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Army Must Tell Story Better To Get $: Secretary Fanning

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


AUSA photo

Army Secretary Eric Fanning poses with 18 current and retired four-star generals at the Association of the US Army this morning (AUSA photo).

ARLINGTON: The Army must tell its story better to get the money it needs, the new Army Secretary said this morning, making messaging one of his main missions.

“What I would have to do first of all is… tell the Army story,” Eric Fanning said, “and the reason to do that is to make sure that the Army is properly resourced.”

“One piece of guidance that Secretary (of Defense Ash) Carter gave me (was) the Army’s got to get away from being a number” — that is, from boiling its needs and capabilities down to a single active endstrength figure, be it 520,000, 480,000, or 450,000. Instead, he said, “they’ve got to explain what that number is and the capability they bring to the fight and all of the work the Army does in support of the joint fight,” much of it unglamorous essentials like communications and supplies.

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. photo

Gen. Mark Milley, Army Chief of Staff, talks to Army Secretary Eric Fanning.

“I want the Hill to understand that. I want OSD (the Office of the Secretary of Defense) to understand that. I want the other services to understand, and I want the country to understand,” Fanning said, “again, so that the Army has the support and the resources it needs.”

Fanning was preaching to the choir this morning: In one of his first public appearances since his confirmation, he spoke at the Association of the US Army, to a breakfast packed with current and retired officers, including at least 18 four-star generals. “If I read everybody’s name, we’d be here for three weeks,” said outgoing AUSA president Gordon Sullivan, a four-star himself, as he abridged his introductory remarks.

It’s much harder to tell or to sell the Army story to outside audiences: to the taxpayers, legislators, and political appointees who constitute its customers and determine its fiscal fate. Indeed, the service is so large, complex, and diverse, with factions ranging from infantry to aviators, from supply clerks to cyber warriors, that the Army spends much of its energy getting all those tribes on one page — or not — that it often sounds like an incoherent grab-bag of missions to outsides. By contrast, the Air Force point to its jets or bombers, the Navy to its big ships (and jets), the Marines to their “few good men”.

“One of the challenges the Army faces is its complexity and diversity, range of missions, range of (unit types),” the incoming AUSA president, Gen. (ret.) Carter Ham, told me after Fanning’s talk. “This means conveying a single message can be difficult.”

Army photo

An Army soldier sets up a highband antenna.

Fanning served previously as both Air Force undersecretary  and deputy undersecretary of the Navy, as well as in OSD, which gives him a very different perspective from a typical Army insider. So, I asked him when the floor opened to Q&A, how do you convey the Army message to the public?

“The Army’s so big with so many missions, it’s going to be hard to put that on a bumper sticker — but there are advantages the Army has as well,” said Fanning. “Its size and geographic reach around the country gives it, in my view, a leg up and we should be taking advantage of that.” We wonder how long it will before a map of congressional districts overlaid with Army bases of all kinds and the number of voters — er, soldiers — at each one appears on senior Army leaders’ walls.)

“There are avenues already in place for connecting, for communicating because of the size of the Army, because of how many places it is,” Fanning said. The Army has more troops than any other services, including citizen-soldiers of the Army Reserve and National Guard, and they’re in more communities around the country, not just near big bases but in the form of local Guard armories and individual reservists around the nation.

That said, Fanning warned, “if you look at where we recruit…. there are large segments of our country that we’re just not connecting with, and I don’t think that’s healthy.”

The Guard and Reserve help reach out to those underrepresented regions, Ham told me, “but I think there’s more the army can do.”

“What we need to focus on is the sense of soldiers and service,” Ham continued. While other services’ hardware may be more photogenic, the American G.I. is “iconic,” said Ham. “I think when people talk about, someone engaging in selfless service on behalf of the nation, I think that resonates more than stuff, if you will, particular platforms or equipment.”

Army photo

A soldier from the Army’s offensive cyber brigade during an exercise at Fort Lewis

Army, Technology, & Offset

That said, getting new hardware is a big part of Fanning’s job. He’s looking forward to leveraging new personnel and acquisition authorities granted to or proposed for the service secretaries, he said, though he cautioned many reforms still require legislation. He sees the present as a propitious moment for reform of the slow and wasteful procurement process in particular, noting the personal interest taken by Secretary Carter, House Armed Services chairman Mac Thornberry, and Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain.

Fanning also plans to translate innovations from the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) to the Army. While the service doesn’t have space rockets, stealth jets, or nuclear submarines, but “there’s 10 times as much code in a tank right now as we used to send Neil Armstrong into space,” Fanning said. The service has a crying need to counter adversaries’ advances, he said, singling out “electronic warfare and cyber” in particular.

“When people first hear about the Third Offset Strategy” — the Pentagon’s high-tech initiative to regain our lead over Russia, China, and others — “their minds always wander to the Air Force and the Navy, and it’s underselling or underappreciating the role technology plays in the Army,” Fanning said. “Luckily for us the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work, gets that and got that right away.” (Work is the primary architect of the offset strategy).

There’s a huge amount to do, and not much time to do it. Initially nominated in 2015, Fanning ran afoul of Senate politics and wasn’t confirmed until this May. The new administration will be sworn in in January. How do you get things done in such a short time?

“If I’ve learned one thing in the last year-and-a half or two years, it’s not to worry too much about what my future is going to be,” Fanning said with a laugh. “January, to me, is a long horizon away … and if the confirmation process doesn’t change, it could take a very long time for whoever my successor is to get in.”

What do you think?