WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army has a spotty history when it comes to large acquisition programs. Secretary Mark Esper himself referred to the Future Combat Systems and Comanche helicopter in the context of grand failures. But more than a year into his tenure, with the formation of Futures Command and the launch of 31 programs, the Army is on track for transformation.

Defense News interviewed Esper while traveling with him to Redstone Arsenal and Fort Rucker in Alabama, focusing on the great potential and natural risks of going bold and going fast.

There’s been talk of an Army renaissance. What progress has been made since you came on board? Is it fast enough?

By nature, nothing’s fast enough for me. I’ve been on board 14, 15 months. My focus last year was making sure our Futures Command got up and running. So, check that box. I’m confident now under Gen. [John] Murray, where Futures Command is going, its trajectory. So this year is going be the year I focus on talent management. We got a good foundation last year. We picked a leader, Gen. [Joseph] McGee, who’s in charge of that right now, and he’s building a team. I gave them a timeline with a number of tasks to complete, things like defining the vision and defining the end state, and some other near-term tasks to report back. I want to begin implementation by the end of this year. I want to move quickly.

The standing up of Futures Command seemed rapid by defense standards.

It was a year of change last year. We set up Futures Command, the [cross-functional teams] are fully staffed, up and running. We’re showing progress on their 31 programs. We put out the modernization strategy spring last year. I mean, there is a lot happening on the modernization front.

You estimated about $25 billion would need to be shifted to top modernization priorities over the next five years. Can you offer a breakdown by program?

The platforms end up becoming the things that cost a lot — you know, like the next-generation combat vehicle, aircraft, things like that. But you’ll start seeing the moves when our budget comes out. Certainly for 2020. I don’t know how much you’ll see beyond that, but we freed up a lot of money certainly in the 2022, 2023 time frame.

As I’ve said, writ large, if you step back and you look at the [Future Year Defense Program], we want to keep building readiness between now and FY22; during this time, we’re going put a lot of dollars in S&T, which we’ve done. And then around the 2022 time frame, we’ll hit that readiness mark, and then we’ll level out. We want to sustain that readiness mark, which means I could really put the focus and the dollars behind production. We now harvest that research and development and move it to production around the 2022, 2023 time frame. That’s where we’re going to need a bulk of the dollars because the prototypes for [the next-generation combat vehicle], [future vertical lift] will be working their way through at that point in time.

Do you have support from Congress both in terms of funding, but also the desire to go fast?

Certainly, for the leadership, yes. I think there's bipartisan support for the reforms we are making, and the timelines we are on, and I'm hopeful and optimistic that Congress will give us the budget we need to do that. I think everybody recognizes that many of these systems are reaching or have reached the end of their lifetime, and now's the time to make the change.

We tried to show Congress that we were serious and committed to doing this, by really digging into our budget. I mean, the chief and I spent together 50-plus hours going through our equipment budget alone. And then we went through our manning budget, our training budget, our installation budget — dedicating a lot of time to making sure we prioritize our projects, our programs and activities, and using those at the lower end of the list to pay for what’s most important.

But a lot of the modernization efforts you’re talking about, and the prototyping, and the fast rollout mean accepting a degree of risk, which is not something the Pentagon or Congress are prone to do. So how do you deal with that?

Well, nothing’s perfect. Even every successful program has missteps. I’m sure we will make our fair share. My challenge is to make sure I’ve looked at each one, assess it and find out whether we managed risk well. Were they smart decisions? But I’ve got to give people room to make some mistakes, to experiment, to be bold, to not be risk averse — and then defend that. Or hold them accountable, depending on what makes sense. So we’ll see. Like I said, there will be missteps. We’ll probably see schedules slip here and there. We may run over budget here and there. It’s not that I’m accepting that, but I’m not naive enough to think that’s not going to happen. That’s why on these six modernization priorities, every week the chief and I get briefed by one of the CFTs. He and I are constantly engaged, monitoring the CFTs and their progress. I go out and I visit the CFTs, like I did today [Jan. 15] with Future Vertical Lift. Then I go on our top programs, some of which are CFTs, a few of which are not. But like today, for integrated battle command system, I go see the suppliers of our key systems, particularly those that are having some problems.

The Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, or IBCS, has some challenges.

It has; I think they’re on the right path now. We’re doing everything that makes sense from an oversight perspective, to make sure these top programs are getting sufficient attention, that I’m on top of them. “What do you need from me? What do you need in terms of money, authority, people to make the program successful?” That tends to be my theme as I go around, or I continue to give them guidance — move more quickly, whatever the case may be.

The test is when the first big screwup happens. All the eyes will turn to me, and the vice, and the chief, the commander, and how will we react? And it’s obviously going to depend [on] was it an honest mistake, or whatever the case may be. But it will be how we react and how we deal with those above us who react. I’m committed to not overreacting because the most important thing, again, is the culture. If we’re risk-averse, things will always be slow and things will always be less than satisfactory. We’ve got to be willing to take risk, and in some cases, it’s cost. In some cases, it’s schedule or performance. But we’ve got to be able to work on a less-than-perfect solution.

Too often now, people are getting high grades by following the checklist, even though the outcome is not the right outcome. I want to evaluate people on the outcome, not the checklist. I want people who say: “You know, items 23 through 34 make no sense. So we’re going skip those.”

Secretary of the Army Mark Esper gets a tour of a Northrop Grumman facility during a visit to Redstone Arsenal, Ala., on Jan. 15, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia/U.S. Army)
Secretary of the Army Mark Esper gets a tour of a Northrop Grumman facility during a visit to Redstone Arsenal, Ala., on Jan. 15, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia/U.S. Army)

When you were in industry, how was the cooperation and communication with the Army?

Not good. I know the complaint of industry was they did not have good access to the Army at nearly any level. One of my objectives coming in was to change that. I want to engage CEOs, or I want to engage program managers. “Tell me what’s going on. I can’t fix a problem unless you tell me what’s going on.”

It is a partnership with industry. That means some days I’ll pat them on the back, and other days I’ll take a performance payment if need be, or in the case of Boeing where we [may stop] accepting aircraft. But the lines of communication have to stay open.

Do you feel that’s filtering down from you at the top? Is it part of the transformation that’s happening across the Army?

Well, when I meet with CEOs, when I have dinner with them, I ask that question, and they tell me “yes” for the most part. And if there are areas that they find frustrating, I kind of go at them. I’m smart enough to realize it takes time for the message to get down. The message has to be repeated multiple, multiple times. Then, assuming everybody or mostly everybody’s received the message, it takes time for them to act on it. There’s some people who are risk takers who will just jump right on it. Others will kind of enter the pool a little bit more slowly, but they’ll go up to their ankle and say: "Okay, now I’m going up to my knees.” Then there’s some who will never be on board. We have to figure out how to deal with them down the road. But when I sat with industry two months ago and [the Aerospace Industries Association], I said to them: “The hardest part of all of this will be changing the culture.”

What’s the priority in terms of missile defense for the Army?

The National Defense Strategy tells us we’re in an era of great power competition. That’s correct, and so we need to be prepared to fight and win against strategic competitors. Russia and China could become adversaries in the future. What that means is I need to rebuild, build up my heavy forces, and we’re doing that now. We’re now converting two [infantry brigade combat teams] to [armored brigade combat teams] — another thing that changed. But we’re putting back into these units high-end capabilities, artillery and in this case short-range air defenses.

If I had to pick a priority on air missile defense, it’s restoring that capability back into our heavy maneuver units. And we’re doing that now. And then, this interim mobile short-range air defense, a strike-based system, I think is 2020, 2021. I need to get that back into the maneuver force to deal with the short-range air defense threats, whether they are drones or they could be attack helicopters, you name it.

Now, the backbone of the entire Army air missile defense system will be the IBCS because it will allow us to integrate all the Army sensors and shooters on the battlefield into IBCS to maximize our visibility of the battlefield, and what’s the best sensor and best shooter to deal with the threat. And it’s a very capable system. I sat at a terminal and watched how it worked and played with the system. And so that will really maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of the system. That system also has the capability to work with the Navy and the Air Force. And we’ll have to build that capability on the top, and it gives us a much broader air defense picture and allows us to prevent blue-on-blue types of incidents.

So, again, mobile short range is very, very important; but IBCS is critical as we eventually upgrade our radars for lower-tier air missile defense and build other capabilities.

The network has also hit some trouble spots. What do you hope to accomplish in the next two to three years?

The network is hard and it’s different. It’s different because, unlike the next-generation combat vehicle or IBCS or long-range precision fires, the most capable and the most advanced technologies will likely be found in the commercial sector. We’re faced with chasing technologies that likely will change every year or 18 months. The challenge is to make sure we can build a network that is — you know the buzzwords — reliable and mobile and has all the capabilities we need using commercial products, mainly software over hardware. That’s not something I think that you’ll ever see a big major rollout for. There’s never going be [the equivalent of] a next-generation combat vehicle [rollout], where we pull away the curtain and there it is — and “ta-da,” we name it after somebody, and everybody says: “Ah, that’s it!”

The network is something that would grow and mature and evolve over time as we pull technologies from the private sector into the Army. I’ve seen that already. As I’ve visited units, they’re using tactical radios. I have seen it in command posts where we used to have server stacks that were like a refrigerator and a half high, they’re now down to the size of DVRs. I can see it in terms of technology getting smaller, more mobile and more capable. You’re not going see one big bang, where it comes out as a system reveal.

In a sense, they tried that with WIN-T.

You know, WIN-T kind of gets put in a category sometimes, like [Future Combat Systems] or Comanche, but it’s really not. WIN-T is a great system if you’re at a stationary base fighting — I don’t know — the Taliban. But it’s too big and bulky and clunky, and it’s too easily intercepted, and everything else, if you have to fight a near-field threat.

There’s traditional players that would always be involved in a tactical network. But have you engaged with some of the nontraditional players?

I’ve engaged with them all. I do dinners every week with industry. We have a lot of conversations there. So we find innovations coming from them; I find innovation coming from the field, where soldiers are getting rid of this, and getting free of that and putting stuff on trailers, and they’re finding solutions. And when this comes up with soldiers at town halls, I try to tell them: “Look, in my day, the radio I used in Ranger School was the same radio I had eight years, nine years later as a company commander in Italy.” That’s not going to be the case. I tell them: “At any one point in time, you will use different radios in your units, and when you go to your next unit a few years later, you’re going to have different radios, and you’re just going to have to get used to that.”

They’re used to upgrading their iPhone every single year.

Yes, this generation — they have a great deal of versatility in terms of understanding technology and adapting, so I think it’ll be less of a challenge for them than it was for my generation.

How is the Army working to improve engagement with foreign companies?

I’ve said on the record and privately we want the best product. I’m certainly willing to buy a foreign product from an ally. And if they have a better product, I’ll go that way.

The other thing I tell them is: “Army Futures Command is open for business, so go to Austin, and Gen. Murray will meet with you.” We’re always looking for good ideas. We’re not turning people away. We’re looking for the best ideas, to ensure our soldiers have the tools, equipment and weapons they need when they need them to fight. I mean, we just came from Fort Rucker. Those aircraft that you saw on the airfield were Lakotas [built by American Eurocopter, a division of Airbus Group]. There’s a prime example.

The expectation is that you're going to partner with a U.S. company, and it'll mostly be made in the United States. And that's not an unreasonable ask.

A lot of progress has been made with the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator. But considering the Army’s plan to ultimately develop two helicopters at once, how do you manage the risk?

I think the model where industry put in $4 for every dollar we put in is a great model. I think they made a lot of progress. We obviously have one flying and one soon to fly, and other models are out there as well. So there’s a great deal of potential. And you know, the notion that we are developing two aircraft at once — having talked with the CFT leader this morning — they’re not going to be concurrent. They’re like near simultaneous. If we go that route, I think it is manageable, but we’ve got to take it all one step at a time. There’s the risk of managing it. The funding has to be there. The technology obviously has to be ready. We’re going to need to run through the prototypes, have a competition; all those various factors may give us confidence that we can manage both.

We're doing multiple programs right now simultaneously at different levels. We're doing Bradley upgrades and Abrams upgrades, and the Stryker double-V hull. But I take the point that somebody would make that these are two new programs. Again, we’ve got to see how long it plays out. It's something I'm aware of, I'm focused on.

Gen. Mark Milley has supported everything you’ve been trying to achieve. How will Army leadership ensure continued momentum as he moves on from his role?

I’m confident the next chief will pick up the ball and run with it just as hard. And there’ll be a good rapport there as well. I mean, the undersecretary’s not moving, and Gen. Murray’s not moving. You’ve got to manage succession, and we certainly wouldn’t bring somebody on board or elevate somebody that wasn’t on the same wavelength when it comes to running the modernization.

Any expectation on when someone will be announced?

It’s all a set of dominoes. I don’t want to get ahead of all these announcements, but how about this? Months.

Fair. You might have seen that your name has been floated as a contender for defense secretary. Do you have any comment?

Look, I’m having a great time as secretary of the Army. For me, I started off as a young kid from Pittsburgh, going to West Point and joining the Army and swearing that oath. It’s just fantastic for me to come back and be in a position now where I can make a difference. And I think we’re making a difference, and I’m very happy and feel honored to be in the position I’m in.

So have any conversations happened?

I don't know what's on anybody's minds, but I'm just telling you I'm having a great time and I just want to keep moving forward implementing our vision.

What you’re trying to accomplish in the Army is pretty transformative. Could you see that vision extending across the Defense Department?

My way is to really get into the details and really take a hard look at what we’re doing, and rack and stack each of them to make sure that it’s the best use of that next dollar we have. I know it’s not a bottomless barrel of dollars. We have to do everything we can to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s dollar, to be good stewards of the money that Congress gives us. And before we go to them asking for more, I want to make sure I’ve done everything I can with what they have given us to build the most ready and lethal Army. So that’s what we’re trying to do, and that’s what I trust the other services are doing as well.