Ep. 75: Army Chief Gen. McConville

How is the U.S. Army dealing with COVID? And what about that new joint project with the Air Force, CJADC2?

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This episode, Defense One's Ben Watson asks Army Chief Gen. James McConville how the service is dealing with the coronavirus and the threat posed by Russia. The Army chief also discusses a joint project with the Air Force to link everything on the battlefield — known as Combined Joint All Domain Command and Control, or CJADC2 — as well as what non-military books he's reading.

A transcript of this conversation is below.

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Watson: So I've been spending a lot of time this season, autumn as it is, anyway, in the very different world of virtual learning for my two young children, they're both in elementary school. And that's kind of made me realize how it would seem to be very unfair to assess teacher performance, as you ordinarily would. And it made me think, this is all so different; but I was thinking about being an NCO and how difficult it would be. And I was wondering, is the Army grading and evaluating differently, maybe more flexibly, because of the ongoing pandemic? 

McConville: Yeah, well, you know, we still expect our leaders to accomplish the mission. And we've seen a lot of innovation. I give an example with our recruiters; you're very familiar with why recruiters do [what] they historically have done — that in-person, going to the high schools and going to schools and talking to the young men and women that may be interested. And they had to do this in a more virtual way. And we found some that have very, very good at it; others need training on that. And even when it comes to how you operate in a COVID environment, there's some things that have to be done in person, but we need to do them safely. So we have masks that we that we wear; we use social distancing; we screen our soldiers. And we expect our leaders to make sure that our soldiers are being taken care of, you know, all these just make it a little more difficult. 

Watson: We had done an episode on the 1918 flu, and October was the deadliest month for Americans during that flu. And then the armistice came the next month, and everybody broke quarantine. And they kind of spread it all around even more, more than they may be appreciated at the time. But my question is: the Army is a famously huge million-plus person organization, each with family members and so forth. How has the challenge of testing evolved for the service to now here in mid-October? 

McConville: Well, as far as testing goes, I think we have a lot more testing available to the force. We test in places like West Point; we test at initial military training; we test before we put soldiers in the box at a combat training centers. We use it for surveillance; we use it when soldiers have symptoms. And so we're doing a lot more testing. So we have a good idea of what the risk is to the force. And once we've tested them, in many of our host camps and stations, we put them into a bubble, basically [to] allow them to continue to train in a safe and secure environment. So we can accomplish the combat test that we have to. 

Watson: It still boggles the mind to imagine. I imagine PT formations and all kinds of things. And of course, I was joking for months, there's probably more extended rectangular formations now than there may be had been, perhaps ever.

McConville: Remember, we used to spread out — you put your arms, you know, spread apart. And if we've got our sergeant major, we really do this: We sit down, you want six feet, you put your arms out and you put each other arms out, that gives you almost about six feet, is what you really need to be. So I mean, it does matter. You know, separating, it does matter. As far as — we're in masks, it does matter [to] be washing your hands, and all these things kind of reduce the risk associated with operating in this environment. 

Watson: Alright, so different topic altogether here. There are plenty of threats that don't care, you know, who is president of the United States, and there might not be any bigger than China and Russia. And I know you got into long range precision fires, and the great power question in terms of China, when you spoke to Kevin Baron last month, but I'm curious about how you're working to leave the service better prepared against Russian threats? 

McConville: Well, you know, when we take a look at Russia, we take a look at it [and] China — we’re certainly competing. But a lot of [times] when I look at the threat with Russia, having strong allies and partners in Europe is extremely important. And we do have very, very strong partners and a lot of the partners — whether it's Poland, Romania, Germany, really in all the Baltic states; they are very interested and working together with us. We share the same values; we share the same interests, and they just want an opportunity for freedom and for their people to have the opportunity to prosper. And so what we want to do is work with them to increase their capacities and their capabilities. You know, basically to deter any type of malign activity that's going on in the region. And that's really the goal that we have. 

Watson: Well, it's a it's a complex goal. I got to get a sense of — in fact, it was this month last year, traveling to Denmark and got to go around to a couple training sites as they prepared for, in some ways, one of the fundamental tasks was bridging operations. And it was, it was something that I had taken for granted here in the States, but is of enormous importance in the Baltics cross in all kinds of locations. But it was a tactical thing that I hadn't quite, you know, appreciated. It's a whole different environment from maybe training in the sand hills of Fort Bragg. 

McConville: But I think, you know, when we take a look at great power, competition, [it’s] very different than the type of combat that we've been used to which I talk about irregular warfare, or counterinsurgency, or kind of terrorism. We're talking about the ability to do large-scale, ground combat operations where we will be contested not only in the land, but in the sea, in the air, and cyber, and space. And so as we train our troops to do this, we go out to combat training centers [and] we present them with multiple dilemmas that are going to allow them to operate in these types of environments. And by having an Army that's very strong, I would argue that we get peace through strength, and we can deter those who might challenge us or those who might threaten our security by having a very strong military by having a very strong Army.

Watson: All right, well, kind of extending over to weapons of the army here. I remember observing a few weapons tests while I was in Afghanistan exactly a decade ago. Some didn't always work. But everything seems to be so much more networked than it was then and piano from what I read, it's only going to get more. So you've got the Army's “Project Convergence” work that was sending data to an F-35 with the help of a satellite recently. There's also the Army's — it's almost like a nesting doll of airborne drones, which could theoretically extend a sensor capability, almost like miniature scouts in the sky. And like with that long-range, precision fires, there's that 36-mile artillery test. And you can kind of put all those together to see how one platoon could really reach across the battlefield in a way that they couldn't previously. So I bring all that up to ask you, what are some of the big programs or tests that you are watching for in the year ahead?

McConville: Yeah, I think, you know, we're working very closely with the Air Force. In fact, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force [and] myself just signed an agreement to work very closely together to get after the Combined Joint All Domain Command and Control system, which is really going to converge all the capabilities that we have in the forces. I would suggest this is very similar to what Gen. [John A.] Wickham [, Jr.] and Gen. [Charles A.] Gabriel did in 1984 to put the Army and Air Force on a path for “Airland Battle,” which is a concept we've used for the last 40 years. But this idea of convergence is really going to fundamentally change the way we fight. And what I mean by that it's going to change the ranges that we fight at is going to change the speed that we fight at, it's going to bring all the sensors that we have together, and then allow us to pick the right shooter, if you will, to engage the targets that we anticipate on the future battlefield. And we're going to do it in a very quick manner, from minutes to seconds, which is really going to make a difference.

Watson: So kind of a little bit more superficially, I'm wondering, as I was looking over these newer weapons programs, and comparing it to, you know, my expectations from a decade ago, why aren't we using ground combat robots more than we are? I mean, is it because we really just underestimate how much terrain plays a role in these things just kind of moving around? 

McConville: No, I think you're gonna see more unmanned systems on the ground and in the year, part of this is what “Convergence” is doing for us. And you're seeing technologies come together in a way that, you know, 10 years ago would not have been possible — when it's autonomous vehicles, whether it's artificial intelligence, whether it's robotics, we could do things right now, we just didn't have the capability to do 10 years ago. So you're going to see man-unmanned, teaming on the ground, with a unmanned system going through maybe clearing some of the toughest routes or an unmanned system, going through the breach in a minefield or on the air side, seeing an unmanned aerial system actually penetrating an integrated air and missile defense system in a way that we've never done before. I think you're going to see some cases of what I would call unmanned-unmanned teaming on the air and ground. What I mean by that is a unmanned system could go up to maybe a minefield, release smaller robots that could do a lot of the work to take out, you know, some of the minds or you could see with an air defense network, an unmanned aerial system releasing your last effects that could have very significant effect on the integrated air and missile defense system that we're trying to penetrate. So we’ve got tremendous capability that we're developing in the future, you know, from hypersonic missile systems to precision strike missiles. I mean, we’ve just got a lot of capability. And what I'm seeing across the portfolios is the range is much more significant in every weapon system than we've ever had before. And, you know, the ability to rapidly locate targets at extended ranges, and then to service them with precision weapon systems is very, very different than it's ever been before. And the ability to operate in very dangerous environments is very different than it's ever been before. 

Watson: Well you remind me of something that I've thought several times over the past couple months. And it's kind of maybe a little crass to put it this way, but if you were to give an MVP award to like a weapon system lately, I would be tempted to vote for the C-RAM, just because it seems to be so active and it's so spectacular when it intercepts you know, either a rocket or an artillery or mortar. It is fascinating how that system kind of, you know, generates the videos it does and then are loaded to TikTok; I just don't remember that kind of activity. I remember just hearing the siren, I would imagine the sirens still occur, but the advancements in the system itself would make me feel a little safer on a base like Bagram, for example, that bodes well for the future, it would seem to me in terms of fast reacting systems. 

McConville: Yeah, I think, you know, I look at C-RAM is, you know, that's, that's used the kind of rockets and motors in a very, very close range. And again, taking that, that thought process in developing systems that you know, would work at the strategic and operational level, I think that's what the big change that you're going to see and how we're approaching many of the weapons systems we've had. We used to have artillery capability for counter-fire at the tactical level; if we took incoming rounds, we could quickly take the radar that we had and maybe respond you know, the 12-15 kilometers away. We’ve [now] got the ability to respond maybe thousands of miles away with some type of cover-fire capability — whether it's hypersonics, or precision strike missile systems. When we used to do deep attacks back with our Apache helicopters and use an MRS or ATCM missiles to suppress an integrated air and missile defense capability, we were talking about maybe 60 to 100 kilometers. Now, we're talking about the capability of 100s of maybe thousands of miles of providing strategic suppression of air defense. We're going to have the ability to sink ships or at least hold ships at risk in areas that we want to have that capability and provide some type of anti-access, area denial capability in areas that we want to protect. So all these things are starting to come together with the “Project convergence.” 

Watson: Yeah, wild to consider lots going on and of course right up Defense One’s alley with this future of defense, networked warfare, etc. All right, last question, unrelated to almost all of that.cWhat's on your nightstand? What is the Army's 14th Chief of Staff reading as we roll into, you know, this impossible to predict second decade of the 21st century? 

McConville: What's on my nightstand right now is Doris Kearns Goodwin book on leadership. And I think it's a great book because it talks about leadership of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and also Lyndon Johnson, you're always looking for how leaders dealt with very significant problem sets. But you know, that's just one of the books. There's a book called “Range” on my nightstand, looking for innovative solutions to some of the problem sets. There’s a book called “The Talent Code,” where we're looking at how to get the most we can out of every individual in the Army. There's Simon Sinek and “The Infinite Game,” about how we talk about no one wants endless wars, but we’ve got this infinite competition going on — how we deal with that? So a lot of reading going on; a lot of studying at night, and we're trying to figure out in the Army, how we take care of our people. And if you haven't heard, people — that’s certainly for me, “people first” is philosophy. But you know, as we've come out this year, the Secretary and I, people are our number one priority. And the idea is we get our people right — right people, in the right time, in the right place. And we build these cohesive teams at every level of highly-trained, disciplined, and fit soldiers. And we have these organizations where everyone treats everyone with respect and they take care of each other, everything else will follow. We'll have the readiness we need to win the battlefield. We’ll have the modernization we need to win in the future battlefield, and everything will come together. Because in the Army, it’s people that are our greatest strength, our most important weapon system.