JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, ALASKA -- Adding even more active-duty, Guard and Reserve soldiers is one of the Army's top priorities for 2020, Army Secretary Mark Esper told reporters here just days before President Donald Trump is scheduled to sign a bill allowing a plus-up to the current ranks.
Esper visited the base for the first time as secretary as part of a tour of Alaska's Army assets, and is scheduled to leave the state Aug. 9. Prior to his stop on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), he visited the state's interior posts, Forts Wainwright and Greely.
Esper said his two major priorities for the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) are modernization and end strength.
"For me, the big picture is continued support from Congress in regard to our modernizations initiatives, particularly the stand-up of Army Futures Command," he said. "The second is improving the capacity and capability of the Army, and that means continuing to grow end strength. ... We aim to see by 2028, and certainly sooner than that, an active-duty end strength of greater than 500,000 soldiers with associated growth in the Guard and Reserve."
Army Futures Command will be headquartered in Austin, Texas, and will support Army modernization.
The 2019 NDAA bumps Army end strength up to just under 490,000 active-duty soldiers. And Congress is open to adding even more going forward, said Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is traveling the state with Esper.
"By the way, you can't get back end strength overnight," Sullivan said. "But I would agree with the secretary that I think that number needs to be at or above a half million active-duty soldiers."
He said the 2019 NDAA, which authorizes $716 billion in defense spending, including a 2.6 percent pay raise for troops, is a good start toward that goal.
Esper is the first in a parade of high-level military officials scheduled to visit the JBER area in the coming week, Sullivan said, with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson visiting Aug. 9, followed shortly by Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and, finally, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz.
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at email@example.com.