WASHINGTON — Gen. James McConville will attend his first Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference as the service’s chief of staff, having been sworn in Aug. 9. And even though he’s new to the job, he’s not new to the dramatic changes through which the Army has maneuvered in recent years.
As vice chief, McConville helped stand up a new four-star command — Army Futures Command — designed to tackle the service’s highest priorities. He also dove deep into program reviews to shift more than $30 billion in funds to those high-priority efforts, while also launching a 21st century talent management process. Those experiences have more than prepared the Quincy, Massachusetts-native to take the lead.
For the most part, McConville plans to continue down the Army’s current path toward modernizing the force, but he plans to emphasize people as his No. 1 priority.
Defense News sat down with the Army’s new military leader on Oct. 2 ahead of AUSA to discuss what’s in store for the service in the coming years.
The Army’s Modernization Strategy is still working its way through the pipeline of approvals, but what are some of its key components?
The strategy is pretty much done. It’s just getting the words right and the book published and everything through the final cuts. But the Modernization Strategy is being executed right now. And you’ll hear the secretary and myself talk about it. I think it’s probably worthwhile talking about how we see modernization and kind of how we see it over time.
A good example of that that I’ve been thinking about is going back to United States Army coming out of Vietnam. It’s about 1975 through 1985. What happened in the Army then is we came up with new doctrine; we called it “AirLand Battle.” We came up with new organizations. There were the Ranger battalions, the 160th, we created organizations that we needed for that time frame. We came up with a new way to train. We stood up the national training center, and we eventually built the joint readiness training center so we could train our troops. We came up with the big five [programs — M1 Abrams tank, M2 Bradley vehicle, Patriot missile, Black Hawk helicopter and Apache helicopter] — as far as materiel solutions, and we went to the all-volunteer force. So those are kind of the big things that happened coming out of that.
So let’s move forward to where we are right now. Today we’re going to have the Multi-Domain Operations concept. We’re going to change that to doctrine. Where we had new organizations, like the Ranger battalions, we’re standing up multidomain task forces. We’re standing up multidomain-capable organizations. We just stood up the security force assistance brigades, and we’re going to continue to do that. I can envision us standing up organizations that are focused around providing long-range precision effects that can be used below the level of armed conflict in the areas of intelligence, information, cyber, electronic warfare and space.
Training, we had the [National Training Center], but I see in the future, we’re standing up a cyber training capability so you can actually go in there and train on cyber. We’re building a synthetic training environment where our soldiers will train in virtual reality at the same time. So that’s how that equates.
We had the big five; now we’ve got the six modernization priorities, and those are not going to change, and you’re all going to see it. We’re starting to roll things out.
Then as far as we had the all-volunteer force, now we want to go to a 21st century talent management system. What we believe is the young men and women today do not want to be treated like interchangeable parts. They want us to recognize their talents. In fact, we want to compete for their talents in the future so we can man the all-volunteer force.
You’re preparing for a major European exercise — Defender 2020 — which will be one of the largest in the region since the Cold War. What are the challenges in moving from the U.S. and then through Europe. What are the concerns over airlift or sealift capabilities to get you there?
One of the things that I want to stress is, we talked about readiness, but I’m kind of breaking that down into tactical readiness and strategic readiness. And when I talk about the tactical readiness, I’m telling our commanders that they kind of own the tactical readiness. They need to make sure that their battalions and brigades and divisions are ready to go to war. And it’s our job to make sure that we can mobilize them, we can deploy them, we can employ them once they get there and then we can sustain them in theater. And that’s why we’re doing these large exercises.
Am I worried about it? No, we’ve done it before, but at the same time it’s good to exercise the systems. It’s good to make sure when people say the ships are there, we will find out, and the planes are there, and the ports are manned, and all the type of things that we do and we will learn the lessons from this. Once we have learned the lessons, we’re going to apply those lessons and we’ll become better next time. But I think this is very, very important to demonstrate that we can do dynamic force employment, which is part of the National Defense Strategy — that we can take forces from the United States and quickly deploy and employ them to Europe and in the Pacific.
When thinking about the Multi-Domain Operations concept, or MDO,, it seems a lot of the emphasis is on Russia. What is the Army doing to think about operating in the Pacific region?
From where we sit, we actually think there’s a fairly significant focus in the Pacific. I was just out in the Pacific meeting with all the chiefs of staff of many of the Indo-Pacific countries. But as far as us, what we are providing is multidomain task forces. They certainly want to be employed in that area. They want our security force assistance brigade’s capability to advise and assist our allies and partners up there. We’re running multiple exercises in the Pacific Pathways for a good amount of time in many of the countries so that we have a chance to work with our partners and reassure them. Then if we look at the amount of forces that we have either allocated or assigned to the Pacific, we’re talking 80,000 to 100,000 soldiers, which is a very good commitment.
You mentioned there’s desire for a security force assistance brigade in the Pacific. Are there plans to deploy an SFAB there in the next couple of years?
We’re actually standing up a fifth [SFAB] at Fort Lewis, and depending on what the requirements are, we could envision where the focus of that unit could be in the Pacific. It is a possibility, but I’m not going to speculate until we actually see what happens. Certainly a strong consideration.
In terms of major force structure changes, what else could we see?
We’ve been standing up organizations, we call them I2CEWS, which is the intelligence, information, cyber, electronic warfare and space battalion. But eventually the idea is to build around that a multidomain task force that will have long-range precision fires and long-range precision effects capability, and we’re experimenting right now with that in the Pacific to see what that looks like. What we don’t know yet is what the final configuration is. Some of the systems we think it’s going to need will be task-organized, some will be organic, but the centerpiece of the task force is that I2CEWS battalion..
What about at higher echelons?
I think what we’re going to see is we’re bringing multidomain operations capabilities in. So you’ll see organizations going into divisions that have cyber, electronic warfare and information operations capabilities. We can envision even with the Cyber Command in the future, with Army cyber, that’ll have more capability in the information operations area.
What’s at stake if the Army experiences a continuing resolution for the entire first quarter of fiscal 2020?
Going to a continuing resolution is going to hurt the momentum of the modernization effort that we have right now. And if it goes long, it’s really going to be a significant impact. Because here’s why: When you go into a continuing resolution, you can’t have new starts. So any type of a system we want to start, and for us, the short CR’s not going to affect it, but where it’s going to affect us is in new starts and research and development, and that’s where it’s really very painful because a lot of the systems we are developing, they’re being resourced by research and development dollars.
The other one that is going to hurt us is the increase in procurement. Like we’re doing a lot of stuff with UH-60s: That means we can’t increase the production, which was going to happen this year, and that’s going to have an impact on those companies that make those aircraft, it’s going to have an impact on the units that need those aircraft to do their missions.
As far as not having a budget, it just makes it very difficult for commanders to plan and resource, and it affects the readiness also.
Do you know how many new starts wouldn’t be able to start?
In the first quarter, there’s six new procurement programs that will not happen. And there’s 11 new research and development, test and evaluation efforts that will not happen.
But here’s a big one: the Next Generation Combat Vehicle, which is $378 million. That’s a big deal. The impact to first-quarter production increases — that’s $2.6 billion over 13 programs that will not happen. It’s Black Hawks at $1.5 billion; it’s Stryker fighting vehicle upgrades at $550 million; it’s the joint assault bridge at $205 million. UH-60 Black Hawk Victor models, too, so you’ve got like $1.7 billion in Black Hawks, and then you have a whole bunch of other stuff that’s kind of on the smaller end.
We would like to get the resources we need as soon as possible. We’ve had two good years of budgets, and we would not like to see that stop.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.