The Army is at a crossroads. It can either radically change the way it recruits and trains soldiers, develops and buys new weapons, and adapts its doctrine and tactics to modern warfare, or risk being as irrelevant as horse-mounted cavalry.

That was the message Army Secretary Mark Esper, the service’s civilian leader, delivered Monday to several thousand members of the Association of the United States Army meeting in Washington.

“Seventeen consecutive years of irregular war, extended years of budget uncertainty, and an increasing complex security environment have eroded our competitive edge,” said Esper in a keynote speech attended by all of the Army’s senior leaders. “Ladies and gentlemen, the time for change is now.”

While Esper insisted today’s Army stands ready to win the nation’s wars “anytime, anywhere, against anyone,” he also painted a picture of a force unable to recruit enough new soldiers and employing weapons that are nearing the end of their useful life.

“Our legacy platforms have served us well for decades, but we’re running out of upgrades that will keep us ahead,” Esper said. “Technology is changing too fast and our enemies are too adaptable.”

Esper is banking on the new Army Futures Command headquartered in Austin, Texas, to come up with a new generation of weapons and for the Army and a new innovative doctrine to employ them on the battlefield.

In the next few years, the Army expects to have prototypes for the next-generation combat vehicle, squad automatic weapon, mobile short-range air defense system, and a strategic long-range cannon.

Esper, a 1986 West Point graduate who was an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, says the Army doctrine drilled into his head back then is now “inadequate, if not obsolete.”

The Army will soon release its revised “multi-domain operations doctrine,” which Esper says will describe “a new way of fighting” the nation's wars.

Esper says the Army also needs a new way of recruiting, noting that for the first time in more than a decade the Army missed its recruiting goal by about 6,500 soldiers.

“Recruiting has become increasingly difficult in today’s environment. While only 29 percent of Americans meet our entry requirements only four percent of that pool have a propensity to serve,” he said.

Esper said the strong economy and higher physical fitness standards mean the Army will need to change its reliance on recruiters to make the numbers.

A new recruiting strategy will focus more on major cities, with a greater presence on social media, while also asking all current and retired soldiers and their families to serve as informal recruiters as well.

“I will tell you this, we will not sacrifice quality for quantity,” he told the Army crowd to loud applause.

Esper says 10 years from now people will look back on 2018 as “a pivotal moment for our Army,” when hard decisions were made.

“These efforts amount to nothing short of an Army renaissance, a renaissance that represents a renewal in how the Army envisions and prepares for future conflict,” he said.

Esper says his biggest obstacle is bureaucratic intransigence. “There will be naysayers who oppose change,” but he argued, like the cavalry Army officers of old who opposed replacing horses with mechanized vehicles, “history will prove them wrong.”