The nominee to be the next Army secretary wants to revisit — and possibly reverse — some of the deep cuts the Army has been forced to make in recent years.
"If confirmed, I would look for ways to reverse as many of the combat cuts that the Army made last year as possible," Eric Fanning said Thursday during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Since 2012, the Army has cut 80,000 soldiers and shut down 13 brigade combat teams, including two in Germany and one in South Korea, to reach an active-duty end-strength of 490,000. The service will cut an additional 40,000 soldiers by the end of fiscal year 2018. Plans also call for two BCTs to be reduced to battalion-sized task forces.
The cuts were driven by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and ongoing fiscal constraints, and senior Army leaders, including Fanning, have expressed concern about cutting too deeply into the Army even as the demand for troops around the world continues to rise.
What's unclear, however, is what Fanning might do — or if any of the cuts that have already been made can be undone.
"The Army is a force viewed by too many by its end-strength, [which is] just a number," Fanning said. "Few understand how long it takes to build an Army. Few understand the many missions of the Army. The Army's greatest strength is, of course, its soldiers. … If confirmed, these soldiers will be my highest priority, specifically making sure they're ready, which means making sure they're resilient, fully trained and properly equipped."
Eric Fanning speaks with Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., on Jan. 21, 2016, before his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff
When pressed by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who is fighting to preserve 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fanning committed to cut only as a last resort combat-ready, combat arms soldiers.
The 4th BCT, stationed in Alaska, is one of the units slated to be converted into a battalion-sized task force. That move is now on hold.
If confirmed by the Senate, Fanning will replace John McHugh, who retired Nov. 1 after more than six years on the job. Formerly one of Defense Secretary Ash Carter's closest advisers, Fanning is widely viewed as one of the most capable leaders in the Pentagon. He has served as the undersecretary and later the acting secretary of the Air Force. Before that, he was deputy undersecretary of the Navy and its deputy chief management officer.
In addition to his long resume, Fanning would mark a milestone if he does become the Army secretary, as the first openly gay secretary of a military service.
If confirmed, Fanning will lead the Army during a critical transition period that has includes key leadership changes at the top, continuing budget constraints, and growing demands for troops around the world.
Here's a closer look at Fanning's views on the key issues facing the Army today, based on questions from the committee members.
Readiness, budget constraints.
"Readiness has to be the priority," Fanning said. "It's what [Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley] says is his priority, and I agree with him. We must make sure the soldiers we're sending into harm's way are ready, fully trained and equipped."
The Army must continue fighting "the scourge" of sexual assault and suicide, and "while soldiers are deployed, they must have confidence we'll take care of their families. They must also know we will take care of them when they come home," Fanning said. "We ask them to do extraordinary things. We owe them no less."
The Army also is committed to finding more ways to incorporate the National Guard and Army Reserve, he said.
"We talk a lot about the Army going from 490,000 to 450,000, but that's just the active component," Fanning said. "The Army can't do what it's asked to do if we just think about the active component."
The Army continues to struggle with increasing readiness across the force, Fanning said.
Last year, both Milley and his predecessor, retired Gen. Ray Odierno, said only a third of the Army's brigade combat teams are ready to fight.
"It has not improved markedly since [then]," Fanning said. "Still about a third of our brigade combat teams are a ready for decisive action, a big, large land fight that we might face against Russia or North Korea or what have you."
The Army has plans to increase that number – the goal is up to 70 percent of BCTs ready – but "there are many impediments," including growing demand for troops even as the Army gets smaller, Fanning said.
"The demands are not shrinking at the same rate," he said. "I do worry about the size of the Army today. When we were directed to go down to 450,000, Gen. Odierno testified that this was with risk. Gen. Milley has recently testified that we can meet the combatant commanders' requirements, but that risk is increasing."
The risk to the Army isn't just in combat or in case of a new contingency, Fanning said.
"I think we take risk in all parts of our budget right now," he said. "What I look at, having seen this happen incrementally, and part of it is just the uncertain fiscal environment we've been planning in, sometimes we lose sight of the aggregate risk."
One area where the Army has taken these risks, is in military construction and facilities sustainment, Fanning said.
"It really is becoming, in my view, a fundamental readiness issue for all of the services," he said. "We need to make sure we're not mortgaging our future with the decisions we're making now. We have taken year after year after year of layered risk in facilities sustainment, and it concerns me greatly. The first visit I made in the Army was Fort Bragg. That's a critical, very busy base. From the minute that I landed, I could tell this base looked tired. So we have to look into that very seriously."
Selective Service, opening combat arms to women.
Fanning would not directly say if women should be required to register for Selective Service, a topic that has come up frequently since the military moved to open previously closed combat jobs to women.
"I would say that if we're focused on equal opportunity, a part of that is equal responsibility," Fanning said, adding that the Obama administration has asked Carter for his recommendation, and "I can't get out in front of him."
Fanning did emphasize the importance of integrating women into combat jobs in the right way.
"We have to get this right," Fanning said. "I would say that getting this right means doing it methodically, deliberately, and however much time it takes to get it right."
The Army has submitted its implementation plan to the Defense Department for changes or approval.
From what he's seen, "the Army plan is a long-term plan that I think is carefully thought through, starting with validated requirements," Fanning said. "For example, what requirements do you need to meet to do the job of an infantryman? And if you can meet the requirements, then we start from there. I don't believe the Army plan, and all the other services' plans, I don't think you'll see anything that's a rush to judgment."
Defeating the Islamic State.
It's too early to tell if the U.S. is winning, Fanning said in response to a question from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"We're clearly putting more pressure on ISIS," Fanning said, using an alternate name for the terror group, adding that more work needs to be done to win what he called "a long fight."
If confirmed, Fanning said he would like to stand up a rapid capabilities office, similar to the one he initiated during his time with the Air Force.
"I really want to focus on acquisition reform," he said. "Our overmatch isn't as great as it needs to be."
A rapid capabilities office will help streamline the acquisition process, help keep costs under control, and help senior leaders make "wise decisions" at the appropriate times, he said.
Those working in the military departments – as opposed to at the Defense Department level – are "closer to the troops," Fanning said.
"That's important in setting and monitoring new requirements," he said. "It is easy for people to conflate the acquisition process and the requirements process."
The two are "fundamentally linked," but it is critical to first get the requirements right, he said.
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.