WASHINGTON -- The fiscal year 2019 budget will contribute substantially to improved readiness and modernization, Army leaders told lawmakers.Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley provided that assessment of the Fiscal Year 2019 budget request during testimony Thursday before the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on defense.SOLDIER READINESSWith just two brigade combat teams, or BCTs, deemed ready two-and-a-half years ago when he assumed his post, Milley said at the time he was not confident the Army could at the same time meet demands against possible peer threats and deal with counterinsurgency efforts.Today, the chief said he's confident and that the Army is on a path to get to 66 percent readiness of all active-duty BCTs and 33 percent of BCTs in the Guard and Reserve."Readiness cannot be built overnight," he cautioned. Insufficient budgets in years past resulted in fewer combat training rotations. That has changed and more rotations are taking place, but it will take some time to recoup the lost readiness.Given continued sufficient budgets and barring unforeseen global events, Milley said he thinks full readiness is achievable in the 2021-2022 time frame.The creation of Security Force Assistance Brigades will enable the Army to continue its advise, train and assist mission in Afghanistan and elsewhere without gutting BCTs of people and equipment, he said.In the event of a peer-threat scenario, those SFABs will be able to rapidly expand and redeploy as part of the maneuver force, he added.The best way to deter aggression from peer competitors, the chief said, is to have a strong presence on the ground. That is the plan with the European Deterrence Initiative. In the Pacific, there are about 70,000 Soldiers who could be called upon should they be needed in the region, not including surge forces being trained and equipped on the U.S. mainland.Regarding North Korea, both the secretary and chief expressed cautious optimism for diplomacy, adding that the Army will provide a full range of options for the president if needed.Asked about the challenges of lower unemployment and increased end-strength goals, Esper agreed that recruitment and retention were issues the Army is focused on. Less than 5 percent of America's youth are eligible to serve and have a proclivity for service, he noted.The Army is doing a number of things to make service more attractive, he said, such as looking for ways to take care of families, providing Soldiers with professional development opportunities and renovating its talent management system.There must also be more flexibility with regards to moving Soldiers into and out of the Army and between the three components, particularly in the Cyber Branch, Esper said. So perhaps a Soldier who is eager to serve but is also looking for personal development could take a hiatus from the Army to study or work in the commercial sector and then later return to the Army with improved skills."Soldiers need to be considered as important investments," he added.The chief added that the Army also wants to retain its Soldiers, many of whom have valuable combat experience and tremendous knowledge."These are remarkably talented youngsters who are open to new ideas," he said, noting that Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking both made their most significant scientific discoveries when they were in their 20s."It's important that we at the top remain open to fresh ideas to solve age-old problems," he added.MODERNIZATION PRIORITIESThe secretary and chief both expounded upon the Army's six modernization priorities: long-range precision fires, a next-generation combat vehicle, future vertical lift platforms, a mobile and expeditionary Army network, air and missile defense capabilities, and Soldier lethality.With respect to Soldier lethality, Esper said that synthetic training will increase readiness because it will allow Soldiers to repetitively train and rehearse for combat at home station. "It's a very important initiative," he said.Future vertical lift is another huge priority, the secretary added. The Army is already looking at prototypes and plans to make decisions on the program's advancements by summer or fall.The reason future vertical lift is so important, is because in analysis of peer threats, the aircraft the Army uses today would have survivability challenges, he said.A manned and unmanned version of future vertical lift is needed, he said, something that can fly faster and farther than current helicopters and that can also be agile enough to evade ground fire coming into a hot landing zone. "That's a stiff requirement," the secretary added.Asked about Russia and China's push to develop hypersonic weapons, Milley said the Army is concerned about that threat and that it falls within the first priority: long-range precision fires.The chief predicted that long-range precision fires will be developed in the near future which will be "significantly longer in range than any artillery system on earth today."Lawmakers also were interested in the Army network. The chief warned that the current network works well in fixed locations like forward operating bases, but is not adequate to meet the task of a maneuver force going up against a peer adversary in a fluid environment.A complete analysis of the network is being done by its cross functional team, Milley said. First, the team will get rid of what doesn't work. Second, it will improve upon what doesn't work but can be made to work. And finally, the team will look at what's available in the commercial sector that might be incorporated into the tactical network.