24 systems,” she said. This milestone has a catchy name, “24 in ’23,” referring to 24 systems in fiscal 2023. Meeting that goal will be a big boost, proving to industry and Congress that Army transformation is on a path to success.
Some capabilities being developed are more challenging than others, but Wormuth does not seem worried. “I do not think any of the programs are in trouble,” she said. Some need closer attention than others as testing is underway, and some programs are more complex than others. She mentioned Future Vertical Lift as a program that is challenging and expensive when fielding begins. “We have to continually look [at] where we are, and what are our requirements,” she said.
It will be vital to look at requirements as the prototypes take shape, as well as the cost of the platforms and the life cycle costs of maintaining and sustaining them. “I do not have concerns about any of the programs. But I think, particularly for the large-dollar programs, we have got to pay careful attention,” Wormuth said.
She acknowledged that the Army has the “burden of proof” that it can develop, acquire and field “large new weapons systems.” It is also important that the Army makes wise use of relaxed authorities granted by Congress to move more quickly.
“Based on the feedback I’ve gotten from members of Congress, I think they are generally pleased with what they are seeing,” Wormuth said. It also appears that the Army has been successful in convincing lawmakers that the Army has a major role to play in the Indo-Pacific. “Compared to when I began as secretary of the Army, I hear more support and understanding of what we can do, and I get fewer questions about what is our role,” she said.
Wormuth credits the Operation Pathways series of exercises launched in 2014 by Gen. Charles Flynn, the U.S. Army Pacific commander, when Flynn was the two-star commander of the 25th Infantry Division, as helping make the case for why the Army has a crucial role in the Indo-Pacific.
“I think people have seen how the Army can provide valuable roles to the joint force,” the secretary said. “I think Gen. Flynn, in particular, is very compelling.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine also helped the Army’s cause in Congress. “With everything happening in Ukraine, there is a renewed appreciation for the importance of ground forces and for the challenges that Russia could someday pose for NATO,” Wormuth said.
Lessons from Ukraine are being studied and could have an impact on the Multi-Domain Operations doctrine the Army is developing. The Army envisions having multidomain task forces concentrated in specific regions. Europe and the Indo-Pacific each will have a dedicated Army task force.
There are rough seas for the Army on other issues, particularly dealing with personnel.
The Wormuth era at the Pentagon has included a lot of attention on soldier- and family-related programs to make life easier, tackle serious problems in an expedient manner and make soldiering feel rewarding. These issues are never fully resolved because they require continued attention.
She is satisfied with progress on many people-first initiatives such as suicide prevention, reducing sexual harassment and assault, building cohesive and inclusive teams and treating soldiers, their families and Army civilians with dignity and respect.
Wormuth is concerned, though, about the fate of the all-volunteer Army in the face of serious recruiting challenges. Unable to fill the ranks with high-quality recruits, the Army chose to reduce troop levels rather than lower standards.
There is no quick-fix solution for a problem faced by all the services, she said.
“This is a departmentwide challenge, but it is most acute for the Army because, among other things, we are the largest force. We have got to recruit the most young Americans every year,” Wormuth said. “I think it is important to understand this did not happen overnight.”
The Army became an all-volunteer force in 1973, ending the Vietnam-era draft in a move that requires selling service-aged youth on signing up. One of the reasons the nation ended conscription was the pool of potential recruits was large compared with how many troops were needed. The Army also was unhappy with the discipline problems that came with draftees, believing volunteers would be easier to manage.
Demographics have changed, Wormuth said. “The number of Americans who qualify for serving in the U.S. Army has been shrinking ... largely driven, unfortunately, by childhood obesity.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has not helped. It has been harder for Army recruiters to talk with high school students because of virtual schooling, she said. Another factor has been that many high school students have suffered “demonstrable learning loss” because virtual education was less effective for them. Scores are lower on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. This standardized test reveals science, math and language strengths and determines whether someone is eligible to enlist and what MOS fits their qualifications. Physical fitness also is lower, Wormuth said: “Kids haven’t been playing sports for the last couple of years.”
Also making things harder for the military is competition from the private sector, which is looking to hire the same people sought by the Army. “We are all competing against each other for talent,” Wormuth said. “We used to be the only ones, for the most part, offering tuition benefits. Now you have companies like Amazon and Starbucks offering tuition assistance. You have $20-an-hour jobs in a lot more places.”
The Army is trying many things. “We are taking steps already to try to start helping ourselves,” she said. One “very popular” incentive has been a bonus for quickly shipping to basic training. The Army also is offering four-year enlistments, with two years on active duty and two in the reserve component. Also popular, she said, is offering new soldiers their choice of duty station. “Some kids want to go to Germany. Other kids find it more attractive to stay closer to home,” she said.
Wormuth knows this is not enough. “We are doing more marketing to try to get out there and better tell the Army story,” she said. The Army also wants to do more to explain the practical benefits of military service, like 30 days of paid leave, help with home mortgages, and family health care.
The Army’s diverse career fields are another feature to stress, Wormuth said. “We’ve tried to get the word out a little more about how many different things you can do in the Army that kind of speak to your passions,” she said. “We have 150 different career fields.”
Better medical screening is also planned to determine before enlistment if someone has a medical condition that could prevent them from finishing basic training and to also more quickly determine if someone could serve with a conditional enlistment waiver.
In July, the Army announced it would launch the Future Soldier Preparatory Course aimed at potential recruits who are falling just a little bit short of meeting physical or academic standards. Wormuth described it as “sort of a 90-day boot camp.” It is worth the effort, she said, saying it is “investing in young Americans who already know they want to serve.”
No Quick Fix
More action is needed in the long-term, she said. A new recruiting and retention task force will be created, separate from the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, to look at potentially bigger changes to recruiter selection and training, particularly focused on putting the right person in the right place.
As much as she’d like a quick fix, Wormuth said this is a challenge that will take more than just a year to overcome. It requires deeper thought on how Generation Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, think about the military and what it offers.
“We’ve got to be more effective at telling the Army story,” she said. That requires coming up with new ways to get soldiers into communities to talk “about what the Army really is” and “explaining what the Army offers.”
It is also important for the Army to tackle problems with harassment, assault, suicide and other harmful behaviors so potential recruits and their families feel better about the Army as an institution, Wormuth said.
Maintaining a strong and positive image of the Army as one of the nation’s most highly regarded institutions will help with recruiting, she said. Doing this requires an apolitical institution in which people take an oath to the Constitution and “serve the president, who is commander in chief, no matter what party that person belongs to. We need to make sure that we are keeping the Army out of politics,” she said.
The Army’s solution to filling the ranks “is going to take a few years to sort out,” she said.