Secretary of the Army participates in a Fireside Chat with Paul McLeary at the Politico Defense Summit 2023

By David ResnickNovember 29, 2023

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Paul McLeary: I know you're busy. There's a lot of budgetary issues happening right now, and you're working on next year's budget and the POM and things like that. So we appreciate you running over from the building to chat with us. To start off, the elephant room that everyone's been talking about this week, we could have another CR. Government could shut down. What are you looking at and what are you most concerned about under each scenario? If there's a CR, you won't be able to have new start programs. Right. You can't start anything new. Or if it shuts down, it's kind of an all-hands-on-deck situation. So if you could start with the CR, if that happens, what are the programs that you're worried about are going to be pushed down the road and not--and not be funded?

Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth:

First, I would say we've started the last 13 or 14 years under a continuing resolution. So at one level, we're a little bit used to this, but I think it's important to not lose sight of the fact that every time we go into a CR, we're essentially spending the money we have much less efficiently. And at a time when we are dealing with the pacing challenge of China supporting Ukraine against Russia, it makes no sense to spend taxpayer dollars inefficiently. That said, under a six-month CR, for example, Paul, we would probably have about at least $6 billion in programs that would be delayed or disrupted. So, for example, there are eight to ten new procurement starts that will be delayed as a result of a CR. We have, similarly a half dozen programs where we'd like to increase production rates, and we won't be able to do that in a timely fashion. We have something that's of personal concern to me. We have about 22 different MilCon projects, including family housing, that will be delayed under a CR.

And I know you all have seen the headlines about the conditions of some of our barracks and the challenges we have with some of our family housing. So all of that is of concern to me. And if we go to a shutdown, which I hope we don't, and I hope if it happened, it would be brief, our uniform folks could keep working but all of our Department of Army civilians that provide services at installations around the country and overseas won't be coming to work. All of our civilian instructors at places like West Point or Army War College in Pennsylvania won't be able to teach classes. And you know that's going to have real impacts on our students and on our families who rely on those services.

PM: You mentioned production rates, which has been to the news, obviously, with Ukraine and the 155-mm shells. And there's been different numbers out there. What there are you concerned about? I mean, you have obviously the 155, you have the new PrSM missiles coming online. Would those programs be affected under say a six-month CR? And how so? Would you not be able to ramp up production? Would say, the new hypersonic missile? Would that testing be pushed down the road?

SACW: We would have impacts to what the Army calls the organic industrial base, our depots, and arsenals all around the world. So some of the funding that--we are budgeted to spend over $2 billion on the Army's organic industrial base this year, and some of that money would be disrupted. So, yes, I think we would see some slowdowns. I don't have at my fingertips what that would do for the poster child of the 155-mm shells, for example.

PM: Okay. And how would that affect--the CR effect with the continuous equipping of the Ukrainian military? The United States in a lot of ways is kind of the arsenal of democracy right now. Helping Ukraine, sending weapons to Israel. Would there be any slowdown there or any disruptions or could you continue supplying--supplying allies?

SACW: The challenge we have there really is we're running out of drawdown authority. So we will be able to continue to provide lethal assistance until we hit that ceiling on the Presidential drawdown. The concern that we have is that the Army may not be repaid for that if you will. We need the supplemental from Congress to be able to continue increasing both the speed of our production, the volume of our production, and us being able to buy back equipment that we're giving away. So the supplemental, for example, that's under consideration in Congress has about $850,000,000 for munitions. We really need that to be able to continue supporting Ukraine.

PM: And that being disrupted, that would have long-term effects, I would imagine, down the road. Right. If you can't replace those stocks immediately, that reverberates across the next several years until you can--because you seem to be on a pretty good clip about getting the money to replace some of--some of that equipment. I mean, do you feel like you're in a good cadence with replacing the shells and replacing other equipment that you're sending to Ukraine?

SACW: I do. Up until now, I think the Army has moved mountains to increase production capacity and increase the speed of that production and working very closely with industry. And we've been able to do that because of the money that Congress has been giving us. And obviously, if those supplemental resources don't keep coming, we're not going to be able to continue to ramp up. So, for example, we have plans to be able to get to 80,000 shells of 155s per month by the end of FY 25. And if we do not continue getting resources from Congress, we will have a much harder time reaching that goal.

PM: And are there any other new start modernization programs that would be affected here that you're worried about?

SACW: Not if we have something like a six-month CR or less. Again, as I said, we've sadly learned to adapt our business practices to manage through these more short-term CRs. I think, heaven forbid, if we went to closer to a year of continuing resolution, then, yes, some of our new modernization programs would be significantly disrupted.

PM: Okay. And looking at the fighting in Ukraine, I mean, what lessons have you learned there as far as what the Army specifically might need in the future for fighting a pure competitor? I mean, that war is different than any conflict we might have with China. So what have you seen there? You said, oh, that's interesting, or we hadn't thought of that, or that's something new.

SACW: Well, one thing I think it's underscored to all of us is we need deeper magazine depth, whether it's artillery shells, GMLRS, PAC-3 for Patriots, Javelins, you name it. And one of the silver linings, if you will, I think of the support to Ukraine is that it has pushed us to focus on strengthening our defense industrial base, and we are doing that. Another, I think, big lesson of Ukraine is the importance of unmanned aerial systems, whether it is defending against drones and loitering munitions, or you know using unmanned aerial systems ourselves, either for sensing or for kinetic effects. And the Army is investing in drone systems, counter UAS systems, but we are focused on accelerating the speed of that.

Another big lesson out of Ukraine is the transparent battlefield. You can basically see and be seen 24/7. And that has a lot of profound implications, one of which is we're going to have to be able to have smaller, more mobile command posts that can be unpacked and stood up and be as low signature as possible and then be able to pack up quickly and move to a safer location. We can't have kind of the TALKS that so many of us know from the GWOT years.

PM: Yeah, I mean, you can't have fixed command and control sites on the battlefield anymore, right? I mean, even what we're seeing the Russians doing with the small Lancet drones and things like that, the suicide drones, but that's a big muscle movement for the Army, I would think, to go from, as we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, stationary fobs. They stayed there for months or years at a time. So how are you getting there as a service kind of changing that way of thinking or that way of planning that you can't be stationary even for hours at a time, probably?

SACW: Well, we had been thinking about that well before the Russians invaded Ukraine. So the Army started what we call the large-scale combat operations study a few years ago, which allowed us to sort of think pretty deeply about what future conflict was going to look like. And a lot of these dynamics, if you will, and changes to the character of war started coming out through that work. But I think what we've seen in Ukraine has focused our minds. And one thing we're doing, Paul, is really trying to use our combat training centers, whether it's the one at Fort Irwin or it's the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Johnson, formerly Fort Polk. We are really trying to use those training centers to push our brigades to start grappling with these kinds of changes. So I have visited both of those recently and seen how we're changing our approaches to command posts, seen how we're factoring in thinking about counter UAS. But there's still a lot of work to do.

PM: Yeah. And to get back a bit to the vest industrial base issues. The White House obviously has pushed this idea of buy American. Right. They want not just weapons, but all the component parts made in the United States. Is that--how difficult is that when you need to ramp up and buy things quickly like 155s or precision-guided munitions, or maybe some allies could have capabilities that we could purchase? Is that in conflict at all?

SACW: Well, certainly when I talk to CEOs from industry, I hear a lot about supply chain fragility. That was a huge thing, obviously, when I became secretary, and the pandemic was still kind of lingering. But even now, two and a half years later, I still hear a lot of concerns about supply chain, a lot of concerns about the ability of these kind of mom-and-pop businesses to continue providing us the components that we need in the volume that we need. And we've done a lot of mapping to really understand where are all the key parts made in the United States and in other countries. And I think it would be challenging I mean you know it's a trade-off. Right. You have to think about, do you want the end product as quickly as possible, or do you want the end product to be 100% made in America. You probably can't have both of those things at the same time. And I think we just need to think through carefully the tradeoffs. But certainly, right now the components of our weapons systems are often sourced globally.

PM: And looking at the Indo-Pacific, the Army obviously has a role to play in the Indo-Pacific and there's always been a debate between the services and General Flynn has spoken a lot about this over the past several years. What are you looking to do differently in the region or forward stage weapons and troops and things like that? What are your big initiatives there looking at INDOPACOM?

SACW: Yeah, we have a number of big initiatives underway. I tend to think that the Army will have a huge supporting role for the joint force in the Indo-Pacific. And in that regard, what do I mean by that? I think the Army will play a core role in establishing and protecting staging bases for our air forces, for our maritime forces. So we are looking at how can we be prepared to move equipment, fuel, spare parts around such a big theater as quickly as possible. To do that, we're investing in composite watercraft, which is something the Army hasn't done as much in the recent past. We're going to have to protect ourselves and again protect our sister services, and that means investing more in integrated air and missile defenses. So we have invested in an additional Patriot battalion. For example, we're developing a new system to defend against advanced cruise missiles called the Indirect Fire Protection Capability. IFPC, it's a mouthful.

We're looking at directed energy air defense systems, whether tactical, like short-range air defense, or a version of IFPC that uses a high-energy laser. Those kinds of systems I think will be very relevant in the Indo-Pacific. And one last thing that we're doing that I think is very important is we've all seen the benefit and the role that long-range fires are going to play you know whether it's in Europe where we might be looking at things like precision strike missile, or in the Indo-Pacific where we have a mid-range capacity that is basically an anti-ship missile. And again, this means that the Army will be able to sink ships from land, the Army will be able know contribute to striking targets along with the Air Force and the Navy.

PM: And these are a lot of new initiatives. So I imagine that there'll have to be some trade-offs at some point in the Army budgeting process. Right. You can't do all of that all at once while even looking at the Allied demand for things like HIMARS and Patriot systems. There's a lot of demand out there and I think you have to balance what allies want and need and what the United States wants. How difficult do you think it will be to make those sort of trade-offs given finite budgets in the coming years in order to get these air defense capabilities in particular?

SACW: Well, broadly speaking, I think the fact that our allies and partners want to use the same systems that we're making is good for us because that's foreign military sales. And the more foreign military sales we have, the more it drives down the costs of these systems for both us and our allies and partners. So there's goodness in that. Our air defense community in particular has been stressed for years, and we see again the great demand with the war in Israel for THAAD, for Patriot. We do have to weigh those decisions very, very carefully because we have a finite capacity of patriots that we can provide. But I think we'll be able to manage those trade-offs. And again, part of our plan is to build additional capability kind of across the range of air and missile defense systems, whether it's tactical, operational, or strategic, it's a big investment area for the Army.

PM: Okay. And speaking of air defense and the Indo-Pacific, Guam. Right. There's been a lot of talk about ballistic missile defense for Guam. What are you looking at there and what can you do in the near term you know the next two or three years? We have multiple windows of when China might become more aggressive. So are there any near-term solutions to that kind of thorny problem of ballistic missile defense?

SACW: I was actually just out in Guam this summer to see for myself the situation there and we are working closely with INDOPACOM and the Air Force and the Navy to increase the protection of Guam. The defense of Guam is what we call it. And I think what you're going to see over time is additional air defense capability on Guam. We have been doing site surveys there. We have a THAAD battery there right now. I think you'll see the footprint there increase, but it's going to be I think a shared mission with Army, Air Force, and Navy altogether.

PM: Okay. I know the Marines have talked a lot about doing air defense, but it's more kind of--

SACW: Well, and the Marines are there, too. I mean, how could I forget from my days in USDP of moving the Marines from Okinawa to Guam? So. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the challenges, frankly, on Guam that I was really struck by when I was there this summer is just the construction capacity. Guam was devastated by the typhoon. There's a lot of rebuilding that has to be done. And for us to be effective in what we're doing to defend Guam, we've got to synchronize Air Force projects, Army projects, Navy projects, and just Guam population projects because there's only so much construction capability on the island.

PM: That's interesting. And no DoD panel will be complete these days without bringing up the hold by Senator Tuberville on close to 500 officers across the armed services. What effect has this had on the Army in particular? I know there's several commands that commanders are there longer now. They're kind of waiting for a replacement. Don't know when that's going to happen. So how has this affected Army operations and just the force of people moving their families and moving to a new job and retirements and things like that?

SACW: Yeah, it's been very problematic. I would say in the short term we've had effects that everyone's talked about. My director of the Army Staff is dual-hatted right now as the Vice Chief of Staff of the know now that General George was confirmed as the Chief. And we have multiple instances of know at Army commands all around the country. I have a two-star General who was awaiting confirmation, who has submitted his retirement papers and has just kind of said I don't have certainty. And at this point, what's best for my family is to just go ahead and pull my papers. And I would expect that if we don't see the Senate resolve this hold by Christmas, there will be more of those. I mean, these officers and their families have been waiting for months to have some certainty and to go do the jobs that they have trained and worked hard for for decades.

And in the long term, I really have deep concerns about what my Majors, Lieutenant Colonels, and Colonels are thinking about this. They already see the increasing partisanship in our nation, how that plays out in hearings up on Capitol Hill. And now when we have a situation where the toothpaste is out of the tube and general officers and flag officers can have their nominations put on hold, I think some of our officers are going to say, I don't know if this is what I want to continue to aspire to. I'm talented, I have energy. I'm going to go work somewhere else and not have to worry about that. And I think that's a significant concern for us.

PM: So there's concern that there could be an exodus of senior officers. It's already gone on for a year, these holds. Right. And you said the one two-star is walking away.

SACW: And I'm not saying a tsunami.

PM: Sure.

SACW: But I think you will see more officers put in their retirement papers if this isn't resolved by the end of the year.

PM: And do you have any sense that it could be resolved by the end of the year. I know that's a Hill issue.

SACW: I am very appreciative of Senator Ernst, Senator Sullivan, Senator Graham, for going to the floor and drawing attention to this situation. I think there are other resolutions that have been submitted to the Rules Committee, and that's promising. I think we very much need to see the Senate resolve this situation.

PM: On that note, thank you so much, Secretary Wormuth, for taking time in your busy schedule.

SACW: Great to be here.

PM: Thank you.