Why General Mark Milley and Why Now?

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At Saturday’s Army-Navy Game, President Donald Trump took the unusual step of announcing that he would be replacing the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, with the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Mark Milley. One reason the announcement is viewed as unusual is that the change will not take effect until October 2019 when General Dunford’s current appointment ends. Another reason is that it breaks the customary pattern of cycling the chairmanship between the services. Since General Dunford is a Marine and his predecessor, General Martin Dempsey, was Army, the logical choice would be to appoint a Navy Admiral or Air Force General. Since the last Air Force officer to hold the position was General Richard Myers between 2001 and 2005, one could make a good case that the next Chairman should wear a blue suit.

So why General Milley? Perhaps it is because much like President Trump, Milley too is a visionary. Early in his tenure, he argued that how the Army would fight in the future had to change. Milley warned that “we are on the cusp of a fundamental change in the character of ground warfare.” The Chief of Staff has made it clear he wants to lead that change, not follow in its wake. He has even gone farther, embracing the idea of radical transformation of the Army and, inevitably, all the armed services. “I’m not interested in a linear progression into the future. That will end up in defeat on a future battlefield. If we think that if we just draw a straight line into the future and simply make incremental improvements to current systems, then we’re blowing smoke up our collective fourth point of contact …”

Also like the President, the Chief of Staff is a blunt-spoken realist who believes that the U.S. military is in danger of being second best in the great power competition. When he assumed his current position in 2015, General Milley made it clear that he intended to get the U.S. Army out ahead of our major military rivals. In a speech at the annual convention of the Association of the U.S. Army, General Milley made a bold clarion call to all members of his service and to the American people: “Let us commit for once, once in our history, to not be unprepared for that first battle.”

It is important to understand that General Milley did more than talk a good game. He was willing to put his energy and personal prestige behind the effort to transform the Army. Like the man in the White House, he is a change agent. He formulated a set of six modernization priorities that are intended to reverse two decades of decline in Army modernization and fill priority capability gaps. The Army has identified some $30 billion in its future budgets that it will devote to these priorities.

The Army, under General Milley, has acted with remarkable speed to address critical capability gaps. In addition to returning Cold War-era air defense systems to Europe, at the Chief of Staff’s direction the Army is deploying the Interim Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense system. General Milley directed the Army’s Rapid Capabilities Office to find ways of filling the yawning gap in Army electronic warfare capabilities and work on extending the range of existing artillery and rocket systems. He also pushed for a major upgrade program for army combat vehicles such as the new Abrams tank’s System Enhancement Package Version 3 and the up-gunned Stryker Dragoon variant.

General Milley is the leading force behind the effort to transform the Army’s acquisition system. Largely at his direction, the Army created a Futures Command designed to pull together the key elements of the acquisition process – warfighters, those who write the requirements for new capabilities, the research and development community and major program managers - in order to speed the way the Army defines, develops and produces new warfighting capabilities.

But he is not alone. Also in the front rank of the march for change is the Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper. Secretary Esper has worked with the Chief of Staff to reform the requirements generation process and to press for new acquisition regulations that will speed the process of developing new capabilities. Also, Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Vice Chief of Staff General James McConville have been providing the day-to-day leadership of the Army’s transformation efforts.

General Milley is certainly aware of President Trump’s skepticism when it comes to promises the Pentagon makes about massive procurement programs, with many dependent on new and expensive technologies. For example, the President has repeatedly expressed doubts about the electromagnetic launch system being developed for the Ford Class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Like many Americans, he has experienced sticker shock regarding some advanced weapons systems.

The Chief of Staff has had his own experiences with an acquisition system that takes too long to produce over-priced and yet obsolete weapons. His reaction to the acquisition system’s apparent inability to provide the Army with a new, affordable handgun was almost Trumpian: “We’re not figuring out the next lunar landing. This is a pistol. Two years to test? At $17 million. You give me $17 million on a credit card, and I’ll call Cabela’s tonight, and I’ll outfit every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine with a pistol for $17 million. And I’ll get a discount on a bulk buy.”

Why announce the appointment now? I do not believe this is a slight against General Dunford who has done a tremendous job as Chairman. The decision reflects the President’s desire to elevate leaders who are similar to him in several respects. They have a vision, energy, and a determination to prod the bureaucracy into action, a willingness to take risks in pushing for change and a penchant for speaking bluntly. The President is signaling he wants to see new thinking at the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom. Announcing General Milley’s nomination almost a year out will hopefully allow the Pentagon to get ready for the changes to come.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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