WASHINGTON — The new U.S. Army secretary, confirmed in mid-November, has spent his first days in office on the ground with troops both in Afghanistan and at the National Training Center in California examining the readiness of the force and how the deployed are faring in their mission. But he’s also turned his attention to laying some early groundwork for the Army’s new Futures Command focused on modernizing the service.
While readiness of the current force is Mark Esper’s top priority, making sure it is modernized and capable into the future is a close second. “Modernization is future readiness, and so this is my message to acquisition folks, too: You are critical to the future readiness of the Army, so we have to get it right,” he recalled telling those tasked with standing up the Futures Command, which is expected to reach initial operational capability this summer, during a recent visit.
The Army announced the new organization in October at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention in Washington along with its plan to prioritize modernization efforts in six areas: Long-Range Precision Fires, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, Future Vertical Lift, the network, air and missile defense, and soldier lethality. Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon was chosen to spearhead a task force in charge of the formation of the command, and “cross-functional team” leaders were named late last year to tackle each priority.
Esper told Defense News in an exclusive Jan. 3 interview in his Pentagon office that while he has met with those shaping the command and provided his view on the importance of the effort, “I don’t want to give any guidance, I don’t want to utter a word that throws them all off from one direction because that is the risk there.”
Instead, he wants to wait to fully weigh in when the new task force comes to him with options in the February or March time frame.
Much is on the table from how the command will be organized to what that means for other commands such as Training and Doctrine Command or Army Materiel Command. “We have had conference calls with the major commands and everybody is on board and agrees that we need a different way of doing business again, getting back to that key outcome, which is giving the soldier what they need when they need it, and there is support across the board with regard to that,” Esper said.
“And look, there are going to be trade-offs and all this and the reporting lines may change to make sure we get the optimization,” he said, “but I think everybody recognizes that we have reached a point that we’ve got to just — it’s time to evolve from this industrial age system to a 21st-century-age system.”
While Esper is more focused on making sure the new command’s overarching architecture takes shape, he’s tasked the Army vice chief of staff and the Army undersecretary to take charge of recommendations coming from the cross-functional team leads.
Yet, Esper said he expected to see important decisions coming from the CFT leads in the coming months and admitted some leads have a heavier lift to figure out the right way forward.
The CFTs, he explained, are examining what programs make sense to keep within their portfolios and what programs should be discarded. But they also need to identify what might be missing, and if there is something, they will need to potentially initiate a new program within that portfolio, Esper added.
In some cases, like the Future Vertical Lift portfolio, it is easier to see the path forward. And the Army is already heading toward using flight demonstrators to help define requirements for a future vertical lift aircraft.
By building and flying demonstrator aircraft, it gives the opportunity for the service to fail early and fail cheaply, Esper noted, and to learn from mistakes and get to a higher level of technical readiness earlier in the program.
But for other portfolios within the new modernization command, more work has to be done, in part due to the nature of the technology involved.
“The network is hard, it’s really, really hard because it’s complex because those types of capabilities or the technology is really in the commercial sector more than the military sector, and it’s moving quickly and yet you can’t just take it from the civilian world and put in the military world because you have to make it secure, it has to be ruggedized and it has to be able to operate in certain environments, and so that is the challenge,” Esper said.
Making a tougher job for the CFT lead in charge of the network, the Army recently decided to curb the cornerstone capability of its tactical network, the Warfighting Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, system, in favor of other capabilities. The service said it needed to entirely reboot its tactical network to operate against emerging threats on the battlefield.
“I think with all of this, you do have to understand you have to get your requirements right, and I think for the network … the key, or part of the key going forward, has to be to understand the architecture and to map it out so we have the plan going forward,” Esper said. “It’s like building a house — you have to have a blueprint.”
Having a blueprint doesn’t necessarily mean deciding who will supply the fixtures or materials or what will be used, but it defines what is needed, he noted.
Esper said the Army plans to present a strategy on the network to Congress “soon” in response to the National Defense Authorization Act legislation requesting it.
As the CFTs work out blueprints, or solutions, to meeting modernization priorities, Esper also noted that he’d like to see the service, where possible, get away from the idea of filling capabilities with interim, gap-filler solutions that would be scrapped once a next-generation capability comes online.
“My philosophical approach to this is … let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the better,” he said, repeating a well-known statement from his confirmation testimony.
“To put some more meat on those bones, what I think about is 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 kind of lower that bill, those requirements, so it’s not perfect but it’s better than what we have now,” Esper said. “And then we build a system that we can scale, that we can modularize, that is kind of open architecture that we can kind of build upon.”
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.