WASHINGTON — For more than six years, Secretary John McHugh has led the US Army as it fought two wars, weathered steep budget cuts, shed more than 80,000 soldiers and put into motion one of the most sweeping force structure reorganizations the service has seen in years.
As he prepares to step down Nov. 1, McHugh discussed the challenges still facing the Army as it prepares to get smaller even as it trains to face growing and emerging threats around the world.
Q. There are still many challenges, the budget being one of them, the ongoing drawdown, demands on the force around the world, and we have a new chief. Where is the Army today?
A.The Army as a fighting force continues to be the greatest land force the world has ever seen. As we have witnessed in previously unforeseen challenges, be they Russia and Ukraine, or ISIS, and Syria or Iraq, or really the growth of terrorism throughout an increasing part of Africa. These soldiers continue to meet the missions, both those that were planned for and those that were not. But it causes some questions about how long that can continue. The former chief, Gen. Ray Odierno, and I have both repeatedly testified to Congress that we think we are on a ragged edge that, particularly in terms of readiness, we are at about our limits to continue to meet these many missions. The concern I have is what is the next unforeseen thing? It is reasonable to assume that next unseen thing is likely to be sooner rather than later. Given the current budgets that we are dealing with, particularly should sequestration go forward, if we are called upon to do an additional mission of any considerable size, I am deeply concerned about the Army's ability to answer the call.
Q. What should be done to address these issues?
A. The best thing that could happen for all the services, at least in my view, would be for us to have predictable, on-time budgets. The challenges that all the departments face are significant, but we would be better postured to meet them, even with declining resources, were we assured that we would have a budget on time. That it would be a figure that is known, that we could plan for, and that our industrial partners can plan for as well.
It is always hard to experience nearly a 17 percent cut, as the Army has during my time here, but to do that in such an environment of uncertainty, be it through continual CRs or sequester-type budgets, is a particularly challenging one. These are tough times at home, and they are tough times abroad. There is no silver bullet to all the problems that the Department of Defense faces, but a routine budget process would aid greatly in our ability to meet those challenges.
Q. Gen. Mark Milley, the new chief of staff, has said his top priority is readiness, and you said we might be on the ragged edge. What should be done?
A. At its core, readiness is the ability, and the preparation of troops, to go out and to meet the challenges that are kinetic in nature. In other words, to go to war. The Army standard for our readiness across our brigade combat formations, our main fighting formations, is about 60 percent to 70 percent of all the forces need to be ready to be ready, to be optimal. Right now, our readiness ratings are about 32 percent to 33 percent of the entire force. That means we are consuming readiness, we are sending troops forward to meet ongoing missions like Afghanistan. But also to meet new missions such as a return, in some dimension, to Iraq, trying to reassure, particularly, Eastern European allies because of the aggressive nature of some of the recent actions of Russia, etc. We are consuming that readiness as quickly as we produce it, with no reserve, which leads me to say that next big unforeseen thing places us in a very dangerous position.
Q. What advice would you give to your successor? What priorities still need to be addressed?
A. Readiness is the priority. The job of an army is first and foremost to be ready to defend this nation and to defend its interests, wherever the call might be. The last thing any service chief or service secretary or any Army leader, certainly, wants to do is send a troop into harm's way that has not been properly trained or equipped. It is not in the best possible position to go forward, meet the mission and come home safely. Until we have established a readiness rating across our combat structure that is more in tune with our standards, that is going to have to be and continue to be the No. 1 priority.
Q. Can you talk about modernization?
A. That is the problem with our budget challenges. The Army's track record on past acquisition programs was less than ideal, and when I came to the building, I commissioned the Decker-Wagner Report. It really did not tell us anything too terribly new, but to read it in one report was sobering. From I think 1992 to 2002, a decade, some 30 major Army programs were canceled, $30 billion in taxpayer monies essentially lost for lack of fielding of those programs.
Due to the hard work of a lot of people in our acquisition community, I think we are doing a lot better. We have made concerted efforts to try to rationalize our requirements process, adopted a policy of sometimes good enough is good enough, and tried to lessen our appetite for immature technologies that tend to stretch out developmental program timeframes and add significant dollars. But like everything else, modernization requires money, and our modernization efforts, particularly our major developmental programs, have had to be suspended and placed off into some time in the next decade. We have instead focused on some equipment upgrades, particularly in our combat vehicle fleet, but those are programs intended to sustain us, not to best prepare us for that next-generation fight.
What we have done as well is tried to focus our limited dollars and continue to develop things that we know we will need. We are investing in technologies on enhanced personnel protective systems; reactive armor; increasing our technological edge; and devices for degraded visual environments; energy efficiencies that not only save money but decrease the need for convoys that are inherently risky for those soldiers that are asked to protect them. These are near-term and very real and achievable goals. And in contrast to some major development program of a next-generation platform that is not yet available, these are more reasonable in terms of dollar outlays. We are also trying to fence science and technology, including our research and development initiatives, to make sure that we are looking out for that next best technology, that generational leap that will provide us the technical capability, if and when resources return, to resume our major developmental programs. But it looks at this moment that will have to be sometime in the 2020s and beyond.
Q. What did you set out to accomplish as secretary?
A. We have come a long ways on acquisition reform, but it is frankly not as advanced an effort as I hoped it would be, at least on the first day I walked in. Part of that has resulted in our inability to fuel or to launch major developmental programs due to budgetary issues. We will have to allow the next secretary to continue that. But I think we have provided a new framework to go forward. The other thing that I wanted to do was bring the same level of professional development and educational opportunities to our civilian workforce.
I have thought about how much progress we made and where I thought we would be. These challenges are never totally fixed. Personnel systems are always evolving, acquisition programs take on different forms one year over the next. What I hope we have been able to do is just bring us further along than we were when I got here and leave the next generation of leaders, both civilian and military, in a little bit better place to continue their efforts, if they should so chose.
The biggest reality I learned, in terms of meeting the vision of day one, is that when you are an Army at war, everything else takes a seat in the back, and obviously, for the last 14 years this has been an Army not just in one war, but two wars. Today, it is an Army that continues to meet those kinds of missions and take on new ones. Under Title 10, the main job I have is man, train and equip the force, and that is a challenge at any time, but particularly in times of conflict. It is a particular challenge when we have had the budget uncertainties that we have had. Visions are one thing, but reality has the capability of opening your eyes and changing your vision, too.
Q. What is your message to industry and to the soldiers who will be at AUSA listening to you?
A. I want anyone who cares to listen to me feel the same sense I do: That is, for all the challenges, for all the talk of division, for all the talk of tough budgets and hard times, and they are all real — the men and women of this Army continue to answer the call and go forward and continue to perform magnificently. But there is a question and it is not for the Army to answer, it is for others. What are we going to do to preserve it? A lot of blood, a lot of treasure, a lot of sacrifice went in to build this force. We have the opportunity to preserve it or to squander it.
Q. What do you think your legacy will be?
A. I do not, by any means think it is to my credit or frankly many in the Pentagon that this is such a magnificent Army. I give full credit to the men and women who put on the uniform, but what I hope I have been able to do through some challenging times is to bring at least a modest sense of stability and purpose to the Army. Give them a small measure of the kind of support and, I think, the kind of leadership they deserve.