The geopolitical world has changed mightily over a generation, but that is nothing compared with the changes in technology, and the U.S. military must keep pace to defend the nation, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Dec. 2.
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley touched on a wide range of subjects during a virtual talk with The Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon. Milley started with a discussion of the changes he has seen in his 40-year military career.
Milley was commissioned in 1980. The United States and Soviet Union were still involved in a Cold War, and most military thinkers believed it would last through the foreseeable future. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. Iran was an Islamic Republic and had taken American hostages from the U.S. Embassy in 1979. There were terror attacks inside Saudi Arabia, and China had decided to build a modern military capable of taking on the United States.
"We, the military, were utterly committed in the middle of what we thought was almost a never-ending cold war with the Soviet Union," he said, noting that it was a fundamentally different geopolitical world.
There's a lot of change that's occurred at paces that are much more rapid than in any time period we've ever seen in history."
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Add to that technology. He noted that the first ever email was sent in 1970. In the early 1990s came the first websites; fast forward to 2008, and the first iPhones were released. Milley called it an explosion in information technology that didn't exist when he was commissioned.
Today, the U.S. military is "extraordinarily capable" and powerful in all domains of warfare, he said. "But what's important to know and recognize as a fact is the gaps between us and potential adversaries — say China or Russia, for example — those have shortened and closed a little bit over the last 10, 15, 20 years," he said.
The United States military has been involved in counterinsurgency warfare. At the same time, China and Russia took stock of American military prowess and modernized. The Chinese capitalized on a burgeoning economy to invest in military capabilities, thus closing the gap with the United States.
In 1980, the Soviet military was the pacing threat for the United States. Today, the pacing threat is the rising People's Liberation Army.
Coupled with that are other changes: Urbanization around the world has sped up, and, by mid-century, 80 percent of the people will live in cities. "There's a lot of change that's occurred at paces that are much more rapid than in any time period we've ever seen in history," the general said.
The National Defense Strategy took note of these changes and charted a course for the U.S. military to follow. The strategy was the brainchild of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. "That will be one of the significant contributions that Gen. Mattis has made among the many that he's made over the years," Milley said.
The first aspect of the strategy is the return of great power competition.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States was the last superpower standing. It was a "unipolar world," but no more, said Milley. China, Russia and the United States have powerful militaries.
I would argue that the country that masters all of those technologies and develops the proper military documents with the proper organizations and the proper leader development will have a decisive advantage in the next conflict."
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley
China and the United States have concomitant, powerful economies. And there are other poles in the world including the European Union, India and Brazil, he said. "We're in a multipolar world," he said. "When you get into an environment that has multiple poles it automatically becomes more complex almost by definition — and more dynamic. So, that's one condition that we are in for sure and likely to remain in for a considerable length of time."
And, again, technology plays a part. Precision-guided munitions made their debut near the end of the Vietnam War. After thousands of sorties failed to knock out the bridges that brought supplies to North Vietnam, TV-guided weapons enabled the U.S. Air Force to hit them. Desert Storm showed the maturity of these weapons. The talk at the time was controllers could choose the window the weapon went in. Precision-guided weapons have only gotten more precise and are effective from greater ranges.
"Precision munitions today are almost ubiquitous," Milley said. "Most of your significant powers in the world have precision munitions so … most countries can hit targets, at great distance with great precision."
The information explosion enables nations to see globally better than at any time in human history, he said. Wearable electronics, iPhones and chips in other electronics pinpoint positions.
"You've got an ability to see and an ability to hit at range that has never existed before," the general said. "Those two facts — just those two alone — indicate that we are having a fundamental change in the character of war."
This change is driven by technology. Robotics, hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence are among the emerging technologies driving this change. "It's … theoretically conceivable that in some point in the future, you could have entire tank units without crews, or entire squadrons of airplanes without pilots, or ships or carrier strike groups without sailors," Milley said. "I'm not saying it's going to happen, but it's theoretically possible."
Milley said there are five to 10 rapidly approaching technologies that are going to have fundamental, significant impacts on the conduct of military operations.
"I would argue that the country that masters all of those technologies and develops the proper military documents with the proper organizations and the proper leader development will have a decisive advantage in the next conflict," he said. "I think that it's reasonable to think that sometime in the mid to late 30s, early 40s, perhaps midcentury-ish … you'll start seeing real, significant use of those technologies and combinations by advanced societies."