The week before Gen. Mark Milley became the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, he spent a few days at the National Training Center, a sprawling complex in the California desert where brigades and divisions practice complicated wartime scenarios — the kind of expensive training that soldiers get all too rarely these days.
Through night-vision goggles, Milley — then the head of Army Forces Command — watched as Special Forces and conventional soldiers fast-roped out of Air Force CV-22 Ospreys. Others stormed out the back of MC-130 airlifters. And more than 500 parachuted in from C-17s. It was a complicated mission, designed to replicate a scenario soldiers might face in Eastern Europe, Syria, Iran, North Korea or even China.
Later, in a white tent just off the mock battlefield, the witty, Ivy-League educated Milley talked about how soldiers haven’t received this type of training regularly in the decade-plus it has been fighting counterinsurgency battles in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Dave, Dave, Dave,” Milley called out to Gen. David Perkins, the head of Army Training and Doctrine Command, who was chatting with another soldier about 10 feet away. In 2003 as the brigade commander for the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), Perkins led the unit’s “Thunder Run” into Baghdad, earning the Silver Star.
“How many times did you come here,” Milley barked at the fellow four-star, meaning: before you led troops into Baghdad?
Many times, Perkins replied.
Getting soldiers more regular training like this is among Milley’s top priorities now as chief of staff.
“There is a possibility that we could deploy significant combat forces someplace on the earth’s surface and engage in conflict,” Milley said Wednesday at a Foreign Affairs event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Milley has set three priorities as chief: readiness, modernization of the force, and taking care of soldiers. He stressed preparedness in an essay published in the Association of the U.S. Army’s 2015 “Green Book.”
Thousands of Army soldiers are deployed to Afghanistan and thousands more find themselves back in Iraq. Others are deploying to Eastern Europe for training with NATO forces and other countries neighboring Russia.
“The days of state-on-state combat war may or may not be over,” Milley said. “I am on the side of that I don’t think those days are over. I wish they were.”
“It’s possible, that you could have to fight terrorists of one stripe or another at the same time that you’re fighting one or another state,” he added.
Countries like Russia and China are modernizing their militaries. And the velocity of instability seems to be increasing, Milley said.
While much has been made over the past four years about how the Air Force and Navy would do the heavy lifting during a battle in the Asia-Pacific, Milley says not to count the Army out.
“I think the Army has a unique role, which I’m just coming to realize here in the last few years, in the Pacific,” he said.
There are already nearly 100,000 soldiers in the region, he said, mostly on the Korean peninsula.
“If a conflict were to erupt … I believe the opening shots would be from the Navy and the Air Force,” Milley said. “I think the last shots would be from the guys on the ground, the Marines and the Army. I believe that decision in war is done on the ground.”
And the Army needs new, modern equipment to fight future battles.
“I’ve asked that we explore some significant technological change in what might be possible in the area of lethality,” he said.
Milley pointed to the Navy’s use of railguns and lasers. “Is there a ground application?” he asked pondering their use possibly for Army’s air defense mission?
Forces have to be “strategically mobile to be projected” and must be equipped with the latest communication equipment.
Accountability & Empowerment
The general believes there are too many cooks in the kitchen and it needs to decentralize by empowering its officers throughout the ranks. If soldiers screw up, they should be held accountable.
“That’s how the military should operate,” Milley said. “Decentralize. Empower.”
“Set a standard for them,” he said. “If you meet the standard. Green light, go. Pin the medal. Get promoted. If you fail, you’re out.”
He is also a fan of the service chiefs playing a larger role in determining requirements and overseeing acquisition projects.
“Put us in charge of this stuff. Let us take a swing at the bat, because it hasn’t been working,” he said. “And make us accountable. If we fail, fire us. Take us out of the game. Go to the next one.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has drafted legislation that would give the service chiefs more power in program acquisition, a move that has been widely debated as lawmakers reviewed the 2016 defense authorization bill.
And Milley is a fan of the military chain of command paying a great role. He pointed to acquisition successes in the Navy’s nuclear propulsion division and within U.S. Special Operations Command.
“Why shouldn’t the service chiefs be accountable and responsible for the equipment that’s going to the soldiers for which they are leading?” he said. “It just makes common sense to me. Am I an acquisition expert? No. Am I a businessman? No, not at all. I’m a general and I’m in charge of the United States Army.”
And Milley believes the service chiefs needs to play a greater role in requirements too.
“I believe the service chiefs need to be put in charge of that. Right now they’re not,” he said.
“You got to elbow your way in. It’s not like you’re really the person.”