WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army has a goal to outfit the force with more than 30 new weapons systems and other key capabilities by 2030, while also preparing for high-end adversaries in the decades that follow.
But the service is struggling to sign up new soldiers, making it hard to design a future force with an uncertain end strength.
Defense News sat down with Army Secretary Christine Wormuth in her Pentagon office shortly before the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference to discuss how the service is balancing its challenges and opportunities amid tight budgets, recruiting problems and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The Army appears to be on a consistent trend in recent years of having to work within flat budgets. The service has tried to avoid cutting back on modernization efforts and has made tough decisions on legacy equipment. How do you think about striking the right balance in fiscal 2025?
I do expect we’ll continue to face a fairly flat budget. There’s just tremendous uncertainty on Capitol Hill about where funding is going to be — if we’re even going to have some. But we’ll continue to pursue what I would call a balanced approach. We are going to continue to do everything we can to continue our modernization agenda. That’s foundational to the Army’s ability to transform.
The challenge is always about how do we strike the balance between funding our enduring systems like Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and Black Hawk utility helicopters versus the newer capabilities. As I’ve said from the beginning of my tenure, that requires hard choices. [Then-Army Chief of Staff] Gen. James McConville and I — and now [Army Chief of Staff] Gen. Randy George — will always have to go up to the Hill and defend those because some members disagree with the choices that we make.
But we’ve also got to take care of our soldiers. We’re the biggest service; a huge amount of our budget is tied up in our personnel costs.
It’ll be another year of hard choices, but we’ll pursue the same philosophy that we have to date.
The Army is growing by one Patriot battalion, but those air and missile defense units are more strained when it comes to operational tempo than any units in the service. Is there a plan to grow beyond that? Where will this battalion deploy or be stationed?
We’re always looking at the demand for air defense, and there’s sort of an insatiable demand for Patriot. But we’re also trying to grow things like [Indirect Fire Protection Capability], [Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense] and potentially Directed Energy M-SHORAD.
Right now, we don’t have plans to go beyond the battalion that’s been announced. But we go through the Total Army Analysis process every year, and that’s kind of a continuous evaluation.
Factoring into that, we are also looking at the air defense health of the force. We’re also looking at recruiting, and we have to be realistic about what we can recruit. So there’s a balancing act; we don’t want to develop more force structure than we can realistically recruit to. I think we have that balance about right.
We haven’t made any public announcements about where that Patriot battalion might be located.
As you consider the structure of the future force amid an inability to hit recruiting goals, how will you manage the need to grow new units for important missions and functions?
We are trying to do two things in terms of our force structure. Most importantly, we’re trying to build out the force structure for these new capabilities, whether it’s air defense or whether it’s for maneuver, for example. And the other thing we’re trying to do is bring down the amount of over-structure that we have, as we’ve had recruiting challenges.
One way we’re going to do that is by looking at what parts of the force structure were really designed and exclusively focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency; those are places where we can make some reductions because they’re not as relevant for large-scale combat operations. That’s where we’re going to be focusing some of our trims.
One of the things that’s going to drive the pace of our force structure changes is how fast we can bring on these new capabilities. We’re likely to see some of the reductions come sooner, meaning shedding some of the more counterinsurgency- and counterterrorism-related functions.
And then the growth of the new force structure will come in some cases in a couple years as we have these new capabilities reach low rates of initial production, for example.
Army Futures Command leader Gen. James Rainey said he is working on the first draft of a warfighting concept that addresses how the service would operate in 2040. The Army finalized its Multi-Domain Operations doctrine a year ago. In what direction will this new concept go?
Gen. Rainey has given me a draft of the concept. I have not yet had time to read that, but I look forward to doing that. He’s giving me a very initial preview because he wants to keep me looped into what he’s doing. Having not read it yet, I would imagine that one thing that I will likely see there is more of an emphasis on [is] autonomous systems and artificial intelligence — those kinds of capabilities that I think by 2040 will probably be much more prevalent than they are right now. But I don’t imagine I would be surprised if I saw a concept that was very, very different from what we just put out.
Not only is the U.S. military helping and influencing Ukraine, but the country is influencing how the U.S. Army may have to fight in the future, what weapons it should develop and what capabilities it should rapidly acquire. What are you thinking about when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and how that impacts the U.S. Army?
Gen. George has talked about the importance of mobile command posts — what I would call more austere tactical operations centers. In the kind of battlefield that we’re going to be facing in the future, a brigade headquarters may not need to have full-motion video all of the time, for example, and all of that obviously requires server stacks — it creates a lot of signature and it takes time to set all that up.
In an environment where access to the network and communications is going to be contested, we won’t necessarily even have reliable 24/7 connections. You see that in Ukraine, and so we are looking at how we can be more lean in that area, how we can be more mobile.
I saw examples of that a few months ago. I was at Fort Johnson, Louisiana, at the Joint Readiness Training Center and was able to see some examples of that particular brigade that was in the box — how they’re setting up their tactical operations centers to be much more mobile and how they’re able to literally set it up in two hours, then take it down in two hours. That’s definitely something that we’re going to be spending time on, both developing the capabilities to be able to do that, but then also training those capabilities at national training centers, the Joint Readiness Training Center, etc.
Another thing that is really important to emphasize — and it’s really more about the human domain — is the importance of experienced leaders who are trained and able to function in this environment and who can give commander’s intent. And then having at echelon our soldiers able to operate and execute on that commander’s intent because it goes back to the fact that we may not have connectivity that we were used to in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places.
Training for that, preparing our leaders to lead in that kind of environment and then exercising that in our training plans will be very critical. That’s a strength of the United States Army. We’re much more independent and entrepreneurial than a lot of our potential adversaries.
Another critical lesson learned coming out of Ukraine is the need for persistent sensing. There’s a lot of investment and a lot of interest in drones being able to provide us that kind of capability. But we’re going to have a layered approach to that where we’re going to have drones that are out there sensing, but we’re investing in the High Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System, that fixed-wing platform, to be able to complement that. You’ll see aerostats and things like that.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.