On May 4, Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley provided a rare public glimpse into his thinking about the future of the U.S. Army. One of your loyal columnists had the privilege of interviewing him during an event sponsored by the Atlantic Council, and asked him about many of the issues we’ve written about in previous columns and elsewhere. Milley was a surprise pick to lead the Army. He is an unorthodox thinker who has challenged Army conventions on a number of issues. In this wide-ranging interview, he was characteristically blunt, serious, original — and occasionally quite funny.
Milley’s last 15 years in uniform closely resemble those of many officers he now leads: four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, including command of the Army’s III Corps in combat. An infantry and Special Forces officer by trade, his professional world since 2001 has been deeply shaped by unconventional conflict, battling insurgents and terrorists — campaigns the U.S. Army continues to fight today. If any officer should see combat through the lens of today’s wars, it is Mark Milley.
But Milley is calling on his Army to prepare for a much different future battlefield — one that will be totally unlike the battlefronts of Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria. The next war, in Milley’s view, will be all but unrecognizable to the veterans of the current wars, and will deeply challenge their hard-won combat experiences. That battlefield could well erupt tonight, not years or decades into the future. Given Milley’s own recent combat experiences, his unconventional views are well worth listening to — especially since as chief of staff he is charged not only with having an Army ready to fight the wars of today, but ensuring it is equally prepared to fight and win the unknown and unknowable wars of tomorrow.
Milley delivered three big messages during the roughly hour-long event (which you can watch in its entirety). The first focused on preparing for the future battlefield, a subject he’s publicly addressed before. But the second and third ones staked out strikingly new ground, including the need to disobey orders (!) and a call-to-arms to his troops about their vital relationship with American society. His messages are important not only to soldiers, but to the American public and its leaders as well.
1. Embrace the Suck
Milley talked at length about his views on the how war will change in the future. He argued the fundamental nature of war (including fear, uncertainty, and chance, according to Clausewitz and others) will remain largely unchanged, but the character of war is evolving rapidly. The convergence of new developments such as ubiquitous information technology and personal communications, proliferation of precision guided weapons, robotics and on-site 3D printing, and rapidly growing urbanization all augur a very different era of warfare.
Milley contrasted this emerging world of warfare with the experience of his own service and its leaders since 2001. He observed that a whole generation of officers has become accustomed to operating from large bases with air-conditioned barracks, hot showers, and even “Pizza Huts and Burger Kings.” Supplies of all sorts have been plentiful and readily available, often even at remote outposts. Army units have also enjoyed undisputed control of the air, space, and the electronic spectrum. Enemy firepower has been limited, with virtually no threat from artillery and massed rocket fires — much less precision strikes.
Milley warned that wars of the future may look much different. Conditions may be spartan, and soldiers will once again have to learn to be miserable — and to fight and win anyway. Consolidated bases and logistics hubs will be untenable, presenting lucrative targets for an enemy with precision firepower. He noted we must “untether ourselves from this umbilical cord of logistics and supply that American forces have enjoyed for a very lengthy period of time.” Army units will have to move, set up, move, and move again — “maybe every two, three, four hours just to survive.” Fixed sites of any kind will be lethal magnets for destruction by enemies who will have a rich diet of targeting information — especially since smart phones will be even more ubiquitous. As he bluntly stated, “If you’re stationary, you’ll die.”
Milley’s message: Think Iwo Jima, not the boardwalk stores at Kandahar airfield. Be prepared for thousands, not dozens, of casualties. Make austerity a virtue, and prepare to win under the worst imaginable conditions.
2. Disobey Orders — Smartly
The future battlefield will not only be one of chaos and unpredictability, but will frequently lack reliable communications up and down the chain of command. Junior leaders may have to independently make quick decisions upon which battles may be decided and which may have strategic consequences. Leaders at all levels must become comfortable with ambiguity and making unsupervised decisions to achieve their senior leaders’ intent. This is the essence of the Army’s concept of mission command — empowering leaders with the “why” of their task, but leaving the “how” to their imagination.
Yet the Army bureaucracy has grown dramatically, and inculcates exactly the opposite set of characteristics into the Army’s rising leaders when they return from battle. The Army remains rife with stultifying regulations, promoting an intensely compliance-based culture when not on combat operations. Milley clearly stated the pendulum has swung too far in this harmful direction: “I think we’re over-centralized, overly bureaucratic, and overly risk-averse — which is the opposite of what we’re going to need” on the future battlefield. “Because we micromanage, we overly specify everything a subordinate has to do all the time.”
Why is that a problem? Because, according to Milley, “we’re not going to take some sort of magic pill at the time of combat” to switch from centralized to decentralized systems. “We preach mission command,” he said, “but we don’t necessarily practice it on a day-to-day basis in everything we do.” He added, “if we’re going to have to operate like that in warfare, we have to train as we’re going to fight. We have to live and operate like that on a day-to-day basis, even on daily administrative tasks you have to do in a unit area.”
Milley then made news headlines by calling for “disciplined disobedience.” This idea undoubtedly caused jaws to drop among many Army leaders, but it actually echoes back to the idea of “selective disobedience” one of his predecessors endorsed in the late 1970s. In Milley’s formulation, disobeying orders can be justified to achieve the larger purpose of the mission. According to Milley,
[A] subordinate needs to understand that they have the freedom and they are empowered to disobey a specific order, a specified task, in order to accomplish a purpose. Now, that takes a lot of judgment … it can’t just be willy-nilly disobedience. This has got to be disciplined disobedience to achieve the higher purpose.
He added, “disobedience, when done, must be done with trust and integrity, and you must be morally and ethically correct.”
Milley clearly recognizes here that he has a problem: A day-to-day Army bureaucracy steeped in rules, regulations, process, and compliance colliding with the demands of future warfare characterized by the precise opposite of those things. Milley’s implicit charge to his generals: Unwind the Army’s micro-managing ways to build the free-thinking and independent-minded leaders needed to win future wars. And if that means teaching soldiers to disobey (smartly) — do it!
3. Break Out of Your Bubble
With less than 1 percent of the population serving in the military, the divide between the military and American society is growing ever deeper. Moreover, those who do serve are often the same 1 percent from one generation to the next, since the vast majority of those who volunteer are related to someone who has served. Milley recognizes the dangers inherent in that divide, both for the military and for our larger society. Surprisingly, he put the onus on closing that gap squarely on those who wear khaki and camouflage:
The burden is on us, the guys in uniform, to make sure that we reach out beyond just the news and TV. That we reach out to communities, and we let the people know who we are and what we do and what we’re about.
And reaching out requires more than rubbing elbows with military retirees and friendly business people in local military communities. That means:
[I]f you’re at Fort Hood, don’t just engage with the surrounding communities like Killeen, Texas. Engage with all of Texas. Engage with Oklahoma, too … There’s no reason why company commanders and first sergeants and battalion commanders can’t go out and visit high schools or colleges or march in parades or go to police stations or go visit fire departments or go to hospitals. Be seen. We absorb an enormous amount of money from the American taxpayer. The American people deserve to see what they’re getting for their money. And they ought to get to know their military.
Milley also cautioned those on the uniformed side of the civil-military divide. A military that is revered by society and that constantly hears “thank you for your service” can develop unhealthy self-importance and even superiority. He warned:
We have to be careful about developing a certain arrogance about being in the military, that somehow we are distinct and above the society which we protect. That’s a very, very dangerous thing for militaries to ever do, culturally and psychologically.
He argued an evolution of the military into a separate warrior caste would be profoundly unhealthy for the nation. “We are the people’s Army. And we should never forget that. We are not some sort of super-warrior class. We are of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Maintaining that close link between the military and the society it serves, he said, “is fundamental, in my view, to the health of the republic and the health of democracy.”
These three messages from the Army chief should resonate with every member of the U.S. Army, and the other services as well. Even more importantly, they should send a powerful signal to both elected officials and the American people about the changing demands of war, and the necessity of keeping the U.S. military and its nation connected. Army leaders at all levels must take ownership of re-directing the Army toward a very different battlefield than the one it knows today, break out of their bureaucratic handcuffs, and work harder to build bridges to their fellow citizens. If Milley’s words can inspire these changes, tomorrow’s Army will be far better prepared to fight and win its future wars.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.
Image: U.S. Army Photo, Timothy Hale