WASHINGTON — U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper took the job nearly a year into Donald Trump’s presidency after several failed attempts to move two other nominees through the congressional confirmation process. But Esper’s past experience as a soldier both in the active force and reserves; his experience on Capitol Hill doling out policy advice for the House Armed Services Committee; several tours in the Pentagon; and his time as a vice president at Raytheon sets him up to offer a multifaceted perspective to the job at a time when the Army is undergoing major transformation.
Defense News sat down with Esper on Jan. 2 for an exclusive interview to talk about how he is overseeing major muscle movements, including standing up of a new Futures Command to help the Army hone in on specific modernization priorities while maintaining readiness of the current force.
You’re coming from a career in the defense industry. How has that prepared you for the job?
It gave me good insights into how business thinks, the efficiencies they pursue and how they pursue them when they think about government contracts, or any contracts for that matter; what kind of drives them and what’s their motivator; how they think about efficiency. Then unique to this role, I’ve gotten a good perspective from an industry side as to what they see as the strengths of the Army acquisition, the weaknesses, areas to improve, etc. So I pull all of that together and I find myself at different times and different meetings drawing on all those different experiences.
What about the acquisition process do you think industry finds most frustrating, particularly for the Army?
I think one is speed. We have to move more quickly in all that we do. Related to that is the fact that we try hard, for good intent, to find the perfect a lot of times, and as I’ve been saying and I’ve said on Capitol Hill, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the better. Our processes get in our way as well. Processes should enable what you are trying to accomplish to make sure that you are doing it deliberately, that you are considering all facets, but we have a system right now that prevents us from getting to the right outcome, and the right outcome is giving the soldier what he or she needs when they need it at the best value, the right price, for the taxpayer.
I understand you have been traveling. Discuss what you believe the Army needs to be successful in the operations.
What I wanted to do was make sure I get out early on the readiness front to see what we are doing at the National Training Center, which is the premiere training event for the Army focused on high-end conflict.
What we are doing now is expanding to make sure that we are able to address first and foremost the high-end fight. NTC is the place at which we train and evaluate units’ ability to do that. So I was at NTC the first couple of weeks.
A week after that I was down at [U.S. Army Forces Command] at Fort Bragg, [North Carolina], [to] see what their challenges are, and then I was able to make it to Afghanistan at the end of my first month and to see what the troops all the way from Kabul to Kandahar were doing and to see a range of artillery, aviation, infantry units, to get a good feel for where the Army stands on all those issues.
What are your takeaways from the NTC?
On the plus side, I was very pleased with how things were going. The scenarios that were presented by the NTC, the opposition force, were very demanding, very challenging, and they presented what units were likely to see in a high-intensity fight based on what we know the adversaries will use against us and what we think the adversaries will use against us.
I was very pleased to see that the commanders, the leaders, the soldiers were adapting to the environment so at various points in time they would have an electronically austere environment. In other words, the network would shut down, and they were quickly able to pick up and work off of maps, boards, and using different techniques to continue to fight the fight, so all that was good.
So where should the focus be?
Because we are making the shift to expand, [we need] to make sure we get back to core war fighting on high end. Our parts system hasn’t caught up with that, so that is a challenge that [Army Materiel Command], for example, is working on. Now that we are using our heavy vehicles at a much more demanding pace, they are breaking down more; and that is kind of a good indicator — right? — that we are using them enough, that we are having to maintain them. We are seeing we need to do better on the parts piece to make sure we have a more effective, quicker supply chain. We are seeing the soldiers need to think more about training … maintenance as training. So we are getting all of those old muscle movements back. And I think we still have a lot of work to do on personnel fills, making sure units are deploying with more than enough soldiers to make sure that they can fight the fight.
What are the modernization priorities that will require the biggest 180-degree turns to get right?
What is going to happen over the coming months is the [Futures Command] cross functional teams will be looking at the portfolio of Army programs. Let’s take Long-Range Precision Fires. In order for me to meet the war-fighting requirement for Long-Range Precision Fires, I need this program, this program, and this program, and they will put those programs under the CFT, and they may look at that portfolio and say: “Oh, wait, I am kind of missing something, so I am going to have to initiate a program that is not in the current portfolio.” And so what you will see is each of the CFTs doing that. It will be a combination of programs that we will keep, some we will have to kind of create and develop, and some we will have to look at and decide: Well, are they still important but don’t fall under a CFT bucket, and are there some that we simply need to divest because there is only so much budget resources?
Can you offer any examples?
Some are probably easier to get your mind around than others. At least for me personally ... the network is hard, it’s really hard, because it’s complex, because those types of capabilities, the technology, is really in the commercial sector more than the military sector, and it’s moving quickly. And yet you just can’t take it from the civilian world and put it in the military world because you have to make it secure, it has to be ruggedized, it has to be able to operate in certain environments. That is the challenge with the technology.
You have to get your requirements right and … there are different pieces of this, too, and programs that have grown up over the years. We are going to be presenting a strategy to the Hill here soon, but a key part going forward has to be to understand the architecture, to map it out, so we have the plan going forward. It’s like building a house: You have to have a blueprint … we need to lay out that architecture so we know what it looks like and how it fits. What do we need for each piece part? What you need at the company level and below is going to be different than what you need at the division level and above and making sure that we make smart choices about that. We are not going to be able to solve it all in one or two or three cycles, but we have to get on a path forward that makes sure that the tactical network is, again, reliable — it can talk, work, exchange data on the move, it’s resilient and we can continue to upgrade without replacing hardware all the time.
Congress has asked for more clarity on plans to replace WIN-T and get the tactical network right. Is that what you’re providing to the Hill this time?
It came from the [National Defense Authorization Act]. The Hill asked us to present a strategy. That is where it’s coming from.
I think this is a case where the Army did the right thing. We had 16 years, now entering our 17th year, of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which was, from a networking side, marked by fixed sites from which forces would deploy. The network we had, which was WIN-T, at least for the latter part, worked. It kind of suited the needs of the Army and did what it needed to do. And then we had the Russian actions in eastern Ukraine, which presented some scenarios and some operations that would challenge that way of operating. … It’s to the chief’s credit, everybody said: “OK, stop. We need to do something different.”
The soldiers will pleasantly surprise you with their innovation. I saw, for example, at the NTC, a battalion-level [tactical operations center] with the Bradley [vehicles] backed up into it; instead of pulling all the computers out and putting them in the TOC, they left them in the vehicles and ran wires. So what you do is you just pull the plugs and close up the hatch and you go. And other folks were making similar adaptations — a lot of creativity, it was a plus. They were adapting to the scenario, but at the same time they shouldn’t have to adapt. We’ve got to give them the means; the equipment has to support how they need to function, and so we need to get there, and we can’t do it overnight.
Are you planning to revisit decisions made in recent years to fill capability gaps fast, rather than waiting for next-generation solutions?
My philosophical approach is let’s not make the perfect enemy of the better, and to put some more meat on those bones. Let’s not think as much about interim capabilities. If we made the requirements so high, if we raised the bar so high that we think we need to have an interim, maybe we need to lower those requirements, so it’s not perfect but it’s better than we have now. Then we build a system that we can scale, that we can modularize, that is open architecture, that we can build upon so the vehicle continues to grow as technology matures. So if you think at some point down the road you need a super-duper ray gun or whatever, then you’ve got to build space on the vehicle for that. That is my approach — I haven’t had the discussion with CFTs yet.
What are your goals and priorities this first year?
Not to sound predictable, but we do have to improve readiness and all the metrics associated with that. And then we have to stand up the Futures Command and keep the moment, keep that going. I’ve talked about reform. I am anxious to find time, money and manpower to free up to put in these other priorities. And I want to start pulling together a group of people, senior players here within my team, who can start thinking about how we work on a personnel management system that is focused on talent. Leader development is critical to make sure we grow the right leaders, that we can accommodate different career paths, so we can improve recruitment and retention.
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.