When you hear Secretary of the Army Mark Esper speak about the future of war, it’s daunting.
“While the nature of war is immutable, the character of war is ever-changing … We have entered an era of great power conflict—competition—that will be characterized by the following,” he said at an event at the Center for a New American Security on May 16, “increased speed and lethality, constant surveillance, increasingly dense urban terrain, denied access to the theater, disrupted communications and electronics, and threats in all domains—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.”
In other words, every soldier’s worst nightmare—faster pace, more death and destruction, an inability to hide from the enemy, a cluttered battlefield intermixed between enemies and civilians, the incapacity to coordinate with your other team members, and being hit from all sides.
When Secretary Esper entered his position in July of 2017, he outlined three priorities: soldier readiness, modernization, and reform—reform to free up time, money and manpower to do the first two things in a time where budget increases from Congress in the NDAA, like the one received this year, are uncertain for 2020 and beyond.
The goal is to hit the readiness mark by 2022, he said—through increasing soldier numbers to 500,000 without sacrificing quality, high-intensity training, training based on the lessons learned from Ukraine in the Donbass against the Russians, and talent management programs that will supposedly connect soldiers’ skills to needed positions.
The next part will be focusing on the sustainment of that readiness and moving onto the procurement and modernization piece around six major priorities: 1) long range precision fires, 2) combat vehicles, 3) vertical lift platforms (think helicopters), 4) Army online network, 5) air/missile defense, and a catch all for everything for the individual soldier 6) body armor, sensors, radios, load bearing exoskeletons, etc.
For Secretary Esper, the need is immediate—his timeline is to assemble the next generation of combat vehicles in the next two to three years and fielding them by 2028.
To accomplish this modernization mission, the Army can’t rely on old, costly white page Department of Defense programs, at least entirely, according to Secretary Esper, a former Raytheon executive.
“The model used to be decades ago that the most of the high-tech came out of the government and made its way to the private sector, and now we’re seeing the reverse. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely that way,” Secretary Esper told DSJ. “There’s a lot of good work going on at some of our research labs on these particular issues … I can tell you for a fact, it’s lasers and hypersonics. We’re doing a lot of great work. We’re certainly on par with the private sector, in my personal opinion.”
But it’s clear from how he talks that the modernization movement that he wants industry involved.
“The six modernization priorities will not change. The chief and I, we’ve all sworn a blood oath not to change them, barring some extraordinary event,” Secretary Esper said, And if industry has that predictability, then I think they’ll come along and be reassured. And by the same token we have to put money into those priorities.”
But there will also be more leniency to help that private sector innovation.
“One of the things we’re trying to get away from are these long of requirements that say it’s got to weigh this much and shoot this far and do this thing,” he said. Instead he wants to “Explain the solution we’re looking for and maybe some broad outlines of what the piece of equipment we want to carry—something very broad—not these rigid lists, because we want to see what their innovation can bring to the table.”
Even though much of the technology of future warfare doesn’t fully exist yet—lasers, communication jamming equipment, etc—Secretary Esper said that there’s still a way to be building toward the future.
“You can build now with having an idea in mind what the technologies may be, 5, 6, 7, 8 years down the road,” he said. “I want to make sure as I build that first [combat] vehicle, because I need it now—I want to make sure it has sufficient power, computing space, room and inside the vehicle to accomodate fully developed semi-autonomous and fully autonomous [capability.]”
On the government side, Secretary Esper said they would be slowing down or condensing many programs that are not related to the six priorities, but, he said, “We got to keep the door open and one of the things we’re emphasizing on a routine basis … is you got to bring in industry.”