Fort Benning

Maj. Gen. Eric Wesley: ‘So goes the Army, so goes Fort Benning, so goes Columbus’

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Maj. Gen. Eric Wesley and other Fort Benning officials observe a weapons demonstration July 15, 2016 at Red Cloud Range.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Maj. Gen. Eric Wesley and other Fort Benning officials observe a weapons demonstration July 15, 2016 at Red Cloud Range. MCoE PAO

Two years ago, almost to the day, Maj. Gen. Eric Wesley took command of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning. He relinquishes that command next week.

It has been an eventful two years for Wesley at the Army’s premier training post. He has dealt head-on with the threat to the U.S. posed by Russia, and he has worked to modernize the Army and look to the future of war fighting while training the soldiers in the fight today.

Wesley has been promoted to deputy commanding general, Futures/director, for the Army Capabilities Integration Center, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. It is the same job that former Fort Benning commander Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster held before being promoted to National Security Adviser.

Maj. Gen. Gary Brito will assume command from Wesley at a ceremony on post Monday at 3 p.m.

Wesley sat down this week for an exit interview with Ledger-Enquirer senior reporter Chuck Williams. Here are excerpts of that interview:

Q: Is the threat to the United States, to its military and its power structure any different now than it was in 2016 when you walked into this job?

A: I think the threat remains consistent with what it was in 2016. What 2016 told us is that we recognized that the world was changing relative to the way we saw it maybe two or three years before that. But let’s back up. Our role — anybody in the national security enterprise, any soldier’s primary role — is to identify and assess the relative potential threats against the nation. Every nation faces threats over time and throughout the world. At any given time, there’s going to be a nation that poses the greatest threat. In our case, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief of Staff of the Army have been clear that the nation that poses the greatest existential threat to the United States based on their capabilities and capacity is Russia.

That’s just, I think, an accepted fact. The question then becomes, what might be different relative to a few years ago? What we’ve seen is, in fact, you saw the director of the FBI testify just almost a year ago the degree to which they were aggressively engaged in our election in varying degrees. Our nation is coming to grips with that, but the behavior of Russia, they’ve become increasingly aggressive. That then gives us something to focus on, to study, and we’re dealing with an army, a military that was originally designed coming out of the analysis of the Soviet Union in the 1970s, it was built in the 1980s. We reformed the entire enterprise in many ways. We’ve evolved it since then, but the world is different than it was back then.

For all those reasons, you’ve got an existential threat. You’ve got an aggressive Russia, and you see a world that’s changed relative to a military that was designed in the ’70s and ’80s. We are at a point in time where we have to re-look how our army is designed, how our military is designed, how our inner agency behaves ...

Q: You mean CIA and stuff like that?

A: Correct. Not just the army DOD, the inner agency, but our entire culture needs to look at a world that is much different than it was in the last century.

In today’s geopolitical climate, does the average person who’s sitting on their computer understand the nature of the threat of Russia to the U.S.? I don’t think so. Frankly, we don’t talk about it a lot. There’s been a lot of discussion about the degree to which Russia engaged in our election. There’s a lot of talk about the nature of the insidious behavior of religious extremists organizations, ISIS, ISIL. That usually grabs the headlines. We don’t study a lot, in particularly in pop media, the nature of the behavior of nations across history. The great nations have always vied for power and influence, and where risk presents itself, is when the interest of vying powers, rising powers, falling powers, etc., get into conflict.

Q: Fort Benning is in the business of training soldiers to fight wars and to defend the nation. Where does the threat of Russia come into play when you look at Fort Benning?

A: Well, a couple things. We train soldiers enough for near-term employment in operational units in the army. That’s one role, so we have to make sure they are trained for warfare or combat that is relevant today. There’s another factor. There’s another role for Fort Benning and that is to develop concepts and capabilities for future conflicts. In terms of development, one of the things we have to do is very closely analyze the dynamics of the world, where we expect to be in 10 or 15 years, and develop war-fighting concepts that appropriately reconcile the threats that we expect at that time.

Q: Is there anything you’re leaving here unfinished that you wish you had gotten done to that end?

A: Well, let’s take inventory of what we have done.

Q: That’s fair.

A: We started by identifying what that threat was and how our threat and peers fight, how they’re operating. Gen. Pete Jones put together the Russian Next Generation Warfare Study. Now, there was how our peers are fighting in the future, and given that threat, we then developed that concept of how we want to fight that threat. We call it the maneuver concept. Once you know what the operational environment in the threat looks like, you then develop a concept of how you want to fight it. The third step is a modernization strategy, and we just completed the publishing of a modernization strategy for the maneuver force.

What would be next is driving that maneuver strategy to bring it to fruition. That’s going to be a 10-15 year process, frankly. What I would do if I had stayed, it would be to drive that modernization process, but again, that’s going to take a while and so no single CG is going to own that part.

Q: What do you own that you’re most proud of right now in your tenure here at Benning?

A: I think what we tried to do is to focus energies on what it takes to modernize a force and that is to identify what we call a pacing threat, and you start to build a concept around that pacing threat. The energy and the focus has allowed us to have a singular effort in terms of identifying our priorities for the future.

Q: Has the potential threat imposed by Russia been a thread that has run through?

A: Yes, and we’ve identified Russia as what we would call a pacing threat. Now let me be clear, I don’t put any motives against Russia relative to anybody else, but it’s prudent to identify that peer, that competitor, that country that poses the greatest threat to you, and the idea is if you build your organization against that, the expectation is any lesser included capable organization you could deal with.

Example, in the 1970s and ’80s, we identified the Soviet Union as our primary threat. We built an army against it. We ultimately employed it in Iraq in 1991, in 2003. In Afghanistan in 2001. The fact that you built an army against a pacing threat doesn’t mean it can only be universally used against that pacing threat.

Q: Switching gears a little bit, you and your wife, Cindy, have been very visible in this community over two years. Was that by design when you got this assignment, did you want to be the general that was off-post doing things with the Chamber, doing things with our mayor?

A: It was very deliberate. When I first got here, we developed and revised our campaign plan. That campaign plan, if you look at it, has four lines of effort: futures, training and leader development, soldier and family resiliency, and the community. One fourth of the priorities we pursued over the course of the last two years is the engagement and relationship with the community. By design, yes.

The next question is why, and there’s a couple points I would give to you. The first is we are encouraged, we as an army want to maintain a good relationship with the community. Not just for the purposes of nostalgia; there’s a reason for engagement with the community. I’ll give you a number of reasons.

First, we went to an all-volunteer force in the 1970s and that was one of the best decisions we made across the history of our institution because it created an incredibly capable institution because soldiers raise the right hand and they want to be there, and so an all-volunteer force raised our capability. There’s a downside to an all-volunteer force because the dynamic is, the tendency is, that we have increasingly diverged from the culture, from that with which we defend. That’s because many of the soldiers that we recruit typically come from families that have been prior service.

Q: It’s the family business?

A: Exactly, and so that’s a dangerous proposition because that means the electorate, the policy-makers are increasingly distanced from the implications or capabilities of an army. They are disassociated by virtue of their experiences of what an army can and should do. That is something we always have to be wary of. We have an interest in reaching out to the community and ensuring they knew who we are and they know what we do.

There’s another reason, though, that I think is very relevant to what I describe as a changing world. We went from an industrial era to an information era. In this information era, you have an exponential increase in the rate of change of technology and you have an exponential increase in the migration of information across the plant. Both of those things result in an exponential increase in the behavior of people or the rate of what we call the hyperactive — or a better way of describing it might be the velocity of human behavior is increased because you have sensors everywhere. You have information going over, so the reaction of peoples, cultures, groups, mobs, whatever the case may be, the rate of behavior increases.

That creates an increasingly unstable world. When you have technology that grows in an exponential rate, and you can move that technology over in through information channels, that means more people have access to it. Used to be, when you built an army, nation states could dominate the technology. A nation state would own a given weapon technology for an extended period of time, which means the period, if you think of a sign curve over which they may dominate, be a world power, be in a position of advantage was much longer amplitude. Now that amplitude is much tighter because of the rate of technology.

Q: Does that open up educational and economical development opportunities for Columbus as it pertains to Fort Benning and the technology?

A: That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying the opportunity exists if the leaders of Columbus see that there is a need for rapid innovation and development. Having the proximity to Fort Benning puts them in a position where if they identify a certain market that is open, they should identify that market and seize on it because their automatic physical proximity gives them that advantage.

Q: You have pushed this into CSU and the Chamber of Commerce over the last two years, particularly the last eight or nine months, right?

A:We need to continue to collaborate. I failed to mention earlier, and this is just as important, I’m a member of this community. My mayor is Mayor Tomlinson, and I happened to come to Fort Benning but we are part of the Columbus community and so I have an interest as a member of this community, to see this community survive and thrive. What I did not want to do, as a partner here in the community, is see Columbus merely rely on the rental market or retail sales for the economic vitality of this town, particularly when I see a changing world and can identify the dynamics of that changing world to the leaders of Columbus.

I expect that we can continue to collaborate, Gen. Brito will continue to collaborate so that some of the ideas can continue to grow and maybe come to fruition in future years — not only for Columbus and the economic vitality of Columbus of which I’m a member, but also for the readiness of the nation because both sides win. The army wins because we can potentially have a community that’s engaged with the development of the future of maneuver force, but we also have an army that can seize readiness out of that so economic vitality for Columbus and readiness of the army are both benefited by this, by such an initiative.

Q: We’re at a milestone with 100th anniversary of Fort Benning this year. Are you thinking about where it’s going next century?

A: That’s right. It’s a very important time. First of all, the nostalgia of the relationship is wonderful and it’s always good to celebrate our nostalgic relationship that goes back 100 years. We didn’t want to just be nostalgic. We wanted to leverage that history, that legacy that exists here in Columbus and Fort Benning. ... This community has a great legacy of vision. It was the community’s vision that said, “Hey, the world’s changing. It’s 1917, the world is changing. We want to aid and assist the United States, which is a rising power and we want to be a part of that.

They lobbied to bring, as I’ve said before, Fort Benning here. They went to Washington, lobbied, and that changed not only Columbus forever, it also enabled the army into the extended future of 100 years. Columbus was able to, as they raised the leaders that came through Fort Benning, they had the virtue of, well, any leader of notoriety who came through Fort Benning over the last 100 years. Those leaders then went out across the world in order to secure the United States of America.

Start World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, it goes on and on. Any army leader of notoriety came through Fort Benning. Then they went out to the world. By virtue of that, Columbus, and the vision of those leaders in 1917 touched the world. It wasn’t just the establishment of Fort Benning. You recall the 1970s, the entire economy was completely revolutionized because of some key leaders here in Columbus. They changed Columbus because they knew that the economy was changing and they adapted to that.

Well, here it is 2018, and what we’re agreeing to, what we’re talking about is the world is changing. When the world changes, particularly from a national security perspective, Fort Benning changes, so goes the Army, so goes Fort Benning, so goes Columbus. Where the Army goes, Fort Benning goes; where Fort Benning goes, Columbus goes. If that’s true, then we want to collaborate with the community leaders so that they can identify where they can create synergy for us and for themselves. This idea of vision, this idea of being able to identify changes in the future, it is in the DNA of the leadership of Columbus. All we’re doing is collaborating with them and helping them to inform what is happening and attempt to inspire that same vision that’s within the DNA’s community.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams