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Army secretary wants faster innovation — can his service make it happen?

WARREN, Mich. — Army Secretary Mark Esper climbed into the back of an experimental Bradley Fighting Vehicle on a recent afternoon, donning a helmet with plans to observe the armored behemoth from the inside. An operator put the 28-ton vehicle in autonomous mode for a demonstration, but it halted with a lurch. The computer had “dropped” the planned route from its memory.

The visit to the Army’s automotive research center is illustrative of the service’s efforts to modernize after nearly 17 years of war. The Army, after a string of fits and starts and multibillion-dollar failures, is pressing to field a variety of replacements in its aging fleet of combat vehicles. Esper says it is urgent that the Army begin modernizing now to outmatch potential adversaries such as Russia and China.

“I think that we are at an inflection right now in history,” Esper said in an interview. “I think we have been for the last year or so, and I think it’s a time to come in and make a difference. If I can leave here after three years and have made a difference, I’ll feel good about the experience.”

Esper became President Donald Trump’s top political appointee in the Army after a tumultuous period in which two other nominees changed their minds about taking the job. Vincent Viola, a billionaire Wall Street trader and owner of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers, withdrew in February 2017 after struggling to untangle his financial conflicts of interest. Trump then nominated Tennessee state Sen. Mark E. Green, who stepped aside in May under pressure for past comments about Muslims, transgender people and Hispanics.

Trump nominated Esper in July, and the Senate confirmed him in November with an 89-6 vote. Like some of Trump’s other Pentagon nominees, he joined the administration after working in the defense industry, a trend that some government watchdogs consider troubling. For the previous seven years, he was vice president for government relations at Raytheon, acting as a senior lobbyist.

Esper, a native of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, graduating in 1986, the same year as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He embarked on a 25-year military career that included time in the active-duty Army and the Virginia National Guard, and a deployment during the Persian Gulf War. 

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