WASHINGTON — Eric Fanning, the presidential nominee to become the next US Army secretary, vowed Thursday at his Senate confirmation hearing that he’d review the cuts the Army made last year to brigade combat teams.
“If confirmed I would look for ways to reverse as many of the combat cuts the Army made last year as possible,” Fanning told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Army announced in July its plan to reduce the number of brigade combat teams from 32 to 30, which means converting two brigade combat teams at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, into smaller units by the end of fiscal 2017 as part of larger force reductions.
Both the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning and the 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson are planned to be reduced to battalion task forces and cut from 4,000 to 1,050 soldiers. The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, will become an infantry brigade team and lose its Stryker vehicles.
And the Army is working with the National Guard to move the Strykers in Hawaii and convert the 81st Armored brigade combat team in Washington, Oregon and California to a Stryker brigade combat team for the Pacific and give the Guard Stryker Brigade Combat Teams on both coasts.
Many other installations will have significant cuts including Fort Hood and Fort Bliss in Texas, Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington, and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, asked Fanning about whether he thought the Army’s decision to cut the 4-25 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson was a good idea.
“Last year the Army decided to get rid of the 4-25,” Sullivan said, “5,000 airborne infantry troops, a strategic asset to the country with kick-in-the-door capability” and only needs seven hours to be anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere given the strategic lift capabilities at the base.
Sullivan noted that new Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who assumed his position after the cuts were announced, has decided to put a hold on the decision and “is re-evaluating and thinking it may be a strategic mistake.”
If the Army retained the 4-25, “wouldn’t it send a strong strategic message to North Korea to Russia and our allies about America’s commitment to defend our strategic interests on the Korean Peninsula, in the Arctic, and support our allies?” Sullivan asked.
“I think it would send a strong message,” Fanning said, adding “the Army last year had to balance the cuts it needed to make in all the priorities it has.”
Other lawmakers attempted to flesh out how flexible Fanning might be should world events cause a need to re-examine strategic decisions.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, pointed to some strategic decisions related to the Arctic such as closing an air base in Iceland that “now appear imprudent” because of changed assumptions about Russia’s power projections in the in the region. “We have to continue to reassess these decisions and be flexible in responding to current realities,” he said.
“We have to assess what is going on on the ground as opposed to making certain decisions based on the calendar or a two-year-old assumption,” King said referring to force posture decisions in Afghanistan.
“All are examples of importance of flexibility and constant reassessment of what the realities are,” King added.
Fanning pointed to a decision he made while serving as acting Air Force secretary two years ago as evidence he is not afraid to reverse course.
“One of the first things I did,” he said, was to reverse an Air Force decision to move a squadron of fighter jets out of Alaska because of “strategic importance there, because of the range space we had there, because of the proximity not just to adversaries, potential adversaries in the Pacific, but proximity to our partners in terms of training.”
Fanning added, “We are a learning organization, that doesn’t mean much if you are not willing to make changes based on what we learned."
Fanning also said he would — like Milley — prioritize readiness over all else. “We need to make sure the soldiers we are sending into harms way, into combat, are ready, fully trained and fully equipped.”
Secondly, Fanning said he’d work to maximize the combat power of the force structure. “That is a continual calling process to make sure that you are looking across all of your force structure” to ensure strength,” he said.
If confirmed, Fanning added he planned to focus on the Army as a total force consisting of the active component, the Army National Guard and the US Army Reserve. Planned force reductions from 490,000 to 450,000 troops “is just the active component,” he added. “We can’t do what we are asked to do, the Army can’t do what it’s asked to do, if we just think in terms of an active component. We have to think more creatively going forward about how we operate as a total force.”
Additionally, Fanning said he wanted to stand up a rapid acquisition office. “The Army has some capabilities overseas based on what is going on on the ground now in Ukraine and Syria," and elsewhere, he said, but, “our overmatch and so forth is not as great as it should be”
Fanning listed position navigation and timing, electronic warfare, cyber and platform survivability — particularly in aviation — as “three great problem sets that we can launch in a new rapid capabilities office.”
With an upcoming presidential election in November this year, Fanning will have little time to serve as Army secretary before the next president could come in and choose to replace him.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., reminded Fanning of this possibility and challenged him “to be impatient” if confirmed.
“Our nation’s soldiers do not need a secretary to mark time they need a strong secretary that recognizes there’s much to be done and not a minute to be wasted,” he said.