WHEN: Today, Wednesday, October 26th
WHERE: CNBC Work Summit
Following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC interview with U.S. Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth at CNBC Work Summit, which took place today, Wednesday, October 26th. Video from the interview will be available at cnbc.com/work-events/.
All references must be sourced to CNBC Work Summit.
MORGAN BRENNAN: Hi, Tyler. Thanks so much and Madam Secretary, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s an honor and a privilege to speak to you. And for folks that may be tuning in who don’t realize it, the U.S. Army, one of the largest employers really on planet Earth, the place that I want to start though is military modernization. The Army has this multiyear multi multibillion dollar modernization effort afoot right now. It’s something you’re overseeing very closely. Walk me through that process and what it means in terms of a transformation for the service.
SECRETARY CHRISTINE WORMUTH: Sure, Morgan. We are basically undertaking the biggest transformation of the army in the last 40 years. A lot of the weapon systems we have today, the Bradley vehicles tanks, the Abrams tanks, those are all systems that came out of the 80s and given the challenges we’re facing with China as the pacing challenge, we are really having to develop a wide range of new systems whether it’s new combat vehicles, new integrated air and missile defenses, new attack aviation, for example. And we’ve been pursuing that for the last few years. And in fiscal year ’23, we’re going to put 24 of those new systems into the hands of soldiers either as prototypes or starting to field in small numbers.
BRENNAN: Which is quite a large number given some of these different programs that that have been afoot within the army being developed and being fielded to get to this process. What does it mean for army personnel some of these new systems that will hit the battlefield?
WORMUTH: Well, as you can imagine, there’s going to be a lot of training that’s going to have to happen to become proficient on these new systems and we actually have a process that we call ReARMM, that allows us to sort of target which units are going to be getting that new equipment first so that they can come out of the field, get rid of the old equipment, get the new equipment in place and then begin training on it and then be ready to go out and be operational again. And we’re going to be doing that, you know, all across the army, whether it’s with infantry, armor, our combat aviation brigades, and so on.
BRENNAN: What does that mean in terms of new skill sets? And I ask that because new and I’ve had this conversation before, but the role that new technologies things like software are playing in some of these new systems. How does that change the skill set for soldiers that are out in the field right now?
WORMUTH: Well, we are going to see a lot of new skills and frankly, you know, in most of these new platforms, we’re going from much more analog platforms to digital platforms. And in many cases, we’ve got some robotics that are built in or systems that are using AI algorithms. So for a lot of our soldiers, you know, it’s going to be learning how to use those new kinds of systems. And of course, you know, a lot of our younger soldiers are already, you know, very proficient obviously with computers with video games. So in some cases, the control displays for these new systems have been deliberately designed to be user friendly in the way that soldiers are already used to operating with, you know, whether it’s tablets or smartphones and so on.
BRENNAN: So, I guess just to look out 10 years or even 20 years into the future since a lot of this is long lead time, what is the U.S. Army of the future look like?
WORMUTH: For us, I think, you know, the biggest change that we’ll have from the army of 2040 compared to the army of 2030 is going to be I think using much greater degrees of artificial intelligence enabled systems, for example, that’s one area. I think you’ll also see a lot more autonomous systems in place so that you’ll have manned and unmanned teaming in a more substantial way then we’ll have it, you know, in the next several years, for example. And I think we may also, you know, looking out to 2040 we may be able to do some things with biotechnology, for example, but that’s, you know, starting to get farther out obviously.
BRENNAN: So, to bring it back to present day, the fiscal year 2022 fiscal year that just ended, the army had laid out recruitment goals. You missed those goals by about 25%. We’ve been hearing about it across corporate America, the tight labor market, what would you attribute the fact that you didn’t have as many people enroll this past year as you had anticipated?
WORMUTH: Yeah, it’s a number of different factors really, Morgan, but I think, you know, one of the big ones is obviously the tight labor market. You know, we’re competing for talent just like I think all of your folks in industry are and the job market is hot right now. Wages have gone up a lot and that’s, that’s great for Americans, but it’s making it harder for us in the army to compete. We’re also seeing, you know, obviously, some effects of the pandemic I would say, you know, there have been learning losses with kids being out of school, there’s been a decline in fitness standards. And that’s why one of the things that we have started doing that I think will really help us when it comes to recruiting this year is something called The Future Soldier Prep Course, where we’re basically doing like a pre boot camp to help kids raise their test scores to get more physically fit so that they can meet our standards and then go into boot camp and I think that effort shows a lot of promise.
BRENNAN: So just to dig into that a little bit more, the numbers of young Americans who enlist in a service like the army, only a small fraction of them would actually even qualify to serve the U.S. Walk me through those numbers and how that could be changed because it seems like it’s a much more structural longer term issue that is going to have to be addressed.
WORMUTH: Yeah, we really have two big challenges I would say Morgan. One is in who’s qualified to join the army to meet our standards. And right now, only about 23% of kids between 16 and 21 are able to meet those standards. And so, some of that, frankly, is reflective of the problem that we have in our country with obesity. We have other, you know, other issues like behavior, behavioral health or misconduct and for a lot of kids, you know it can be a combination of all of those things. And then the second really hard problem that we have is what we call propensity to serve, which is really who who can see themselves joining the military and serving the country. And right now, only 9% of young Americans say that they’re interested in in joining the military and I think that is something that’s going to take time to change. But a lot of it I think is about getting out there and doing a better job of talking to young Americans about what the army can do for them, the the incredible breadth of skills that they can have access to in the army. We have over 178 military occupational specialties in the army and it’s not just, you know, infantry or armor, we’ve got data scientists, we’ve got nurses, doctors, lawyers, paralegals, but I think we’ve got to do a better job of explaining that to young Americans and their parents and I think we’ve also got to do a better job of breaking down some of the misperceptions that I think are out there about serving in the military, which are understandable, you know, given that we’ve been at war, essentially, for the last 20 years.
BRENNAN: What do you see as some of those misperceptions?
WORMUTH: Well, I think, you know, there’s a it’s in some of the survey data we see we see parents worrying about, you know, if my child joins the military, you know, will they automatically have PTSD? You know, will they be sexually harassed, for example, you know, will they think about committing suicide? And, you know, obviously, we’re retaining our soldiers very, very well. We exceeded our retention goals. So I think what that shows is when people come into the army, a lot of them want to stay in the army, you know, and they wouldn’t want to stay obviously if they were having mental health issues. So I think we just need to talk to parents about the realities of what it means to serve in the army today.
BRENNAN: How much has the fact that you’ve seen a politicization of the US military, how much has that played a role? I mean, the critics have been talking about quote unquote, a woke military. Historically speaking, the Defense Department has been very apolitical. How do you navigate those crosscurrents within the public realm in terms of the discussion? And I guess, move past what has been a very, I guess, tricky, tricky piece of the puzzle.
WORMUTH: Well, what I would say is when I go out and talk to soldiers, you know, all around the countries or overseas, I don’t hear a lot from them about politics. You know, I don’t think they feel those cross currents very often in their day to day experience as members of the United States Army. I think where it’s maybe more of an issue is with parents, you know, who who may be watching the news and kind of seeing how the army sometimes can be turned into a little bit of a political football. And I think the way that we navigate that is just to continue to stress to young Americans and to parents and other kinds of influencers, that the army is apolitical and when you join the army, you swear an oath to the Constitution. You don’t swear an oath to either political party. You don’t swear an oath to a specific president. You’re swearing an oath to the Constitution to protect the nation.
BRENNAN: So I want to pull geopolitics into this a little bit, something you and I have spoken about obviously this conflict that’s playing out in Ukraine, with Russia having invaded earlier in the year. There have been conversations or talks about the rising risk and the risk is always there, but to see it spill out into the public realm this rising risk of a nuclear tactical bomb, for example, being detonated by Russia, to talk about a so-called “Dirty Bomb” and the possibility of that being used. When you are managing such a large force with many of those soldiers, and I would imagine some civilians deployed in Eastern Europe right now, how do you and your military counterparts within the branch get them ready not just physically and logistically for a situation like that, heaven forbid, even just the possibility of it but also mentally?
WORMUTH: Well, we obviously put a lot of emphasis on training to be ready for combat situations, you know, of all kinds across the spectrum. And part of that training is about having the mental resilience to be able to function in those kinds of stressful situations. So that’s, that’s a big part of it and that’s built into all of the training that we do for our soldiers. You know, obviously, we do have specific equipment and specific kinds of training for nuclear, chemical and biological weapon environments. And that’s something that you know, our soldiers who are on the frontlines are trained and equipped for, but I think, you know, we also I think would reassure them at the leadership level that at the very senior levels, you know, the Secretary of Defense, the President and other leaders are communicating very, very clearly to the Russians about the, you know, implications of even considering use of a tactical nuclear weapon. So, you know, we’ll be prepared, but I think at the policy level, there’s going to be a lot of emphasis on what an unwise choice that would be for the Russians.
BRENNAN: Yeah, I guess so just to put a fine point on it, how acute is the risk of some of these types of capabilities being deployed in Eastern Europe right now?
WORMUTH: Well, I think obviously, there’s a lot of concern, you know, given how Putin has escalated, you know, after the after the bombing on the bridge to the Crimean peninsula. So I think, you know, certainly there is concern, but, but I think that, you know, it is something that we need to plan for, but I think it is a still a very unlikely event.
BRENNAN: So, I want to bring this conversation back full circle in a sense and get your leadership insights and guidance what you would what you would share with other leaders within corporate America, for example, as somebody who is running the largest, from an employment standpoint, the largest branch of the largest military in the world.
WORMUTH: I think, you know, the, the biggest challenge we have and I think the most important thing that we have to do in an organization as large as the United States Army is make sure that we’re putting our people first. You know, we can develop all of the most, you know, high tech, new weapons systems, like we are working on right now, but if we don’t have the kinds of talented motivated individuals to use those weapons systems, you know, we won’t be able to do what we need to do. And so to recruit those kinds of quality folks, to retain those kinds of quality folks, we’ve got to make sure that we’re taking care of them, that we are making sure that they’ve got good housing, good childcare, you know, access to quality healthcare. And that we’re using their skills and abilities in the right way and not treating them as interchangeable widgets and when you got an organization that’s, you know, about 975,000 folks plus another 200,000 plus army civilians, taking care of people is a very time consuming part of what we’re doing.
BRENNAN: And how do you work with lawmakers to make that a reality and when we talk about things like for example, pay raises, that’s all budgeting that has to go through Congress every year.
WORMUTH: Well, we’re very fortunate in that, you know, the the Congress generally is very, very supportive of the military and the United States Army. And so it is, there’s usually a lot of support on Capitol Hill for pay raises for our soldiers for making sure that they have the kinds of quality housing that they need. That’s usually pushing on an open door I find when I talk to members in the House and Senate.
BRENNAN: Finally, Secretary Wormuth, your thoughts or your, just to dig into it a little bit further, your leadership I guess guidance that you would share from being in this position for the past two years.
WORMUTH: Well, I think again you got to pick a few targeted priorities to focus on because if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. And then I think you’ve got to, you know, trust and delegate, you know, down to your, you know, for me, it’s my four and three star and two star army generals, for executives, you know, it’s obviously other folks in the C suite, but I think it’s you know, have a have a small set of priorities that you really spend your time and energy on, and then delegate to a lot of your, you know, great rest of your team.
BRENNAN: Alright, the Honorable Christine Wormoth, the Secretary of the U.S. Army. Thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing your insights.
WORMUTH: My pleasure. Good to see you.