Speaking at a forum in Washington March 12 on issues surrounding the president’s fiscal year 2019 defense budget request, the three service secretaries agreed that the Defense Department’s most crucial need is continued investment in people.
Army Secretary Mark T. Esper, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the American military’s most crucial advantage is its people and that investment must continue to attract and retain them. Kathleen Hicks of CSIS moderated the discussion.
All three service leaders said the fiscal 2018 budget goes a long way toward repairing the damage done by the Budget Control Act spending cuts and that the 2019 request will begin the road to modernization.
“At the end of the day, people are what makes everything work, and we really have to focus on this,” Spencer said.
War for Talent
The services will be in a war for talent with the private sector, other portions of government and each other, the Navy secretary noted. “We are all going to be looking for more people to do more things in a more intelligent manner,” he said. “We are going to have to figure out a way to adopt and adapt those people that we have.”
Esper noted that the budget request supports the National Defense Strategy announced last month. He said the world is entering a “dynamic environment” with the return of great-power competition with Russia and China and the threats from Iran, North Korea and terrorism. The Army must be capable of countering terror threats as well as those posed by near-peer competitors, he said.
The Army must be able to fight across the spectrum of warfare, and it must be fast, Esper said. He pointed to the stand-up of the Army Futures Command later this year as a defining moment for the service.
“It will be the biggest reform in the Army since 1973 in terms of structure,” he said. “It promises to really reduce the time it takes to … field a new piece of equipment [and] to do it at less cost, and in time for the soldier to be able to use it.”
Joint Force Evolution
Wilson stressed that the services are continuing the evolution to a truly joint force. When she first joined the Air Force, she said, being joint meant having to serve in an assignment with people from other services, and joint operations meant deconflicting a battlespace.
I would say the services are on the cusp of becoming integrated – not just interdependent, not just joint – but integrated in our operations,” she said. “Because if we can do that – if we can gather information faster, decide faster and act faster, then we are going to prevail in 21st-century conflict. I think we are on the cusp of being able to think and move in that direction.”
“What distinguishes our military, what makes us the premier fighting force in the world -- which guarantees it will prevail in any conflict -- is the quality of our service members,” Esper said. “They are – bar none – the best in the world. They’re smart, they’re aggressive, they’re resourceful, they are persistent and they have a lot of grit.”
All of the secretaries said the services need some personnel reforms. Wilson noted that it takes 150 days to hire a civilian employee and said the backlog for security clearances has doubled over the past 18 months.
The Air Force secretary said she wants organizational shifting to stop while the service implements acquisition reform. “There is something we need to pause, which is organizational change,” she said. “There’s been a lot of it in the Pentagon, and we need to just let the org-chart boxes stay where they are this year and focus on things like personnel reform and fine-tuning acquisition.”