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New acting Army secretary worries about ‘tremendous stress on the force,’ budget uncertainty

When the Senate confirmed Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy back in August, the former Ranger and Defense Department staffer knew he had his work cut out for him.

Not only would he be serving as a senior official in the Department of the Army, but, until the Senate confirmed an Army secretary, as its top civilian leader.

On top of that, faced with yet another continuing resolution to fund the service, McCarthy was given a mandate by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to get the Army’s costly acquisitions process under control.

“I will tell you, this is my third administration,” McCarthy said. “Leaders are busy. They have to prioritize the time to stay on top of this.”

McCarthy sat down with Army Times on his 56th day in office to talk about getting reacquainted with the service, and the road ahead for the soldiers he oversees.

Q. Did you ever picture yourself coming back to the Army?

A. No. In 2011, when I left the department, I had spent about 51 or 52 months in the immediate staff of the secretary of defense. I was exhausted.

It was an extraordinary experience to serve both Presidents Bush and Obama. President Obama retained a small group of us, and I ran as hard as I could.

We had almost 20,000 troops deployed in the Middle East, pirates off the coast of Africa, the near-peer competitors [were] starting to veer their heads. Those were extraordinary times, and I went as hard as I could, and when I left in 2011, I put my badge on the table and thought, “Okay, it was a great run.”

I went into the private sector, my wife and I started a family, we had moved to Texas. And then this past spring, I get a call from [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis.

Q. How have you spent your time in office so far?

A. About 56 days on the job, I think, and I spent the month of August predominantly focused on the [Program Objective Memorandum].

I have tried to get out to see units that are deploying. I went down and saw the [Security Forces Assistance Brigade] at Fort Benning. I went to Europe, Poland and Germany. I spent time with [soldiers] deployed there as well as Afghanistan.

[The trips were], in large measure, trying to get myself informed, but to put prioritization within the budget in time before it went down the hall, and then also get out and, I guess, reintroduce myself to the force.

Q. What is your assessment just from visiting soldiers overseas and at home? What are you seeing? What did you learn? Were you surprised by anything?

A. So I went and met with the major commands first, the commanders and their command groups, because I really needed to understand their priorities so that I can be as informed as I can be.

Europe is extraordinary, what we are doing there. The junior enlisted and junior officers —we have E-5s and E-6s just swinging above their weight. The partnership capacity from the Baltics all the way down to Georgia and Ukraine, it’s really amazing how these junior enlisted and junior officers are advising and mentoring forces.

Now, it is also extraordinary how much better the Afghanistan National Security Forces are, how much safer the country is. I think the relationship is getting better, so it made me feel pretty good, quite frankly, to see how well everyone is performing. The Afghan National Security Forces can provide humanitarian operations in the country unassisted. They can conduct offensive operations against the Taliban and other ISIS type terrorist organizations.

But there has been tremendous stress on the force. I saw that with a Family Readiness Group in the 82nd [Airborne Division]. They were very candid. Multiple combat tours, challenges, the budgets have fluctuated.

As he visited soldiers and families across the Army, Acting Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said he is worried about the tremendous pressure on the force. (John Martinez/Army)
As he visited soldiers and families across the Army, Acting Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said he is worried about the tremendous pressure on the force. (John Martinez/Army)

Q. Do you think the Army needs to continue to grow?

A. I think it is a simple economics equation, supply and demand. If we continue to get asked to support national objectives worldwide, we will require more people. We can’t keep the operational tempo from a year to 12 months. That is what hurts families, that is what hurts soldiers. It affects readiness.

You are compressing the amount of time that we allow soldiers to prepare. We need our soldiers to get max repetitions before they go from individual to platoon to collective training. That is what I mean when I talk about the time and the physics required for readiness.

Demand fluctuates. I think we need to be bigger than we are today, but how big in the future, in large measure, depends on the national objectives. We are in the process of a national defense strategy that will come to a conclusion around the holidays.

Q. In terms of modernization, what are some of the areas that you want to focus on?

A. The requirements process will make or break the future of a weapon system, ... but at its foundational level, it is a leadership issue, as it should be.

It’s the getting the war fighters involved sooner in the process, prototyping the weapons systems so that they fit. You fail early, you fail cheap, you adjust, or you walk away.

It is really that simple, but it has to be leadership getting involved to just push through all of the minutiae, because, historically, because of failures, we throw more processes and more oversight and more and more and more.

Q. How are you going to initiate this new, streamlined acquisitions process?

A. We are going to look at a couple of pilot programs, certain capabilities, and we are going to bring that together, but in large measure it will have to report to senior leadership. Reduce the number of requirements overhauls, provide the amount of top-cover required so that it can get all of the stray voltage out of the way.

Q. What impact is budget uncertainty having on Army planning?

A. Huge. Continued resolutions, it breeds mediocrity. You can do just so much. We have a generation of officers that don’t know what an appropriations bill looks like.

You put that into context, you have to file for anomalies so I can do research and development against a weapons system, or conduct a [military construction] project, or turn a production line at full rate capacity. You have to go through these extraordinary hurdles so you can get permission to do the right thing.

They are terrible for business, but I am an optimist, because I am a Chicago Cubs fan, and we won. But I don’t mean to be facetious. It is a big deal. It inhibits our ability to do the right thing.

I was talking to the Congress about it, I am going to keep talking about it. Clearly there are things that we need to do better, but we need their help from that standpoint, among other things.

Q. At your confirmation hearing, Sen. John McCain got pretty rough with you about waste in Army acquisitions. Can you deliver that change?

A. I have such respect for him. He came over, and he shook hands with me and my dad afterwards. It was one of the greatest moments of my life, and he said, “You know what you have to do,” and I said, “Yes, sir.”

It was a proud moment, and clearly marching orders, and I got it. I got it from a guy named Secretary Mattis, too. So can we? Absolutely we can.

I have said before it is a leadership issue. It means you have to invest an enormous amount of your time, but as we should. This is billions of dollars of taxpayer money, and it is the weapons systems that our men and women need to win to give them that technological edge in combat. I have a unique set of experiences in this world, and I think I can help. I know I can.

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