The Secretary of Defense on DOD’s Path Forward, Readiness and Capacity

Aug 19, 2019 | Defense Transportation Journal

By Sharon Lo, Managing Editor, DTJ & NDTAGram


It’s been a fairly tumultuous year so far for Defense Department leadership. Well-respected Defense Secretary Jim Mattis left as of the first of the year after nearly two years in office over policy differences with President Trump. Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan was appointed Acting Secretary only to step down prior to his confirmation in June over personal issues. Secretary of the Army Mark Esper subsequently took over the role of Acting Secretary. He transferred those duties to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer for an eight-day period in mid-July in order to go through his confirmation hearings. Thankfully Esper’s confirmation hearings went well, with just a bit of sparring over his defense industry ties, and ended with a strong bi-partisan vote in his favor.

While other DOD leadership positions are still being filled, Esper’s confirmation brings a sense of stability and welcomed closure to the longest period without a confirmed leader in the Department’s history. So what can we expect from Secretary Esper? And as this issue of the DTJ is dedicated to exploring readiness and surge capacity, where does the newly appointed Secretary think we stand in those critical areas?

The Path Forward

During then Acting Secretary Esper’s remarks at a press conference at NATO headquarters, he mentioned that he had assured the alliance’s Secretary General that despite changes in DOD leadership, there was no change in mission.

“I want to reaffirm the Department of Defense’s path forward.

“First, the US National Defense Strategy [NDS] remains our guiding document. As it states, we are in a new era of great power competition, and China and Russia remain our long-term strategic competitors.

“Second, the department’s mission remains clear:  to deter conflict and, if necessary, fight and win on the battlefield.

“Third, we will continue to expand the competitive space through three mutually reinforcing lines of effort:  number one, build a more lethal and ready force; number two, strengthen alliances and partnerships, which is why, by the way, I travel to NATO on my second day in this role; and number three, reform the Department of Defense for greater performance and accountability.”

Dr. Mark T. Esper answers questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense. DOD photo by SGT Amber I. Smith, USA/Released.

He has echoed these sentiments in nearly every speech, every memo, and during every meeting with partner nations since his first day as Acting Secretary. Furthermore, as part of the confirmation process, Secretary Esper answered a series of advanced policy questions provided by the Senate. The NDS was often referenced as the basis for many of his answers.

Those questions and their answers were released prior to his confirmation in a 117-page document. It could certainly make for an interesting summer read, but if you don’t have that kind of time below are a sampling of Esper’s answers1 handpicked for DTJ’s readers and, as mentioned, with an emphasis on readiness and capacity.


Readiness – The Central Challenge Across Strategic Focus Areas

The growing threats posed by great power competitors such as China and Russia warrant a re-focus to high intensity conflict across all of the Military Services. This requires us to modernize our forces and capitalize on rapid technological advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, directed energy, and hypersonics. We must also build more robust cyber capabilities; and with your help, establish the United States Space Force.

At the same time, we must be prepared to respond to regional threats such as Iran and North Korea—all the while maintaining pressure on terrorist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda. This need to balance current readiness with modernization—or future readiness—is the Department’s central challenge, and will require strong leadership, open and continuous dialogue with Congress, and the courage to make tough decisions.

Current Readiness

Readiness is better now than it was when I rejoined the Defense Department in 2017, and we are absolutely the most capable military in the world. Stable and predictable funding, and the avoidance of a continuing resolution during FY 2019, allowed the Department to make much needed investments that contribute to short-term readiness gains while simultaneously providing the foundation for long-term readiness growth. The FY 2020 budget sustains and builds on these readiness gains, for example, by investing in critical training for Armored Brigade Combat Teams and making continued improvements in the tactical aviation enterprise.

Military Size, Structure and Resources

My understanding is that the Joint Force presently has the necessary capability, capacity, and readiness to contend with today’s threats at an acceptable level of risk, and to implement National Defense Strategy (NDS) priorities, but that the level of risk is increasing as the threat environment evolves. This is particularly the case regarding China’s and Russia’s growing ability to contest US military advantages; we cannot allow that trend to continue.

If confirmed, I will work to ensure the Department adapts and strengthens our warfighting approach in line with NDS priorities, including by improving how we develop, posture, and employ the Joint Force to implement the strategy most effectively. In a resource-informed way, I believe the Department should continue to prioritize Joint Force modernization, future high-end readiness, and the development of new operating concepts, while accepting risk in growing major combat units, to ensure a more lethal, resilient, and agile military for an era of strategic competition.


In order to maintain our lethality and readiness, all Service members are expected to be deployable. Our objective is to reduce the number of non-deployable Service members, which improves personnel readiness and lethality across the joint force. Today, we have established our non-deployable threshold at no more than 5%, with a goal of 100% deployability.

Pilot Retention

There is a national shortage of pilots, and it affects how we retain our Airmen. Retention initiatives aimed at improving Quality of Service and Quality of Life are critical in addressing the Air Force’s pilot shortage. With the help of Congress, the Air Force increased aviation bonuses for pilots and focused non-monetary initiatives at the squadron level, including programs to provide additional support to allow pilots to focus on flying, reducing 365-day deployments, and targeted, proactive talent management.

All the Military Departments and Services are addressing a broad array of retention issues simultaneously—from job satisfaction to quality of life to professional development. Their initiatives, although differing in implementation, include increasing career path flexibility, identifying non-monetary career-enhancing opportunities, addressing operational tempo, and managing operational commitments to reduce the strain of deployments.

The Role of Reserve Components

The Reserve Components are both an operational and a strategic reserve. They provide strategic depth and operational agility when properly resourced, trained and equipped. Resourcing levels for the Reserve Components should be determined by their respective Services, using a Total Force concept, based on the validated requirements placed on them by the Combatant Commands in support of their war plans.

Corrosion control technicians with the 576th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron apply primer to an A-10 Thunderbolt II at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The squadron is part of the Ogden Air Logistics Complex, which provides logistics, support, maintenance and distribution for the nation’s premier fighter aircraft including the F-35 Lightning II, F-22 Raptor, F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt. In addition, the Ogden ALC maintains the C-130 Hercules, T-38 Talon and other weapon systems, as well as the Minuteman III ICBM. US Air Force photo by Alex R. Lloyd/Released.

Air Capacity and Capabilities

Warfighting analysis shows sufficient fighter capacity is critical in a fight with a near-peer adversary in both the near and long terms. This resulted in the decision to invest in advanced fourth-generation aircraft like the F-15EX to recapitalize the F-15C fleet, while continuing to modernize with advanced fifth-generation aircraft like the F-35. Although the Air Force would prefer to invest in an entirely fifth-generation fleet, proceeding with a mixed fleet is necessary at this time to balance near and mid-term readiness with future needs.

The Air Force is examining and investing in a number of commercial best practices, such as conditions-based maintenance, to increase mission capability rates, improve readiness, and reduce sustainment costs across all aircraft fleets.


Shipbuilding Programs & Recapitalization

It is imperative we assess the cost, schedule, and performance of our shipbuilding programs to ensure they are meeting warfighting needs at an affordable cost. We must improve accountability for our programs, and incentivize our shipbuilders to deliver on schedule, at or below cost, and with the level of technical quality that is required to produce exceptional warships. To do this, we must recruit, develop, and retain a high-quality military and civilian acquisition workforce. We must partner with industry early and often as we establish new shipbuilding programs, and we must embrace competition as an essential component of our approach.

The Navy’s Sealift Recapitalization Strategy is a three-pronged approach to maintaining required sealift capability in support of the Joint Force. This strategy aligns to the March 2018 Sealift the Nation Needs Report to Congress and consists of new construction procurements, used-ship procurements, and service life extension program (SLEP) of existing inventory. The Ready Reserve Force (RRF) consists of 46 ships, managed by the Maritime Administration (MARAD), which are maintained in a reduced operating status. The average age of these ships is 44 years old. PB20 FYDP [President’s Budget 2020, Future Year Defense Program] includes plans to SLEP 20 RRF ships and the acquisition and conversion of two used vessels in FY 2021 and FY 2022. Initial concept study contracts for the new construction ships were recently awarded (June 2019) to four industry teams.

Section 804 Acquisition Programs

Section 804 authority is useful to accelerate technology maturation or fielding, specifically, for technologies that are sufficiently mature enough to be rapidly prototyped or fielded within five years and subsequently transitioned to a more traditional acquisition pathway. The ability to prototype faster and to field capabilities more quickly are tenets of the Section 804 authority that the DOD is currently using to keep pace with evolving threats.

Using this authority depends on the unique characteristics and risk profile of a particular program. Middle-Tier authorities allow for greater tailoring and streamlining than the traditional process. The major risk associated with such programs is the potential for a diminution of sound program planning and rigor.

Readiness in the Face of Severe Weather

From my previous experience as the Army Secretary, severe weather events have had an impact on DOD’s ability to conduct training and operations at certain installations. It has been my experience that DOD assesses resilience holistically throughout the installation planning and basing processes. If confirmed, I would work with DOD leadership to ensure our planning considers extreme weather events.

Esper’s answers shed light on several areas where readiness and capacity are in need of work, but also showcase areas where the work is already in progress. With critical leadership roles being filled, Congress making headway on the Pentagon’s budget for the next two years and the NDS firmly in place as a guide, the time is now for DOD to make significant strides in the areas of readiness and capacity.


1Senate Armed Services Committee Advance Policy Questions for Dr. Mark T. Esper Nominee for Appointment to Be Secretary of Defense. (2019, July 16). Retrieved from United State Senate Committee on Armed Services:

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