The Army has been making cuts to end strength for years in an effort to save money following 15 years of war, but as a new administration comes in promising to add tens of thousands of soldiers to the rolls, the key is doing the math to make sure they're effective, Army Secretary Eric Fanning said Tuesday.

Speaking in front of an audience at the Library of Congress in Washington Fanning said that force structure has been an issue throughout his time as the civilian head of the Army, and that if future leadership wants to shore up the force, they have to be prepared to properly fund it.

"If we're asked to keep more force structure without an increase in budget in some way, then we have more people with less training and less equipment," he said. "That could easily, quickly, become a larger Army that's less effective, less capable than the one we're trying to build now." 

Fanning discussed this and other issues, from modernization to gender equality, sexual assault prevention and the possibility of the next president reversing course on the Army's recent moves.

The secretary got into some hot water during his Senate confirmation hearing, he said, for floating the idea that the Army's draw down to an active-duty force of 450,000 was too drastic of a cut.

But when that plan was put in place, he added, China wasn't flexing its muscle in the Pacific, and Russia wasn't making moves in Eastern Europe.

"The issue is how technology changes, how the adversary changes, and where we imagine the fight might be happening, is evolving," he said, adding that the future will be heavy on near-peer adversaries, and the gap between the American military's capabilities and those of its potential enemies is closing.

Cutting the Army's modernization budget in this year's proposal, he said, could speed that up.

"We’re maybe not really investing in modernization the way we should be, thinking 10, 15 years out," he said.

The hope is that efforts like the Rapid Capabilities Office, one of his top priorities as his tenure winds down, will help the Army regain some ground.

"It fills a gap in time," he said. "One- to five-year time horizon to plug gaps. In some places they’re gaps, in some places to get that decisive edge back in our capability."

The way ahead

A new Army secretary is likely on deck when President-elect Donald Trump takes over next year, and Fanning said he is keeping some priorities at the top of his list during his last two months in office.

Much of his work has focused on soldier quality of life, including suicide prevention and sexual assault prevention and response.

"We’ve been focused on trying to get behavioral health, behavioral care further out into operational units so it’s more accessible," he said. "I think we need to further radically reshape the paradigm — which is not, we’re going to provide care when you need it, but you’re going to need care when you come back."

Army Secretary Eric Fanning discussed everything from force structure to gender integration to sexual assault prevention during a discussion Tuesday at the Library of Congress. The event was moderated by Colleen Shogan, the Library's deputy director of national and international outreach.

Photo Credit: John Martinez/Army

Fanning envisions post-deployment behavioral check-ins for all troops, the way it's often done with special operations forces now.

"What we ask soldiers to do on a regular basis, deployment after deployment, goes against how we’re hardwired biologically as human beings," he said.

"It should just be a part of the cycle we have," he added, liking maintaining any other assets.

In the sexual assault prevention and response world, he said, the next focus is on prevention, as the Army has spent the past several years shoring up its response efforts in terms of victim advocates, legal support and guidance for leadership.

"We have done a lot on the response aspect," he said. "We need to make that whole aspect irrelevant by getting at the prevention part."

Whether a Trump administration will undo any of his work, he couldn't be sure, he said.

"When I said I’m the CEO of a business unit, again, I create product — other people decide how to use that product," he said. "I’m way oversimplifying, of course, but that’s how you get dramatic changes from one government to another, is how you use the military."

He hoped, for example, that his successor would continue the talent management overhaul the Army is just beginning, giving officers and enlisted a chance to broaden their education and expertise without losing their shot at promotion or a coveted billet.

"There are certain issues we’re working on that someone might choose a different approach, but there’s a shared recognition that those issues are important," he said. "[Defense] Secretary [Ash] Carter’s looking at what the workforce is going to look like in another 20 years, and doesn’t necessarily see that the Department of Defense is going to be an attractive place, as it is now, to work for.

"I’m not sure what the new administration will decide in how they want to tackle those problems," he said.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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