A CR basically sets spending at last year’s levels when Congress can’t pass a proper budget before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1. That means the government can’t start new contracts or cancel existing ones. Under a CR, “we have about 85 programs — they’re all modernization programs — that can’t start. We have 33 production increases [in other programs] that won’t happen, [and] commands will slow down training because they don’t know how much money they’re going to have” to make it through the fiscal year, McConville told the senators assembled to consider his nomination for Army Chief of Staff.
Pentagon leaders have repeatedly and publicly pleaded with Congress to pass the defense budget on time — as they did last fall but haven’t for the preceding decade — and to amend the Budget Control Act to avoid automatic spending cuts called sequestration — as they’ve done for every fiscal year since the BCA went into effect for the first and only time back in 2013 (that is really what we mean by sequestration). But this is the first we’ve heard this kind of detail on how a CR would hurt the Army’s ambitious modernization and readiness efforts.
It’s worth noting that McConville, the current vice-chief of staff, was responding to a leading question from an almost uniformly positive group of senators. (More on the one exception below). In fact, by my count, no less than three of the Senate Armed Services Committee members present pitched McConville assorted softballs about the budget and how the Army needs stable, timely funding.
By contrast, not a single senator asked the general, the Army’s senior helicopter pilot, about the most controversial single item in the service’s budget, a cut to upgrades for the CH-47 Chinook. That subject dominated a House hearing yesterday.
The topic McConville himself seemed most eager to bring up was not the Army’s weapons, but its people. In particular, in his testimony, his remarks to media afterwards, and his written statement submitted beforehand, the general emphasized the need to make the most of soldiers’ individual talents in a way the current personnel bureaucracy can’t manage.
McConville’s springboard was a softball question about leadership, one he could have answered in sonorous platitudes rather than by staking out a position on policy. What he said instead was this:
“I actually have millennials” — his three children are all young Army captains — “and I think we need to manage their talents,” McConville said. “What I find is, the young men and women today, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, they want to make sure that they matter, they don’t see themselves as interchangeable parts in an industrial-age system. So part of what we’re trying to do right now is implement a 21st century talent management system that recognizes every person in the Army for their unique talents.”
The current “industrial age” system — codified in the Cold War but with roots going back to the Elihu Root reforms of 1899-1904 — basically tracks individuals by just two variables, McConville said: rank and specialty. For example, he said, the director of the Army’s six-month old Artificial Intelligence Task Force, is a brigadier general in the Army Reserves and a logistics officer. But Brig. Gen. Matthew Easley also has a master’s in electrical engineering and a doctorate in computer science. Those are the kind of qualifications the current system rarely captures, and they’re only going to become more important as the Army embraces cutting-edge technology.
“We have people that own engineering design firms that are supply sergeants [in the Reserve and Guard],” McConville said. “What we have to do is open up the aperture, find out … people’s knowledge, skills, and behaviors.” The new system should even track something, he said, “which is blasphemous in the Army: We want to find what their preferences are, what they want to do and where they want to go.”
Instead of just rank and military occupational specialty, McConville enthused to reporters after the hearing, the Army wants to track troops “by maybe 25 different knowledge [qualifications], skills, and behaviors… and then match you to a job that makes the best of available talent.”
McConville’s pre-written answers to the Senate’s pre-hearing Advance Policy Questions also repeatedly emphasize the need for better talent management. These formal statements are normally studiously bland — if the Senate asked the nominee why his hair was on fire, the standard answer would involve a lengthy defense of the current Follicular Fire Fighting Management System (F3MS) and a promise to study the issue further — but McConville’s were unusually blunt on personnel.
McConville openly advocated “merit and talent-based compensation… [with] a pay system that is scalable commensurate with knowledge, skills, and attributes.” Asked if the current pay system adequately encouraged the technically talented to enlist, he responded, bluntly: “No. If confirmed, I will seek and support the implementation of an integrated personnel and pay system that will recognize individuals with specialized knowledge, skills, and attributes.”
The Army’s already reorganized some specialties to better prepare for high-tech warfare, the general told the senators. It’s beefed up its long-neglected electronic warfare specialty — which specializes in detecting, disrupting, and deceiving enemy radar and radio — and made it a career track within the newly created cyber branch. Some old-school EW officers consider this more a hostile takeover than a boon, but McConville told the Senate that the merger gives EW troops a better shot at promotion all the way up to four stars.
There’s one area, however, where the military has failed to improve things for its personnel, and McConville faced the only hostile question of the day about it: sexual assault. The percentage of female personnel sexually assaulted in any given year — overwhelmingly young women molested by higher-ranking men — has actually risen in the latest report, while number of prosecutions and convictions is dropping, fumed a visibly frustrated Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
“I am tired of the statements I get over and over from the chain of command, ‘we got this ma’am, we’ve got this.’ You don’t ‘have it’! You’re failing,” Sen. Gillibrand said. Her only question, after six minutes of blistering critique? With Gen. McConville‘s own daughter sitting in an Army uniform behind him, Gillibrand asked: “Will you take this as seriously as if it was her?
“Yes, senator,” he said.