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Army secretary brings combat experience to Pentagon

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 14, 2017) -- Less than a month ago, on Nov. 20, Dr. Mark T. Esper was sworn in as the Army's 23rd secretary.

With Esper now on board, the Army gets not only a top Civilian leader with experience in both government and the private sector -- but also a leader who has a deep understanding of what it means to be a uniformed Soldier.

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Esper grew up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh, and first donned an Army uniform in 1982, when he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

"It was probably more of a calling than anything," he said of his choice to join the service.

Short of a few uncles who had been drafted during Vietnam, Esper said he really had no immediate military influence in his family.

"But I was intrigued by the academy, its educational opportunities and I always enjoyed playing Army, so to speak, growing up," Esper said. "I loved the Army. And it all came together at the academy."

Like all cadets at the time, Esper was destined to earn an engineering degree while at West Point. But his focus area, he said, was on international relations and political science.

Esper branched into infantry, and graduated from West Point in the spring of 1986. His first assignment was with the 3rd of the 187th Infantry Regiment, the "Rakkasans," part of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

"When I arrived at the post, they were out in the field," Esper said. "So they issued me my equipment. And they said 'Lieutenant, go join your platoon.' And so I joined my platoon like at midnight on a cold winter night at Fort Campbell. And they said 'Oh, by the way, the helicopters are due in at 0600', and 'You are leading the battalion air assault. Welcome to the Army.'"

In 1990, four years into his 10-year active-duty stint, Esper said he was on PCS leave and headed to Fort Benning, Georgia, to attend the Infantry Officer Advanced Course. That's when he heard the unit he'd just left, the 101st, was going to go to war in the Persian Gulf -- a response to Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Esper said he knew then he couldn't go to school, not with a war about to happen. He said he knew he had to go back to his infantry unit.

"That's what we do," Esper said. "That's our duty. My unit was going, my friends were going. It's just what we do."

After contacting the unit he'd just left, he said, the right phone calls were made that allowed for his orders to be changed so that he could go back to Fort Campbell and rejoin his fellow Soldiers. Still, all his stuff was at Fort Benning, where he'd been planning to go to attend school.

"I had to go to Benning to find all my gear and get clothes for my wife, and then rejoined the unit," he said. "And then we deployed."

While deployed, Esper said, he served as the assistant operations officer for his unit. He earned a bronze star there for his achievements in planning operations for Task Force Rakkasan.

"What we did was we lifted lots of vehicles. We took the whole force, helicoptered up to just south of Highway 8 as I recall, in southern Iraq," he said. "And then we had to ground march there. I was the S3 in part of that, the planning and the execution of all of that. We took Task Force Rakkasan from the staging area all the way up to our battle positions and where we fought for three or four days."

Esper retired after 21 years in the Army, serving in all three components. In 1996, he left the active force and joined the Virginia National Guard, where he served as part of the 29th Infantry Division.

After a few years in the Virginia Guard, he transitioned to the D.C. National Guard. And finally, before retiring from the Army in 2007 as a lieutenant colonel, he did time with the Army Reserve as well.

Having seen all three components of the total force, Esper is well-positioned to understand the value each brings to the fight. He has a high opinion of the National Guard, for instance.

"When I left active duty and reported into the 29th Infantry, I found there were a lot of folks in the Guard who had prior military experience -- they had the benefit of that behind them," Esper said. "I came to find that the National Guard and Reserve was more than just a weekend a month and two weeks a year. Folks were putting in multiple nights during the week, multiple weekends. I found a lot of dedication and commitment to the cause, and I came to really respect the Guard."

One thing Esper said he sees as a challenge for the Army National Guard is finding ways for those Soldiers to get more training. He said he didn't see a shortfall in their performance in combat, of course. "I thought they were as capable as many active-duty units," he said. "And I think that proved itself out in 2003 when we went to war." But he does think it is both necessary and a challenge to provide Guard Soldiers more time to train.

"Many of them want to train," Esper said. "But the challenge is, you still have employers who have to give up a Soldier for months at a time. And that's tough on an employer. You have to be conscious of the balance you strike there. What concerns me is we are on this deployment cycle right now where dwell-to-deploy time is one to one. And it's tough for everyone: active duty, Guard and Reserve. And Guard and Reserve more uniquely, because they have employers."

While Guard and Reserve Soldiers won't lose their private-sector jobs as a result of military deployments, Esper said, they may lose out on opportunities there for advancement. "That's what I've seen from friends. They get off track in a civilian career. That can be a challenge."


Esper has laid out five priorities for the Army. Two, he said, are "enduring" in nature and are at the very core of what it means to be in the Army. Those enduring priorities, Esper said -- which he mentioned last month on Capitol Hill as part of his confirmation hearing -- include taking care of people and remaining focused on the Army's values.

"I've asked everybody to take a look at our Army values," Esper said. "I think they are comprehensive. I've asked leaders specifically to recommit to those. I think with the challenges we face with sexual harassment and assault in the ranks, and things like that, I think getting back to those Army values where we treat everybody with dignity and respect will help us move forward."

Three other priorities Esper calls "focused" in nature. These are familiar to those who have been paying attention to the Army's chief of staff and other Army leadership, and include readiness, modernization, and reform.

Readiness, as first articulated by Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley when he was sworn in back in 2015, remains the Army's top priority.

"It's making sure we are ready to deploy, fight and win against a high-end threat, tonight," Esper said. "That means do we have enough munitions, are our vehicles well-maintained and taken care of, is training focused on the high-end fight, and last, are we, do we have sufficient personnel in the units?"

On a recent trip to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, he was able to get a glimpse of Army readiness in action.

"I was able to see all those components," he said. "I was able to get a good feel for munitions ... a good feel for where we are on maintenance training and personnel. And clearly, the training is going in the right direction. I think we need to do better in terms of fleshing out the units and spare parts, particularly for the vehicles."

Modernization, he said, is "making sure we have the means to build greater capacity and capability into the future force so that we have future readiness. And that means, as I said on the Hill, I don't believe we can get there without overhauling, without reforming our current acquisition system. It's more than just acquisition. It's about how do we fight doctrinally. It's about our formations. But most of the energy is on the modernization piece."

Helping with modernization, Esper said, will be Army Futures Command, first announced in October.

The new command, Esper said, is "more than just equipment. It's an organization that will help us try to identify the future in terms of future threats. There will be a part of it that deals with the technology, the acquisition piece, if you will. There will be a part of it that helps us map out the future. And there will be another part that helps us determine what the requirements are. The future is more than technology. That's why we are tending to lean toward Army futures command as the name."

The new command is expected to stand up by summer of 2018.

In addition to being a Soldier, Esper has worked in the private sector for a defense contractor that counted the Army as among its customers.

Seeing the Army from the outside looking in has given him a perspective into how the Army conducts business operations. That experience, Esper said, is going to help him with his third Army priority, which is reform.

"How do we free up time, money and manpower to put into other areas?" Esper asked. "DOD is not getting nearly as much funding as we need. So we have got to be better stewards of the taxpayer dollar and figure out where we put our priorities."

One area ripe for reform, Esper said, is the requirements process within the Army acquisition process -- "that is getting a set of requirements more quickly that are reasonable to achieve."

Esper said he remembers being in industry and looking at how the Army defined to industry what it needed.

"Somebody might say 'Hey, it would be neat if we could do this,'" he recalled. "And then industry, trying to serve the customer, would run off in a direction and try to fix something or adapt something that would end up adding time and cost to the schedule. There has to be discipline in that requirements process and how both sides interact."

Finding that discipline will be a priority for Esper during his term as secretary. Helping him do that will be the Army Futures Command.

"This new Futures Command that we are talking about standing up should take us a major step forward in terms of getting there," he said.

He imagined that requirements for new systems could be defined 70 to 80 percent up front. "We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the better," he said. Once requirements go out to industry, though, they should be locked in, he added. "Once we set them, don't change them. What you do is you build that first increment, if you will, of whatever it is, and then you have to leave room in the architecture, the modularity, the scalability, so that you can continue to upgrade on subsequent increments of whatever platform or weapon that you are designing or developing."

Also helping reform the way acquisition is accomplished, Esper said, will be the Army's Acquisition Corps -- a cadre of men and women he said who need to be "re-empowered" to do their jobs.

"For any number of reasons over the years, the entire acquisition process has become much more risk-averse," he said. "And the program managers and program executive officers have been inundated with people, stakeholders from other parts of the Army, coming up with great ideas on how to do their jobs. I think we need to re-empower them in this process and move them toward a less risk-adverse posture. I will have a lot to do with that."

Reform of Army business processes, including acquisition, sometimes seems like dry subject matter, he said. But the end result will be better tools delivered more quickly and at less cost, to enable Soldiers to do their job.

"At the end of the day ... the outcome has to be that we are delivering to Soldiers what they need when they need it, and at much better cost than what it is today," Esper said, adding that he envisions the Army now on a path to fielding new platforms, new weapons, including a combination of manned and unmanned vehicles, "sometime in the next 10 to 15 years."


Esper's been on the job for about a month now, and one thing his new role involves is getting out to visit Soldiers. He's been to Fort Irwin already to meet both Soldiers and their Families. In the new year, he said, he plans to get out to other areas of the Army as well, including to both Europe and the Pacific.

"I'll visit units and Soldiers and talk to Family Readiness Groups and get a good feel for how the Army is doing, and how the Soldiers, commanders and NCOs feel about readiness, modernization -- future readiness -- and a good feel for do they think we're taking care of them? How do they feel about MWR? Schools?"


Neither the secretary of the Army nor the undersecretary are required to have military experience. But both Under Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy and Esper are veteran Army officers, and he believes that's a plus.

"We all work well together," Esper said of working with the Army's top uniformed leaders such as Milley, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James C. McConville and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey. "We are all focused. We're a leadership team that has all been in the Army and has seen combat, and we are all focused on readiness.

"I think we share that vision and we are getting great support from SecDef [Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis], because that's his benchmark. And we are entering an era where we can really apply that common philosophy, that common viewpoint to really double down on near-term readiness and future readiness. It's essential to have that leadership focus and I think we have it with this team."

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