Departing Secretary McHugh Delivers Straight Talk on the Army's Future

By Sandra I. Erwin

Acquisition problems will never be totally fixed. The Army cannot predict where it will fight next. And trying to persuade Congress to pass predictable budgets is a lost cause.  

Those were some of the takeaways from a talk this week by Army Secretary John McHugh, who will soon leave office after six years of service.

Musing about his toughest challenges on the job, McHugh said the Arlington National Cemetery mismanagement scandal — involving military burials and the identification of U.S. service members' graves — topped the list.

But weapon acquisition woes also have caused McHugh significant headaches, he told an audience of defense contractors Sept. 10 at a Bloomberg Government event. The Army “could do a lot better with its acquisitions,” McHugh said, and cautioned that funding instability and political battles will continue to dog modernization programs.  

Just months after taking office, McHugh had to deal with the fallout of a damning probe of Army procurement programs and a subsequent report by former Army acquisition executive Gilbert Decker and retired Gen. Lou Wagner. The report revealed the Army had frittered away more than $30 billion over a decade on new weapons programs that never reached fruition or produced any useful equipment for soldiers. And it confirmed what everyone already knew: The Army starts more programs than it can afford, takes too long to define requirements and fails to take advantage of commercial technology. Between 1990 and 2010, the Army terminated 22 major programs.
“One of the first things I had to deal with when I walked in the door was the Wagner-Decker report,” McHugh recalled. He described the revelations in the study as “painful” and also “accurate.”

The night before the Bloomberg event, McHugh met with 10 defense industry CEOs, and had a candid discussion about the state of Army acquisitions. “We need to do better,” McHugh said. Some programs have turned around, but many of the issues that have plagued weapon acquisitions are intractable. “When I came in, I hoped to have the problem solved. The issue is that you never solve it, you’re always chasing.”

Making matters worse is a budget crunch that is creating pressure on the Army’s modernization accounts. Most of the service’s $127 billion budget is consumed by personnel, operations and maintenance expenditures. “That’s a critical challenge,” said McHugh. The Army has been downsizing since 2013 but the savings take time to accrue. Science, research-and-development accounts are being shielded from cuts for now, but “I’m not sure how long that can be continued,” said McHugh.

At 490,000 active-duty soldiers, the Army has shrunk by nearly 42,000 over the past two years. McHugh noted that only 28 percent of Army troops are assigned to combat formations. About 40 percent provide logistics support to the entire U.S. military. Nonetheless, the Army’s leadership was powerless in efforts to persuade Congress to undo the Budget Control Act. Despite much advocacy on Capitol Hill, McHugh said, “We obviously haven’t been as successful as we would like.”

Worsening the effects of spending cuts is the Army’s poor track record in weapon investments. “We made some not wise choices,” said McHugh.

Instead of trying to do the impossible and predict the future, the Army has decided to shift the focus from equipment to people. If the force is led by smart leaders, it will adapt to whatever challenges arise, he said. “What we’re trying to do to lessen the uncertainty is to focus on having skilled, trained leadership that can act and react in uncertain environments.”

Rather than pour scarce resources into gee-whiz futuristic weapon systems that may never come to fruition, the Army is targeting basic soldier needs like protective equipment, and is seeking ways to lighten the load that dismounted troops carry on their backs. “For the United States soldier, a loss of a pound of equipment is an amazing step forward,” McHugh said. Other priorities are night vision sensors and advanced protective armor. “These are things we know we will need because we know we will be shot at,” he said. “We want to invest in anything that makes the soldier lighter and more agile, able to react and be more mobile.”

Another consequence of funding cutbacks has been a deepening rift between the Army and the National Guard over a 2013 decision to realign aviation units in order to save $12 billion in future costs. The so-called Army Aviation Restructuring Initiative would cut approximately 10,700 troops from the active and reserve ranks. It would divest nearly 800 older helicopters from the force, remove all Apache combat helicopters from the reserve component and increase the number of Apaches in the active component. The National Guard would receive additional Black Hawk utility helicopters.

The Guard has mounted an all-out push against this initiative and Congress has called for further studies before the Army can move forward.

“It’s frustrating to me,” said McHugh. The aviation initiative obviously has caused angst in the Guard. “It’s a step I wish we didn’t have to take, but a step that was inescapable” given the current budget situation.

Even if budgets stay flat, as long as there is predictable funding, the Army could adjust to whatever top line is set, McHugh said. The problem is the uncertainty that has become the norm in recent years. “It is amazing what the Army could do, and what contractors could do, if only we knew, 18 months from now, that this is what we’ll get,” he said. “The key to our success over time, it seems to me, is the reliance upon a regular budget passed on time with a set number that we can plan to.”

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Urban Warfare, Defense Department, War Planning, Expeditionary Warfare, Procurement, Acquisition Reform

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