Service Secretaries Now Having Breakfast Meetings to Talk Innovation

From left to right: Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer and Army Secretary Mark Esper (DoD Photos)
From left to right: Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer and Army Secretary Mark Esper (DoD Photos)

The military services are on the brink of becoming the most integrated they've ever been, thanks to more collaborative strategies and a willingness to leverage one another's technologies, officials say.

But more work is on the horizon, according to the top civilians of each service.

Speaking before an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer and Army Secretary Mark Esper agreed that aligning each service's fiscal budget requests with the National Defense Strategy and stopping time wasted competing for ideas is a main focus.

Wilson said she, Esper and Spencer get together every two weeks for breakfast and have identified "about a dozen things we're doing together" already, in the science and technology and research realms.

"When I started out my career as a young officer, when they said, 'Well you have to do more things that are joint' … joint meant, 'OK, you take the east of this line and you guys take the west of that line,'" she said at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank event.

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"We moved from that to [being] more interdependent -- and I would say the services are on the cusp of becoming integrated, not just interdependent, not just joint, but integrated in our operations," Wilson said.

The goal is to stop competing with one another for the best weapons or technology and instead be able to gather data faster and make battlefield decisions faster "to prevail in 21st-century conflict," she said.

Spencer said the effort has helped the Navy see some stovepiped decisions made during drills or war games and propelled his service to think outside the box.

"We are sitting there at the S&T level going, 'OK, who should be the lead dog in distributed energy [lasers]?' 'Who in the portfolio is doing the primary job where we can say, OK you lead instead of all of us trying to match each other?' And this is happening at the secretary level," Spencer said.

Esper added, "I'll be there and I'll ask myself, 'Is that something we can shoot out from an Army vehicle?' And we have a discussion about it, about how we can share technologies between us."

A critical interest has been how they can all share the fight in space.

"We all have roles in protecting it," Esper said.

Wilson, for example, said one of the major changes in the Air Force's fiscal 2019 budget is the accelerated move toward defending space, along with a new focus on multi-domain command and control with sensor fusion data from a variety of platforms in the air, on land and the sea.

Her comments come as the Air Force intends to scrap its plans for an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, recapitalization program.

When asked what Congress could do to help the services remain more integrated and joint in these efforts, Wilson specifically mentioned that readiness -- not just in end strength, but training and innovation programs -- to do these missions needs to remain a priority.

Defense personnel reform, for example, has become a distraction for the services as they try to move forward with innovative ideas, she said.

The backlog for security clearances, Wilson said, has doubled in the last 18 months, stifling the service's ability to grab at new talent for its civilian ranks.

"Congress has done quite a bit in acquisition reform," she said. "I would also say that there's something they need to pause, which is organizational change. There's been a lot of it in the Pentagon, and we need to just let the [organizational] chart boxes stay where they are this year, and focus on things like personnel reform and some fine-tuning of acquisition."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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