When President-elect Donald Trump announced Vincent “Vinnie” Viola as his pick for Army Secretary yesterday, one word was on the mind of the defense community.
It’s not that Viola isn’t a prominent figure — he owns the Florida Panthers, a professional hockey team — but he is someone with whom defense companies and military organizations are largely unfamiliar.
But that may be just what the Army needs, some defense analysts think.
“Often times outsiders or non-experts in these matters can have new insights or can be disruptive for positive change,” said Jeff Eggers, a senior fellow at New America. “I don’t know that there is a prima facie reason to expect change in one direction or the other, but there’s certainly the opportunity for change.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Viola is inheriting an Army that has faced constant war for the past 15 years. It’s a force that has a high operational tempo and a declining active duty force.
He will join a Pentagon headquarters staff that was beaten up repeatedly about its serial procurement failures over the last few years, said James Hasik, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. At the same time, the headquarters and force functioned extremely well considering the budget uncertainty, cuts and sequestration they faced.
While Viola isn’t a high powered Pentagon player, he served in the Army and graduated Army Ranger School. He left the military as a major in the reserves, but kept abreast of defense issues.
He used his billions of dollars to create the Combatting Terrorism Center and invested in the Army Cyber Institute, both located at West Point.
“This is a guy who definitely understands the Army. There’s no learning curve for him in that regard,” Hasik said.
Where Viola can make a difference is in acquisition and budget.
Viola may be able to inject some speed into the procurement process with his business acumen.
“This is a guy who was a flash trader. He’s sort of the king of it. … They were making crazy amounts of money for a while on a pretty small staff. So we’re talking about a guy who really understands rapid or understands the value of it. That’s a company he founded in 2008, it made him a billionaire in the last eight years. We’re probably talking about a guy who doesn’t have a lot of patience for a 15 year cycle for things,” Hasik said.
That bodes well for upstarts like the Army’s Rapid Capabilities Office, which was created only a few months ago.
RCO follows in the footsteps of the Defense Department’s Strategic Capabilities Office and the Air Force’s own Rapid Acquisition Office. All of those organizations were created as a means to quickly deliver critically needed products to the warfighter. The Army is focusing on cyber, electronic warfare, survivability and position, navigation and timing.
Katherine Kidder, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said she thinks Viola will fight for the RCO right from the beginning.
“The appropriations [for RCO] haven’t been set for 2017. They are set for 2018 but he may need to fight for adequate resources right off the bat to make sure that’s going because the number of capabilities they are looking at are rather specific to the Russian context, whether it’s cyber warfare or electronic warfare or jamming of GPS, it’s through the lens of what would happen if Russia starts acting up,” she said.
When it comes to personnel both Democrats and Republicans are on the same page about who the Army needs to recruit. It needs more talented soldiers with cyber skills and strategic minds.
Viola seems to be on the same page.
He told Defense systems in 2011, “We’ve got to find geeks who love their country. … At my company, I’ll gladly trade 10 pull-ups and five minutes on a run for 20 IQ points and heart.”
That is in line with where the Army, and DoD as a whole under the Obama administration, is taking recruitment.
He’ll also be working with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who is of the same mindset.
The question is if Viola and the new DoD leadership will use the same tactics to get those troops as DoD did under the Obama administration.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter started the Force of the Future initiative to draw in talented individuals. That policy increased maternity leave and extended daycare hours, but also came under fire from Republicans.
DoD also tried to expand its aperture by accepting gays and transgenders in the military and allowing women to fill combat roles.
Viola and Trump’s Defense Secretary nominee Gen. James Mattis, may not share those same ideals.
“Given Mattis as the secretary of defense and the posture the Republican Congress has taken on women in combat, it will be interesting to see what comes out of the DoD writ large and then how that trickles down particularly to the Army and to the Marine Corps on the future of women in combat. … The question will be what policies Mattis sets regarding women in combat and then how the secretary of the Army will execute that within his own service,” Kidder said.
The Curve Ball
The Army’s biggest issue in the new administration is size, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cancian said Trump mentioned bringing the Army active duty force from 470,000 to as high as 540,000. Congress already authorized the force to move up to 475,000 in 2017.
Even if Trump doesn’t bring the force as high as 540,000 it still will cost a lot more money to maintain a bigger force. That’s money DoD doesn’t have right now. The Army is trying to modernize and maintain its force.
The last time the Army hit levels that high was at the peak of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and it used contingency operation spending to pay for it.
If the Army wants to expand, it’s going to need a lot more money in the budget. But, even though DoD is expecting it from the Trump administration, there is one thing standing in the way.
That’s Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s pick to head the Office of Management and Budget.
“He is one of the Tea Party. He has argued very strongly to cap all spending, including defense. He was part of an effort to cut the war funding. That appears to be a signal from [Trump] that defense is not going to get a free ride and maybe DoD is not going to get the kind of funding it thought it was going to get,” Cancian said. “It makes it that much harder for the Army to make a tradeoff there. They are going to have to really decide how much size versus capability.”
Viola will have to use his business savvy to navigate that budget scenario.