Secretary Mark Esper and the future of the U.S. Army

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on the future of the U.S. Army

How will the U.S. military do business—and not just prepare for the previous fight—in an era of rapid advances in technology and evolving battlefields? As the Honorable Mark T. Esper, secretary of the U.S. Army, explained at a Foreign Policy event at Brookings, major modernization reforms are underway in the Army to create leaner and faster processes. There are also a number of new priorities for the years ahead. Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon hosted the conversation with the secretary.

Although Secretary Esper is the civilian head of the Army, he has considerable experience on the ground. A graduate of West Point, he deployed to Operation Desert Storm, and was part of the Army Reserve and Army National Guard.

In his opening remarks, Secretary Esper noted that George C. Marshall once said: “The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.” Esper went on to add “the best way to prevent a war is to be prepared to win it.”

Esper argued that the military is “at an inflection point” and has “reentered an era of great power competition.” This follows nearly two decades focusing on irregular warfare. He stated:

“Evolving challenges primarily from Russia and China marked the return of great power competition, creating a future battlefield characterized by a few things: increased speed and lethality, constant surveillance, increasingly dense urban terrain, denied access to the theatre, disrupted communications and electronics, and threats in all domains, air, land, sea, space, cyberspace.”

This realignment is part of an approach to support the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which calls for a renewed focus on China and Russia as potential peer competitors. Secretary Esper went on to highlight five main objectives. “These objectives will be achieved by, with, and through a new doctrine based on multi-domain operations,” he said.

  • Man – “We must grow the regular Army above 500,000 soldiers with associated growth in the Guard and Reserve. And we must recruit and retain the very best.”
  • Organize – “We must ensure adequate quantities of Infantry, armor, engineers, air defense, field artillery…Our units from brigade through corps must also be able to conduct sustained ground and air intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and cyber operations. And we must have aviation combat support and robust logistics available to all formations.”
  • Train – “[We m]ust be focused on high-intensity conflict, again, in urban terrain, under persistent surveillance, and in electronically degraded environments. It must incorporate battlefield innovation and continuous movement to frustrate enemy observation and intelligence collection. And it must include combined arms maneuver with the joint force, as well as our allies and partners.”
  • Equip – “We have identified six modernization priorities; I am sure you’ve heard of them. They are in order: First, long-range precision fires, next generation combat vehicles, Future Vertical Lift, the network, air and missile defense, and the one closest to my heart, soldier lethality.”
  • Lead – “[W]e must reform our outdated personnel system to one that develops smart, thoughtful, innovative leaders of character who are comfortable with complexity and are capable of operating from the tactical up to the strategic level.” 

Although the new Army Vision looks ahead through 2028, the short-term goal is “prioritizing preparedness for war by rebuilding war-fighting readiness to compete, deter, and if necessary, fight tonight and win against near-peer competitors,” according to Secretary Esper.

O’Hanlon then asked Secretary Esper a number of questions about the health of the force, the quality of today’s recruits, and vulnerability. Secretary Esper said that retention rates are the highest on record, which generally tells us soldiers and their families are reasonably happy and satisfied, even if there is more the Army can and should do to support them. He also pointed out that the soaring economy in recent years has made it harder to recruit—although he pointed out that’s not the worst problem to have, as a nation.

He also discussed how each generation of soldiers tends to have different strengths and weaknesses. “This generation has an incredible facility with electronics, and software,” Secretary Esper said, while pointing out his generation tends to lack those skills. Conversely, he added: “They may not be coming in as physically fit as previous generations.” While he did not have major concerns here, he noted that training regimens—including basic training—may change.

On vulnerabilities, Secretary Esper pointed to the six modernization priorities under the “Equip” objective. Long-range precision fires are the most important short-term area to address, he said, adding: “not just for a ground campaign, but also, we need to have the ability to support our sister services.”

Beyond that, the electronic network that weapons platforms and personnel rely on is a critical area to modernize as quickly as possible. Secretary Esper stated that it “underlies everything” and it is “too immobile” for a future where the battlespace may be vast and contested. In that light, a focus for the network going forward will be on speed and versatility in design and implementation. This will be attained partly through increased partnership with private enterprise.

Even as the force is modernized, designs and ideas don’t always work as intended. In the past, this has cost a lot of money—for instance, with the Army’s Future Combat System. O’Hanlon wondered how we might avoid making those kinds of mistakes ahead.  Secretary Esper said that beyond changing processes and systems, culture is worth considering: In the past, failures tended to come after a huge amount of work; now the hope is to suffer little failures, faster. If we “fail early and fail cheap,” we can learn from that, he said, in discussing plans for the Army’s Futures Command.

Finally, Secretary Esper emphasized that the Army must work with the private sector and the industrial base more efficiently, and preserve competition in order to encourage innovation and cost-savings. He also said he is looking to do additional outreach to potential partners that are not currently involved with the defense sector, and may seek further opportunities from our allies and their defense industries.