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Milley assesses 'aggressive' Russia, others, as challenges for US, ally security

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Jan. 22, 2016) -- Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley has always said readiness is his No. 1 priority.

The Army has a legal and moral obligation, he said, to be prepared. During a presentation Jan. 21 here, the general laid out some ideas of what he believes the Army must be ready for - some examples of why readiness is important.

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Chief among the examples of what to be prepared for is Russia, a nation whose recent activities he characterized as being "aggressive." Russia, he said, poses the "No. 1 threat" to the United States. It's a nation, he said, that at least for now is the only one that poses an "existential threat" to the United States, due to its capabilities - in particular, its nuclear capability.

But what makes Russia a threat, he said, isn't capability alone. It's primarily its intent. While determining intent is difficult, he said, looking at its recent activities in Europe gives a good indication.

"Russian behavior, internationally, since 2008, has been aggressive," he said. He pointed to its activities in Crimea, Ukraine, and Georgia as examples.

"Those have been independent, sovereign countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and 1991," he said. "For 25 years these have been internationally recognized countries in the United Nations. And their borders have been violated by military armed force - some surrogate and some actual."

That kind of activity in Europe, he said, has not really been seen since World War II. Today, Russian activity there "has fundamentally changed people's view of the security situation in Europe."

At the same time, the Russians have raised spending on their military; are modernizing their military, including aircraft, tanks and ships; have restructured their ground forces; modernized field artillery capabilities, air defense, electronic warfare and cyber capabilities; and modernized their military doctrine.

"They clearly are expanding or at least trying to re-establish their global influence and their global presence," he said.

Domestic issues, he said, are also good examples of the intent that is driving its activities. The Russian population, for instance, is in decline.

"If you're a significant leader in the Russian government, you are seeing a demographic decline of the ethnic Russian population. That's worrisome," he said. "And if you look at that in combination with other things - health care for example - there is a steady decline in birth rate. There is a high mortality rate. And they have a stressed and poor health care system. And their labor force is declining in pretty significant rates. Even a rudimentary look at the Russian economy shows an economy under significant stress that is struggling."

A look at Russian history also contributes to a better understudying of intent, when it comes to recent aggression. Russians, he said, likely view NATO differently than how Americans or Europeans do. In 1990, Germany reunified, bringing the entirety of that country inside NATO. Since then, three former Soviet nations have become part of NATO: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. NATO is growing, and its border is moving "closer and closer" to Moscow.

"That's worrisome" for them, he said. "It creates fear in the mind of Russian leadership. This is a country [that] has a living memory of a land invasion that was brutal to their country: the Nazi invasions of World War II," he said. "There are many veterans and folks alive today that clearly remember those days, which were horrible to the Russian psyche."

Russian nationalism and pride are also on the line - significant contributing factors to an understanding of Russian intent.

"They were part of a large empire back under the czars. They were a superpower in the Soviet era," he said. "Current leadership in Russia has clearly indicated in public speeches that they thought the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire was the most significant negative event that has happened in the last 100 years. There is an attempt ... to recoup their place."

Couple that with ongoing land disputes, he said, "All that adds up to a ... potential for bad things. And you just don't know," he said. "We can't with precision predict exactly what will happen. It is a situation that clearly bears closer scrutiny."


In Asia, he said, there are two significant ongoing security situations. First is North Korea, the other is China. There are now more than a million service members amassed on each side of the demilitarized zone on the Korean peninsula.

Koreans on both sides of the border, he said, constitute a divided ethnic-linguistic group.

"And like most ethnic-linguistic groups, at some point in time, they end up being one whole people," he said. "I have little doubt that at some point in time in the future, the peninsula will be whole again."

How and when that will happen and what the environment will look like afterward, he said, is uncertain. Also uncertain is how that event will play out for the United States. A recent testing of a nuclear weapon in North Korea has made the situation on the peninsula tenser.

"For us, vigilance and readiness are fundamentally important," he said.

In China, he said, there is an "entirely different set of geopolitical logic at play."

China is a rising economic power, Milley said, adding that there is now underway a shift from a North Atlantic-based global economy to a North Pacific-based global economy, though he emphasized that it is "shifting," rather than having already shifted. It's a process he said that he believes will be permanent, but could take several generations to be complete.

With such shifts in economy, he said, military power follows. And the Chinese military, he said, "is significantly modernizing their capabilities."

Milley contrasted China and Russia by differentiating them with the words "assertive" and "aggressive."

"The Chinese are not an enemy," he said. "Their behavior internationally, at this time, in my view, is assertive. It's different than aggressive. The Chinese, to date, are not invading foreign countries, crossing borders, doing things that would be internationally categorized with the word aggression.

"That can change, but it hasn't changed yet," he said. "They are developing their capabilities, but I would caution anybody from saying that China was an adversary, from a military national security standpoint, or an enemy, at this time."

Milley said the Chinese are now interested in becoming a great international power, and to "have a say in how the rules are written," though he said he doesn't believe the Chinese are interested in war.

The general also said that his predecessor, now-retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, has in the past met with and had a dialogue with his counterpart in China's People's Liberation Army. Milley said he too plans to have a similar dialogue, but has not yet made that happen. It's something he said is critical to have happen early, because such relationships can be useful to have in place were conflicts to arise later on.

"In the moment of crisis ... you don't want to be meeting a person for the first time during the crisis," he said. "If there is a crisis and you can literally pick the phone up and literally talk to that person, because you have known each other for a while, that tends to take the edge off."

The Middle East, he said, is wrought with instability now, and that instability has provided opportunity for the rise of threats such as the Islamic State or al Qaeda. He also made clear that he believes that neither the United States, not any other country outside the Middle East can solve the instability problems there.

"We can help and advise and assist and do a lot of things," he said. "But solve? It's not going to happen ... the ultimate solution has to come from the peoples of those countries."

Iran, he said, remains a "maligning influencer, sponsoring terrorism" which "requires vigilance and bears close watching."

So Iran, North Korea, China and Russia, plus the rise of non-state actors like the Islamic State and al Qaeda "present threats or challenges to U.S. national interests," he said. "Any one of which could result in significantly more conflict than already exists, none of which we can anticipate. And each of which has a unique strategic, operational and tactical challenge.

"We have to be prepared as an Army or as a military for all of it," he said.


For the Army, he said, the role in being ready is to deliver ground combat power, and to "win wars in defense of the United States," he said. The Army has a mandate to prepare, so readiness is the Army's No. 1 priority.

"We have a moral and ethical obligation to our Soldiers and the American people to ensure our people are ready," he said. "It's the fundamental driver of all of our commanders, organizations, and staff throughout the Army."

Readiness, he said, means manning units to the right strength. It means ensuring Soldiers have been to the professional military education schools they need to attend, and it means that units, from the squadron to the division - at all levels - are collectively trained. Equipping as well is critical, he said, "to make sure Soldiers have the best equipment, and that it is well maintained."

And development of leadership for those Soldiers, he said, is a "key component of combat power ... perhaps the most important component."

Development of that readiness, he said, takes a long time. And it's perishable as well, he said. "It takes many years to develop platoon sergeants and battalion commanders," he said. "It takes years to build the cohesion, the teamwork necessary to fight at a collective level. It takes a long time to build ready ground forces."

Milley also said a critical component of readiness is taking care of a Soldier's Family. A Soldier's "first order of loyalty" is to his Family.

"If you are expecting a Soldier to focus and fight in ground combat, you must ensure his Family is taken care of," he said. "Their first love is always going to be their children or spouse. If they know their children or spouse is being taken care of ... they are not going to worry about that, and they will focus on ... ground combat."


By the end of fiscal 2018, the active Army expects to have drawn down in size from 490,000 to 450,000. The service will also shrink the size of several brigade combat teams and will cut 17,000 civilian employees.

Were a conflict to rise quickly, the Army might need to grow in size again to accomplish its mission.

Milley said one idea the Army is looking into to make that process happen more quickly is the development of several "very, very small" train, advise and assist brigades. Each of those brigades would look like a regular unit, insofar as chain of command is involved, but "you just wouldn't have Soldiers. So maybe you have one per combatant commander. You have five or six of these brigades in existence, and they would on a day-to-day basis train, advise and assist foreign armies on behalf of the U.S."

Were conflicts to arise that require the Army to grow quickly, he said, "at least you have cohesive chains of command" that exist. "You can take Soldiers from basic training and Advanced Individual Training, and roll them underneath those existing chains of command and it would significantly shorten the amount of time it would take for that brigade to become combat effective."

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