WASHINGTON — Christine Wormuth is the U.S. Army’s first woman to serve as its secretary. Her experience in Washington, D.C., working on national security and defense policy, as well as the time she spent in the Pentagon running the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, show her capability to lead a service fighting for resources.
The Army is seeking funding to maintain its end strength, support its people and modernize the force at a scale not achieved for the last 40 years. Defense News and Army Times sat down with Wormuth ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference to discuss her priorities and the state of the Army now that the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What are your biggest priorities? What would you like your legacy to be?
It can be distracting to be overly worried about legacy, but my biggest priority is really trying to ensure the Army is on a sustainable, strategic path to the future, particularly looking at China as the pacing challenge. I think the China challenge is here, the future has arrived, and we really have to grapple with that as a country. And the efforts we’re making in the Army, on the modernization side, are focused significantly on that.
Another priority for me is really making sure that we take care of our people. I think that we’re coming off of 20 years of a very high operational tempo with counterterrorism and counterinsurgency [missions]. We really have to make sure we’re taking care of people in terms of making sure they have the kind of quality of life that they deserve. I see that as both taking care of soldiers and families that we already have in the Army, but also, frankly, as the chief likes to say, we’re in a war for talent. We’re well past that period where 9/11 was kind of a big recruiting push. We have to think anew about how we bring people into the Army, and certainly part of that is making sure we’re giving them the opportunities they want, taking care of them the way they want. Part of that is working to reduce some of the harmful behaviors that we’ve had challenges with, whether it’s sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, suicides — those are things that I’m quite focused on.
What lines of effort are included in the war for talent? What’s expected in the year ahead?
We are going to continue to focus on making sure we stay on top of our housing situation. There were a lot of challenges with the privatized housing situation a couple of years ago. The Army has done a lot of work to get on top of that and continues to be staying on top of that vigorously. I think we’re in a much better place in terms of making sure that the privatized housing that we’re offering to our soldiers and families is good quality.
We’ve been modernizing our barracks all over the country, and we have a plan to continue doing that over 10 years. That is an area, I would say, in terms of potential downward pressure on the defense budget. One of the things that we’re always trying to balance is how we look at something like trying to protect our modernization programs while also doing what we need to do on infrastructure, which includes housing.
In terms of recruiting and retention, that’s where we’re trying to move from the industrial-age talent management to more of a digital approach to talent management. [Army leaders want] much more visibility into the skills of our people — beyond just sort of what [military occupational specialty] they’re a part of — to be able to match people more effectively with their skills to their assignments, and to give them a little bit more choice in that regard.
How are you managing the development of the fiscal 2023 budget and the next five-year programming plan without a materialized National Defense Strategy or Global Posture Review?
We’ve certainly been participating in the strategy development process all along the way. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been meeting with his service secretaries, and we talk about how the strategy is shaping up. But, certainly, there’s not full clarity yet.
It’s fair to say we have a sense of what some of the emerging priorities are for the new defense strategy. That said, we may well have to make adjustments toward the end because we’re just on a parallel track: We’re conducting the program review even as we do the Global Posture Review, the NDS, the [Missile Defense Review] and the [Nuclear Posture Review].
With the Army out of Afghanistan, in what areas can the service now focus its energy and attention?
There’s a bit of a misperception that the withdrawal from Afghanistan freed up a lot of resources or time for units. We had a relatively small footprint at the end. And so it doesn’t create some huge, great new dividend, if you will.
I do think that it furthers the opportunity for the Army to shift our mindset more fully to the great power competition, the near-peer competitor challenge; not to say that we want to lose the experience that we had in counterterrorism or counterinsurgency, but to the extent that we will not be doing that “you’re in, you’re out” in the same way.
From a mindset perspective, it allows us to shift, in addition to potentially having things like [security force assistance brigades] be able to be in other places.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.
Davis Winkie is a staff reporter covering the Army. He originally joined Military Times as a reporting intern in 2020. Before journalism, Davis worked as a military historian. He is also a human resources officer in the Army National Guard.