It’s been a strange week for the Obama administration’s nominee to become the top civilian official in the U.S. Army. Eric Fanning, who has been serving as acting Secretary of the Army since September, was forced to step down from his job in order for Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee to agree to hold a hearing on his nomination to fill the position permanently.
Fanning announced last week that he would step down, as per the Senate’s wishes, and his hearing was finally scheduled for Thursday. Fanning is not a veteran himself, but he is a long-serving member of the defense establishment. He has previously served as chief of staff of the Department of Defense, Under Secretary of the Army, Acting Secretary of the Air Force, and in a number of other defense-related positions in both the executive and legislative branches of the government.
The 47-year-old Fanning, who is homosexual, would be the first openly gay person to serve as the head of one of the branches of the United States armed forces.
In terms of manpower, the Department of the Army is, by far, the largest of the five armed services, with more than half a million personnel in uniform and another 300,000 civilian employees. Fanning would oversee a department with a budget of more than $120 billion.
The hearing took place even as other lawmakers were grilling representatives of the Pentagon over the Defense Department’s seeming inability to keep its financial house in order. Just this week, investigators raised questions about $800 million in economic development funds spent on wasteful projects in Afghanistan. Last week, it was $488 million wasted on a failed effort to develop oil, gas, and mineral extraction in the war-torn country.
But in testimony prepared for his Senate hearing, Fanning said most of his priorities are operational, rather than fiscal. One of his chief goals, he said, will be restoring the “readiness consumed by 15 years of war.”
The Army “must reset its equipment, while investing in next-generation platforms to fight adversaries that are closing the capability gap. It must invest in its installations after years of taking risk in that area as budgets have declined. It must also maintain faith with the Soldiers and their families who have volunteered to serve, while ensuring that the transition is smooth for those who leave,” Fanning said.
He also suggested that he would focus on the “resiliency” of the force, which he appears to understand as extending well beyond the ability to perform specific defense-related missions.
“Maintaining resiliency across the Army requires making sure we are addressing behavioral health issues and working to reduce suicide rates; creating an environment where soldiers feel safe and valued, which reduces sexual assault and harassment; and making sure soldiers know that when they leave the Army, we will make their transition as smooth as possible.”
During the hearing, Fanning also said that he would increase the service’s cyber warfare defensive capabilities, and would move to streamline the Army’s bloated acquisitions procedures.
He also addressed an issue that has been a major concern to many Republicans, particularly those running for the party’s presidential nomination: a move to cut the size of the active duty force to 450,000 in coming years.
“If confirmed, I would look for ways to reverse as many of the combat cuts made last year,” he said. “I do believe it’s a risk.”
The White House has actively pushed for Fanning’s confirmation in recent days. Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday, ““He’s someone who’s eminently qualified and served his country with distinction. He is somebody who has a range of experience at the Pentagon and somebody who is certainly in a good position to provide the kind of leadership at the United States Army that our men and women in uniform deserve.”