The visit to the Army’s automotive research center is illustrative of the service’s efforts to modernize after nearly 17 years of war. The Army, after a string of fits and starts and multibillion-dollar failures, is pressing to field a variety of replacements in its aging fleet of combat vehicles. Esper says it is urgent that the Army begin modernizing now to outmatch potential adversaries such as Russia and China.
“I think that we are at an inflection right now in history,” Esper said in an interview. “I think we have been for the last year or so, and I think it’s a time to come in and make a difference. If I can leave here after three years and have made a difference, I’ll feel good about the experience.”
Esper became President Trump’s top political appointee in the Army after a tumultuous period in which two other nominees changed their minds about taking the job. Vincent Viola, a billionaire Wall Street trader and owner of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers, withdrew in February 2017 after struggling to untangle his financial conflicts of interest. Trump then nominated Tennessee state Sen. Mark E. Green, who stepped aside in May under pressure for past comments about Muslims, transgender people and Hispanics.
Trump nominated Esper in July, and the Senate confirmed him in November with an 89-6 vote. Like some of Trump’s other Pentagon nominees, he joined the administration after working in the defense industry, a trend that some government watchdogs consider troubling. For the previous seven years, he was vice president for government relations at Raytheon, acting as a senior lobbyist.
Esper, a native of Uniontown, Pa., attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., graduating in 1986, the same year as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He embarked on a 25-year military career that included time in the active-duty Army and the Virginia National Guard, and a deployment during the Persian Gulf War.
Outside the military, he has held several other jobs in government, including deputy assistant secretary of defense during the administration of President George W. Bush, national security adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and a legislative director to then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). He also was chief of staff from 1996 to 1999 at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has been influential in the Trump administration.
Esper, who is married and has three children in their 20s, has eschewed commentary about polarizing issues while focusing on building up the military. Asked about Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military, he told reporters that the issue “really hasn’t come up” during his visits with U.S. troops. When it comes to fully integrating women in the military, he said that “everybody wants to be treated with a clear set of standards,” a response suggesting that he sees no reason to exclude women.
Taking the Army secretary job was appealing because of the team of leaders the Trump administration has assembled in the Pentagon, beginning with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Esper said. As Army secretary, Esper is the senior civilian official in the service, overseeing such matters as weapons acquisition, personnel issues and the approval of awards for valor.
The secretary has been on the road repeatedly since taking office, visiting soldiers from South Korea to Germany. In recent days, he has advocated for a six-point list of modernization priorities that his service adopted in October before he took office. It includes investing in futuristic long-range ground fires such as hypersonic weapons, new combat vehicles, Army aircraft, communications equipment that can withstand cyberattacks, missile defense and boosting individual soldiers’ combat abilities with better equipment.
Since 1995, the Army has spent more than $32 billion on programs that were canceled early, an embarrassment that has prompted bipartisan concern and promises from senior Army officials to do better. Esper and the Army’s top generals are hanging their hopes for change on a new unit — Army Futures Command — that will be led by a four-star general. It will focus on making sure that the Army is realistic in what it requires from industry, and that military officials and defense contractors alike don’t stray too far from initial plans after a contract is signed.
“One of the key challenges the military has faced — and the Army, in particular — is defining our requirements and keeping them stable,” Esper said. “In the past… we would take years to develop a set of requirements, and they would be so grandiose that they would be unachievable in the amount of money one would have, and the amount of time one would need.”
The effort began before Esper took office, but he speaks about it often, describing it as a “reasonable bet” to make sure future projects are completed. Futures Command will “clean up lines of accountability,” he said, with a single 500-person staff overseeing acquisition in a way that did not exist before. That general has been selected, Esper said, but not yet announced.
The Army cut the number of potential homes for the command to 15 in April, and expects to reduce that number to between three and five cities soon, Esper said. The list includes northeastern metropolises such as Boston and New York, but also tech-rich cities in the west such as San Francisco and Seattle. Washington, D.C., is not on the list.
“I don’t want to taint the process too much, but there has to be talent,” Esper said of the final location. “It has to be livable. It has to provide a quality of life for your folks, and then we’ll see what else they put on the table. They may offer some things that they may think are attractive to us to bring up.”
In Michigan, Esper rode on futuristic vehicles that could play a role in the Army’s future while visiting the Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC). The experimental Bradley — which Army officials call a Mission Enabling Technologies Demonstrator — was outfitted with a self-driving option and a remotely operated gun turret. The Army says the upgrades could cut back on the number of soldiers needed in combat in the future.
Army officials told Esper that the autonomous programming in it works “nine times out of 10.” They offered to reset the computer while the secretary was aboard, but his schedule was too tight to wait.
Esper also rode in a 10-wheel truck designed to include robotic “leader-follower” programming. It followed another one over roads and muddy fields. The effort went more smoothly than the glitch on the self-driving Bradley.
The Bradley had a second issue, as well. The experimental “MET-D” is designed to fly a small drone on a tether, giving soldiers inside a better view of what might be ahead on the battlefield. But the Army isn’t using it in demonstrations, following a decision last year to ground some small drones — many made in China — because of cybersecurity concerns.
Esper said visiting places such as the automotive center in Michigan “really helps connect dots” on what is going on in the Army. He said he was impressed by the advances in autonomous vehicles.
“It has a promise out there that we have to realize to change the character of warfare in our favor,” he said. “Our warfighting doctrine is that we don’t want to be in a fair fight, and we want the fight to always be tilted in our favor. And that’s a promise of autonomy.”