FORT POLK, La. -- Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper visited the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk Aug. 2-3 to view training by the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Illinois National Guard during rotation 18-09.

While the trip was Esper's first to the JRTC as Secretary of the Army, he did "visit" during rotations while a member of the active Army and National Guard.

At the end of Esper's visit, he held a question and answer session with local media at the Berry Mission Training Complex on Fort Polk.

Esper began with an opening statement that told of his first trip to the JRTC, "and my unit parachuted into Geronimo Drop Zone. We spent three wonderful weeks out in the box."

Esper spoke of the leadership of Brig. Gen. Patrick D. Frank, commander, JRTC and Fort Polk, and his command team, as well as the Soldiers and cadre in the field.

"They are all exceptional," he said.

Esper also thanked the Louisiana Congressional delegation and local civic leaders for their support of Fort Polk.

"I would be remiss if I didn't say how much I heard about the great community support that our military receives from the local towns and cities," he said.

During the 10 months Esper has held his current position, he said he's worked at accomplishing two things: reacquainting himself with the Army and reassessing the state of Army training.

"I spent 21 years in the Army, either Active Duty or Guard and Reserve, but there's been a gap in time since," he said. "And there is no better place to assess the readiness and training of our Army than to come to the combat training centers, JRTC being one of them."

Esper said he was impressed by what he had observed. He then opened the floor to questions from the assembled media:

Q: Why is it important for you to visit training centers like JRTC?
A: It's important because we had seen a decrease in Army readiness, and now with great support from Congress in FY17 with funding, and certainly with FY18 and 19 we are on an uptick, so the trajectory is right to improve our readiness. At the same time, the Secretary of Defense Mattis has given us a defense strategy that told us to be focused on high-intensity future conflict, likely against strategic competitors such as Russia and China. That means we need to think differently about how we prepare for warfare. Changing how we train and prepare for readiness is critical, and that's job No. 1 for me. That's why of the three priorities that I set when I came in the office, No. 1 was readiness. Visiting the Joint Readiness Training Center makes that all the more important for me to get a good assessment, not only from what I see, but what General Frank and his cadre tell me they are witnessing on the ground with regard to the readiness of our Soldiers.

Q: What are your impressions of what you have observed so far at JRTC?
A: First of all, I think it is much more demanding than when I came through here 24 or 25 years ago. What I saw today was a National Guard unit from Illinois, they were leveraging all combat arms as they were going through, using Apache helicopters, M1 tanks, all their organic weapons systems, and they were preparing to do a live fire, which is something I don't recall us doing 25 years ago. They also had a much more demanding, dynamic training threat scenario than what we experienced. I'm very encouraged by what they are doing. General Frank and his team are on the right path with regards to presenting our Soldiers with threat scenarios they are likely to experience in any future conflict with a near-peer competitor.

Q: What kind of role do you think JRTC will play in the future in preparing for near-peer threats?
A: I think it will continue to play the critical role that it does now, with regard to helping validate the readiness of our Soldiers, Soldiers comprising all components -- regular Army, Guard and Reserve. I think they (JRTC) are also a critical and important feedback loop for us to think about doctrine differently -- how we develop our new doctrine, and the tactics, techniques and procedures we'll carry forward into future fights. All of that is critical if we're going to make sure our units are ready to go. There is a reason why the JRTC and the National Training Center are last stops for any unit before they go abroad on a deployment. We know these are the places where they get the most demanding, the most rigorous, the best training so that they are ready to deploy.

Q: There is a more than $700 billion defense spending bill on the president's desk. Any comments on that and do you see JRTC and Fort Polk playing a bigger role?
A: The Defense Authorization Act you refer to provides us with a lot of important authorities, and we're thankful for what the Congress did to support the Army's end strength growth. I'm very encouraged by the support I see coming out of Congress. It allows us to meet the objectives.

Q: Do you prefer to observe a rotation or go through it yourself?
A: At this point I prefer observing. It gives me enough distance to step back and ask myself what the unit is going through, what they are experiencing, and it allows me to connect dots. At the same time, the experience of going through JRTC, NTC and what's called today the JRMC in Germany gives me the perspective [of] what that young officer is facing -- I know how they feel when they are tired and hungry and not smelling too good, and their Soldiers are tired. I know the challenges, but those are the best times to learn. You find out what you and your unit are made of. It validates your training and gives you good lessons to take back to your home station.

Q: Will you bring back any ideas?
A: Certainly, we've talked about a lot of things during the past 24 hours, from the tactical level up to the strategic level. We've talked doctrine, the equipment Soldiers are carrying and how we train them across multi-components, whether regular Army, National Guard or Reserve. I put all of this information on note cards and take it back to the Army staff and we do a lot of follow-up.

Q: In the Army Vision of 2028 released in June, it spoke of MOTEL -- man, organize, train, equip, leadership -- where does JRTC fit in?
A: What we try to do with Army Vision is give a short, concise, but not too prescriptive view of where we see the Army in 10 years. What I try to do with that is take my responsibilities under Title 10 as Secretary of the Army, to man, organize, train, equip and lead. There are others, but those are the prime ones. I know that in future fights against near-peer competitors in a high-intensity conflict, I need to have an Army of about 500,000 regular Soldiers with associated growth in the Guard and Reserve. I know I need to organize differently as well. I know I need to put certain capabilities back into our units, and we saw some of that today at JRTC. Training is critical and the essence of what we do to buy back readiness, and that's where JRTC and NTC come in. What JRTC and the other combat training centers do is present different threat scenarios. They force us to deal with drones in the skies above the battlefield, electronic warfare that will knock out our communications and an enemy in urban terrain. Those are three things we outline in our vision as items I want our forces to train on, and JRTC and NTC are the places that bring them in, present those scenarios and validate -- certify if you will -- in a positive learning environment, whether or not the units are meeting those ends.

We've made the transition from low-intensity conflicts to high-intensity conflicts in the box (training area). We now have Soldiers training against battalion- and brigade-sized opposition forces. They are using tanks and Apache helicopters that are operating in a different style, so all of those things demonstrate the clear pivot we've made to operate against a near-peer threat in a high-intensity conflict.

Q: How is JRTC different from other training centers you've visited?
A: The most striking difference is the terrain. If you go to Germany, the JRMC has rolling, heavily forested terrain and snow; if you go to NTC it's very open, you can spot a tank at 3,000 meters; JRTC is much different. You have some rolling terrain, but it's tightly packed, it's dense, it's a different way to fight, a different scenario. Our Soldiers need to be able to fight, as is in our vision, anytime, anywhere. That's the first difference. Across the board, our CTCs all have great cadre, they are experts in their fields, and they all have great Soldiering skills and can spot a nuance a mile away. They are very good at coaching our Soldiers and leaders and training them. There are other countries out there that are trying to replicate what we do at the CTCs. It's not something you can do overnight; the JRTC is a jewel for the Army. The Army leaders who revolutionized the Army in 1973 had a great vision about what combat training centers could do, and I think that the proof is in the pudding with regards to our success in conflicts since then.

Q: Is there a consideration to reinstate the draft?
A: There is no talk of reinstating the draft. The all-volunteer force is working as expected. It is a challenging recruiting environment because we have a great economy. That just means we need to look differently at how we retain and attract Soldiers. I think the Army offers a number of things: the pay is comparable to anything you can get in the private sector; we have a great compensation, perks and benefits package with tuition assistance, job skills that are taught, commissary and PX. We teach leadership and management. When I talk to young Soldiers I tell them I can't think of a better place to start, and I can't think of a better place to finish. You'll have a great, rewarding career and be able to serve a higher purpose. We'll do the best we can; we'll always take quality over quantity. It's our job to reach out and touch that elite 1 percent who raise their hand, swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States and decide to defend the other 99 percent of us.

Q: What is the next face of warfare going to look like and how will JRTC be effective in training Soldiers to fight that battle?
A: Warfare is changing. We've talked about hybrid warfare we've seen the Russians present in Crimea, and we're adapting to that. I don't think it's changed as much as it's all starting to blur together. Actually, the JRTC presents this. You'll see the full spectrum of conflict: Low-intensity, irregular warfare, hybrid medium warfare, all the way up to high-intensity warfare. I think that requires our leaders be smart and clever in a complicated environment, and we've got to develop leaders to be that way. In regards to the character of warfare, we're developing a new doctrinal concept called multi-domain operations. In my day I grew up with what was called air-land battle. What it told me was that I would have to learn to fight on the ground, but also with the Air Force. Today we've added more domains: We have air, land, sea, space and cyber space, and I would even add electronic warfare. So now we have to develop and train leaders to operate and win in those environs, because that is what we're going to face on future battlefields. I was at Fort Gordon, Georgia a couple of months ago, where we're building our Cyber Corps, and we're going to be putting those Soldiers into units. So you're going to see cyber at brigade level and above -- that's the nature of warfare as we look ahead.

Q: What is your highest priority for improving the Army?
A: Readiness. We have to get back to a readiness level that means we're prepared to deploy, fight and win against a near-peer high-intensity conflict, period. I believe we'll be there in the 2022 time frame if we continue to get good support from Congress, and barring no big external event. We're on that trajectory now. The Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark Milley and his commanders have done a great job in getting us there. We've seen extraordinary growth in readiness in the past year. And our CTCs are a big part of us improving that readiness.

A: How has your business background colored the goals you have for the Army?
Q: A day doesn't go by that I don't reflect on some part of my background. Today was a great time for me to reflect on my time in the Guard, and I see through the Soldiers' eyes having to work a five-day work week, then two days on drill, then another five-day work week. I understand what they go through. There are times when I leverage my experience working in the House and Senate in Congress, or in think tanks, or on the business side. What the business side offers me is the chance to understand what really makes the defense industry tick. How do we leverage the defense industry to produce the quality goods and products, materials, tools and weapons our Soldiers need to fight and win? I can think about it from their perspective, but also leverage and make improvements to the Army's acquisition system so we can do a lot better than we've done in the past. I want to make sure we have what our Soldiers need to go into combat to fight and win.

Q: What does it say to you when you see the support of local communities surrounding Fort Polk?
A: It's really comforting to know that Soldiers and their dependents can walk outside the gates and know there is a community that welcomes them and understands what they are going through. One that's there when they come home and welcomes them when they come back, and understands when a deployment is happening they are facing tough challenges. I spoke today with a couple of mayors and they both expressed great support for our military and our spouses. We talked about spouses and spousal hiring -- that's important to me. My wife was with me for 19 of my 21 years in the Army, and we know what it's like traveling around from post to post and having a hard time finding a job. Having mayors and community leaders who can think about challenges that military families face, not just the spouses, but the kids too -- it's a tough life. The Army is a family business, and probably places more demands on a family than it does on the Soldier. I've lived through that in war and peace, living abroad and here at home, and knowing that you have people outside the gates that support you and are rooting for you, makes a world of difference.

Q: How will Futures Command affect JRTC?
A: I think you'll see it impact the JRTC in two ways: There is a lot of focus on the material side -- that will be a big part of it. What that means is the equipment and weapons we need in the future will find their way to the JRTC. And JRTC will be there to figure out how to use those pieces of equipment in novel ways not intended by the maker, and tell us how the Soldiers are using it. But then there is the front end of Futures Command. The first element they are responsible for is developing the strategic environment of the future, imagining what that will look like, how our enemies fight us, how they will organize, train and equip to do that -- and how does that translate into tactics and formations. The JRTC, NTC and other training elements will draw from that and construct an opposition force and scenarios so that when our units enter the box, they are fighting our latest, greatest understanding of what the future threats may look like.

Esper closed the press conference by thanking the media for their interest in the JRTC.

"Community support extends to the media as well and I appreciate you covering our Soldiers and what they are doing, and our families," he said. "I am excited about where the Army is going; we're on a great trajectory. Hopefully you'll be seeing a lot of great things happening out there."