Army Chief of Staff Milley Meets the Press

Army Chief of Staff Milley Meets the Press
U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. David Vermilyea
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Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley came to the National Press Club Thursday to push his case for a bigger Army and to call for greater public support for a larger defense budget.

But it was hard to get that message across in the wake of President Trump’s recent Twitter controversy that engulfed the Pentagon. The president tweeted Wednesday that transgender people would no longer be allowed to enlist or serve in the military.

Milley confirmed what other senior officials told various news outlets: The Pentagon was completely blindsided by the presidential pronouncement. Milley and his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in reaction mode Thursday; he said he learned about Trump’s order, like everyone else, from the news.

A transgender ban, he noted, is a “complex issue” that requires a thorough policy review that would be led by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Whatever policy is agreed to by the civilian and military leadership would then be implemented by the armed services. “So that’s where I’m at right now,” Milley said somewhat apologetically, knowing that he was going to disappoint an audience that wanted more details.

Milley devoted the bulk of his speech to the global security issues that he and the rest of the U.S. military leadership spend the most time fretting about. “We’re in a fundamental change in the character of war,” he said, arguing that the enemies of the United States and its allies will seek to attack in unconventional and unpredictable ways.

He said the most worrisome adversaries today are four nation-states – Russia, China, Iran and North Korea – and nonstate actors such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and other militant insurgent groups determined to kill Westerners.

Russia is currently the most advanced adversary the United States faces  – its “military capability is significant,” Milley said. Because of its massive nuclear arsenal, Russia is the only country that poses an existential threat to the United States. But its conventional arsenal has improved considerably over the past five to 10 years, compelling the U.S. Army to step up its own modernization.

Besides actual capability, he continued, Russia appears to have the “will and intent” to engage in conflict. He cautioned that this is a “subjective” judgment but one based on Russia’s recent aggressive behavior in Eastern Europe. Russia’s cyberwarfare tactics and know-how also are a major concern.

On China, the Army chief of staff struck a more positive tone. A rising power, China is on the U.S. military’s radar because of its awesome economic power. “Historically when economic power shifts, military power follows,” Milley explained. China has set a clear goal to be the most dominant power in Asia, and “would like to do that peacefully if they can.”

Competition does not have to lead to war, he cautioned: “There is a giant difference between open conflict and competition. Competition without conflict is a desirable goal.”

China generally has proven to be an “extremely rational actor” on the international stage, noted Milley. “We can work our way to the future without significant armed conflict. That’s my estimate at this point.”

Iran is a concern mostly because of its desire for nuclear weapons. Its nuclear ambitions have been put on pause after a deal was struck last year, “but we’re watching that very closely,” said Milley. There are also other issues, such as Iran’s support of terrorist groups. “Our friends and allies in the region are very wary of Iran.”

North Korea, meanwhile, is the “most dangerous threat facing the United States right now.” Its rapid advances in missile technology and nuclear warheads have rattled the U.S. national security community and caught many by surprise. “Their objective is to possess nuclear weapons to strike the United States,” he said. “They are extremely dangerous.”

Nonstate actors are a tough problem because their worldview is hard to grasp and they can’t be defeated simply by military means. “I would suggest that we’re in a very long struggle” against violent extremists and terrorist organizations. “Our basic approach is, we work with friends and partners in the region.”

The underlying message of the speech was that the Army is too small and under-equipped to tackle this dangerous world. Today about 20 percent of the Army – about 180,000 soldiers – are deployed in 140 countries. “We need to be bigger and stronger, and more capable.”

Military leaders and Pentagon officials continue to press the case for more money and resources, but they are poised for more disappointment this year, as Congress and the White House are in a stalemate over budgets and other big items on the legislative agenda.

Trump’s 2018 budget request, in fact, does not fund a larger Army, which today has about 476,000 active-duty troops. The president had promised a buildup to 540,000 soldiers. Congress last year authorized an increase of 16,000 active-duty soldiers, 8,000 to the National Guard and 4,000 to the Reserve.

Just as Milley was wrapping up his speech, Pentagon Spokesperson Dana White issued the following statement on transgender policy: "The Department of Defense is awaiting formal guidance from the White House as a follow-up to the commander-in-chief's announcement on military service by transgender personnel.  The Department will continue to focus on our mission of defending our nation and on-going operations against our foes, while ensuring all service members are treated with respect."

Sandra Erwin is a national security and defense reporter for RealClearDefense. She can be reached at Follow Sandra on Twitter @Sandra_I_Erwin.

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