The US Army is thinking about the threat of nuclear war again and wants to make sure it has the right people to deal with it
- The US military's shift to focus on competition with Russia and China has put renewed attention on the threat of nuclear weapons.
- Nuclear war remains an extremely unlikely but dangerous threat, and one the Army is thinking more about, the service's chief of staff, Gen. James McConville, said this week.
- Responding to it and other challenges effectively requires the right people with the right skills, and the Army has several programs meant to ensure it has them, McConville said.
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The US's shift to "great-power competition" with Russia and China has focused attention on the array of sophisticated weaponry those countries field, from growing submarine fleets to thickets of anti-aircraft systems.
But which of those weapons is most concerning?
"Nuclear weapons ... absolutely," Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, said Tuesday during an event at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.
"At the end of the day," McConville added, nuclear weapons create "an existential threat, and we don't ever want to get to a nuclear war. People talk about great power conflict or great-power war, but a nuclear exchange between great powers, no one wants to go there, so that is absolutely it."
Nuclear arms have only gotten more powerful since 1945, when the US became the first and so far only country to use them. Concern about a superpower war going nuclear eased after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the US's focus on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism over the past two decades further shifted attention from the nuclear threat.
Asked on Tuesday if he thought the Army was spending enough time preparing for a potential of nuclear exchange, McConville said the service, driven by the National
"We see ourselves at an inflection point. The last 18, 19 years you've focused on the fight you have, and the fight you had was irregular warfare. It was counterterrorism. It was counterinsurgency."
"There's a shift going on right now," he added. "So when we do our war games - when our troops do their training at the tactical level; when we're doing the training at our level, the operational, strategic level - those challenges are integrated into the type of exercise we're doing."
To handle that challenge and others, the Army is also looking at the people it has and seeking the right personnel with the right skill sets, McConville said.
"That's why ... I want to get a much more agile personnel system and a talent-management system, and we're starting to get those type of things."
"So you want to talk nuclear ... I can hire someone, right now, a major, lieutenant colonel - I've got a nuclear problem, I can go out there and go out to industry and say, Hey, want to be a lieutenant colonel? Come in. Any data scientists? I'm looking for them. Someone that's really good, that understands data, I'll make you a major or something like that. You come on in, you can serve, and you can help us solve these problems."
'A war for talent'
The Army's personnel are its "most important weapon system," McConville said Tuesday.
"But I believe that we have to compete for talent. We're in a war for talent. We've got to get the right people in the right jobs," he added, echoing a sentiment expressed by other senior military leaders.
To that end, McConville said the Army was rolling out a new assessment program for what he called "the most consequential job" in the Army: battalion command.
"That lieutenant colonel influences 500 or 600 people, whether they want to stay in the Army or get out of the Army. It's a level of leadership that I think is the most important," McConville said. "If you take a look at officers that may have gotten out early of the Army, you ask them how their battalion commander was, it was probably not who they wanted or inspired them to serve."
As part of the Battalion Command Assessment Program, announced in November after a pilot last summer, majors and lieutenant colonels who wanted battalion command went through a board process that narrowed the field to 800.
Those 800 field-grade officers began arriving at Fort Knox on Wednesday for a weeklong testing process to "make sure they're fit, make sure they're deployable, take a look at their comprehensive leadership and potential," McConville said. "They'll take a look at their peer reviews and subordinate reviews, there'll be a blind board, there'll be a psych [evaluation] - all these type of things so we know we're putting people in the right place, the right job."
Under the old system, a promotion board would review officers' files "for about two and a half minutes," whereas the new approach is like the NFL combine, McConville said.
"You could be Heisman Trophy winner or you could be at some state school, and you come together and they know the knowledge, skills, and behavior that they need in their future players, and they run them through the system, and that's why sometimes you see someone coming out of nowhere that maybe wasn't a Division 1 player that can actually make it in the pros."
What "we want to do is take a look at people and put them in the right place, so I think that is fairly substantial," McConville said.
The promotion system for noncommissioned officers has also changed to reward merit over time served.
"We used to do it by time and grade," McConville said. "So if you are really outstanding noncomissioned officer, a staff sergeant, you'd have to wait until all the people ahead of you got a chance to get promoted. Now if you're the most qualified person, you're going to the top of the list and you're getting promoted."
Those changes are just two Army efforts to find talent and revamp training in order to prepare soldiers and the service as a whole for modern warfare, which is likely to present an array of new and deadly challenges, even without nuclear weapons.
"We have a sacred obligation. There's parents out there that send me their kids, and they expect us to take care of them ... In order to do that, we've got to train them hard, because combat is unforgiving," McConville said Tuesday. "We've got to make sure that our soldiers are the most highly trained, disciplined, and fit soldiers on the battlefield."