The number one priority: An interview with Gen. Mark Milley

By Arpi Dilanian and Matthew HowardMay 7, 2019

Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

As the 39th Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Mark A. Milley has spearheaded the Army's transformation to build readiness. Earning his commission from Princeton University in 1980, Milley has gained a reputation for being a Soldier's Soldier and battle-tested commander throughout his 39-year career. An infantry and special operations forces officer by trade, the Army Ranger's previous assignments include commanding general of Forces Command (FORSCOM), III Corps, and the 10th Mountain Division. We sat down with him to discuss total Army readiness and the importance of sustainment for mission success.

Q: Readiness is your number one priority. What progress has the Army made in building readiness throughout your tenure as the Chief of Staff of the Army?

A: If you go back to 2015, I think we were on a downward slope of readiness relative to the tasks required to be able to fight near-peer competitors. Our readiness was probably okay for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism but not for the higher end of warfare. At that time, we really only had two or three brigades at the highest levels of readiness; today we're in excess of 20.

There are several reasons we've made strides. One of the biggest is leader involvement and focus. While technically not an evaluated criterion of readiness, the most important function of combat power is leadership. Our leaders are getting many, many swings at the bat in going through some really tough training, and it's paying off. We've increased home-station training and rotations at the National Training Center. The opposing force operational environment has been focused and refocused toward a higher-end fight, and we've improved the incorporation of things like electronic warfare and live cyber ranges. Our annual gunneries for armor, artillery, and mechanized units have also improved significantly.

I would argue that equipping--a logistics task--is arguably the most improved player in the last three years, and I would credit that to Gen. Gus Perna at Army Materiel Command (AMC), Lt. Gen. Aundre Piggee here on the Army Staff, and the entire team of logisticians throughout the Army. Look at operational and equipment readiness rates, equipment on hand rates, the redistribution and divestiture of excess materiel, the delivery of repair parts, and authorized stockage lists inside units. All of those numbers have grown exponentially over the last three years, and that's because the logistics community has leaned in and put its shoulder to the wheel.

The last piece is personnel, the manning function of readiness. Three years ago, there were a lot of holes in operational units that we've been trying to fill. Units were going to combat training centers at only 65 to 70 percent strength. So we modestly increased the end strength of the Army and, most significantly, reduced the number of nondeployable Soldiers from a total Army high of 17 percent a few years ago. Seventeen percent of a million is a lot of nondeployable Soldiers; we've reduced that to about 6 percent now. Between those two efforts [increasing end strength and reducing the number of nondeployable Soldiers], we've drastically increased the number of Soldiers available and filled the holes.

So readiness has certainly improved. But I caution everybody we're not there yet. We need 66 percent of the regular Army and 33 percent of the National Guard and Army Reserve at the highest levels of readiness. Right now we're around the range of the 40 percent mark. We have a ways to go, and we have to continue to press to keep improving. But if we keep going at the rates we're going, I estimate that we will be at the objective levels sometime in the 2022 to 2023 time frame. We're doing okay, but we have more work to do.

Q: How important is sustainment readiness to the total Army's ability to fight and win the next war?

A: It's critical; it's the long pole in the tent. You can do short-duration raids and operations without significant consideration of logistics and sustainment; you can't fight a war. In the Army, our fundamental task under the law is to engage in ground combat and be able to conduct sustained land campaigns against the enemies of our country. You can't do that without having very rigorous logistics planning and execution. It's common sense; it's just not going to happen.

Pick any point in the process. You can't get off your fort unless you have good logistics planning. We're a big Army. We have a lot of equipment and people to move--starting from alert, to assembly and marshaling at the installation, to issuing out the final draws of equipment, to getting all your convoys and railheads put together. All logistics--getting everything down to the port in good order and put onto ships or planes--all logistics.

The strategic lift to then transport it across the oceans is a huge logistics undertaking led by the U.S. Transportation Command and aided by our Navy and Air Force partners. Once you arrive, you have to get off the planes or ships followed by an entire reception and staging function that occurs--another huge logistics exercise.

From there, you have to get into wherever the conflict is, through onward movement and integration. That involves convoys and movements, fuel, and road march tables--all logistics. And then, once you finally get to the fight, you have to sustain yourself in the campaign. That's all your class III [petroleum, oils, and lubricants], class V [ammunition], your medical, and your maintenance [repair parts]--your key supplies.

There's an old saying [from Gen. Robert H. Barrow, former commandant of the Marine Corps], "Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics." When it comes to the higher end of war, we have to be able to think and do both. At the pointy end of the fight, I have 1,000 percent confidence that our platoon leaders, sergeants, and company commanders know how to shoot, move, and communicate. Our Soldiers know how to fight. The bigger issue at my level--the strategic level back in the United States--is getting them there and sustaining them throughout the fight. That's all logistics.

I would argue sustainment is fundamental for the U.S. military to win a sustained land campaign against any serious adversary.

Q: How are we balancing competing requirements to ensure units remain ready?

A: It's all a function of priorities. At the Army level, priorities must be established and followed up on to ensure they're being resourced. We've established readiness as the number one priority, followed by modernization and reform; taking care of our Soldiers and families is embedded within each.

So first is elevating readiness to its proper place and ensuring all of our leaders fully understand the job of the Army: providing trained and ready functions to the combatant commanders for employment. Within that idea of readiness, you then have to look at the different components of the Army: the regular Army, National Guard, and Army Reserve. You have different units, divisions, and brigades within each, and again you have to prioritize.

Not everybody in any one of the components is going to be equally resourced at any moment in time; with a force that has the size and scale of the U.S. Army, you can't do everything at once. One unit is going to get this upgrade in equipment first, this other unit will be second, and another will be third. One unit is going to be manned at 100 percent strength, another at 95 percent, and another at 90 percent.

The same goes for functional areas; I would argue shoot, move, communicate, protect, and sustain are the critical functions that must be prioritized. You want to make sure your major systems are at acceptable levels of operational readiness, their equipment is on hand and operational, and they're at full mission capability. That requires a prioritization of parts and so on and so forth. So it's all a system of priorities within an organization. You have to make sure priorities are clear and then put your money where your mouth is.

Q: Looking to the future, is the Army at an inflection point for the way it does business?

A: I would argue we are in the midst of a fundamental change in the character of war. The nature of war never changes; it's immutable. War is a human function, a behavior that involves emotions, fears, friction, and chance. It's the imposition of political will on your opponent by the use of violence.

The character of war though is how you fight--when, where, and with what weapons. It's the doctrine, organization, and materiel. The character of war does change, and it changes often. Every time a new technology is introduced, the character of war is changing. But we undergo fundamental shifts in the character of war only once in a while; it doesn't happen often.

The character of war fundamentally changed when human beings learned to harness the power of a horse. Prior to the technology of controlling a horse with stirrups and a bit, war and violence was done on foot with spears and rocks. But once you have the horse, ground mobility was introduced at a much higher rate of speed and distance. That was a fundamental change. You could argue the introduction of the wheel was again a fundamental change.

More recently in the American Revolutionary War and Napoleonic wars, combatants used smoothbore muskets. What did that mean for tactics? Smoothbore muskets were typically accurate from 50 to 75 yards, maybe 100 yards on a good day. You could probably fire three rounds a minute, so you're looking at about 20 seconds between reloads. Tactically, that meant your best way to deliver effective fire was to mass the musket fire, which led to Soldiers being shoulder to shoulder in a rank. Fifteen or 20 Soldiers would volley fire at once in the hopes that maybe four or five of those musket balls would hit the enemy.

As soon as you fired, you yelled "charge" with the idea that an 18- to 19-year-old who's scared can sprint those 50 to 100 yards faster than your opponent can reload, and then stab them with their bayonet. The sergeant major would stand behind the formation with the first sergeant and the platoon sergeant, and they carried a big, huge pike; if you broke ranks, they'd stab you. So you stood a much higher probability of being killed if you broke ranks than you did charging the enemy and bayonetting them. You went forward, not backward.

A few years later, somebody figured out they could put lands and grooves inside the tube of that musket, which would spin the bullet and turn it into a rifle. So now Soldiers were still shoulder to shoulder, they're dropping their muskets and charging, but the problem was rifling made the muskets accurate out to about 300 yards, maybe 400, depending on the type. Well, you can't sprint that far in less than 20 seconds, especially through fields and woods on the battlefield.

What they discovered in the first couple years of the Civil War was mass slaughter because they were still using Revolutionary and Napoleonic war tactics. If you massed yourself shoulder to shoulder, you got massacred like during Pickett's Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg. So in the middle of the Civil War, you see skirmishing tactics being developed where they started separating in small groups and coming at you in low crouches.

You also see changes in defense. All of these things start happening as a result of a single technological change: rifling. Toward the end of the American Civil War and into the Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars, the proximate fuse becomes prevalent on a mass industrial base. I don't know that people fully recognized or comprehended the extent to which the character of war was changing. As you get into the late 1800s and the turn of the century, you get an introduction of a whole plethora of technologies. The railroad emerged. You saw the telegraph improve command and control. That evolved into the telephone, with its flexible wire you could string out on the battlefield, and eventually into wireless communication--Morse code.

But again, people didn't quite fully comprehend all of the implications. When they entered World War I, they were using tactics from the 1800s with very modern and destructive weapons like machine guns. What happened? One out of every four European young men was dead within four years; 18 to 20 million people were killed. Empires were ripped apart. Again, the character of war was changing, and the generals of the day didn't quite realize it.

The biggest change happened between World War I and World War II with the introduction of mechanized tracked and wheeled vehicles, full-rate production of the airplane, and the refinement of wireless communication into the radio. These fundamentally changed how people fought in terms of doctrine at the operational and tactical levels, even at the strategic level. Some armies picked up on it, particularly the German Wehrmacht, but for many it took some time.

More recently, we introduced precision munitions toward the end of the Vietnam War. While we once had a corner on the market for many years, now they've proliferated to China, Russia, and most of the more industrial countries. Look around us; every electronic device--from televisions to all of our personal gadgets like fitness trackers and smartphones--could be a listening device. They are emitting signals that can identify our location. And that which you can see, you can hit with a precision munition. From a thousand miles away, you can put a cruise missile right through a window. Just like going from smoothbore to rifling, you've increased the striking range and the accuracy.

So there's a history of the changing character of war; it's not like we've never seen it before. And right now today we are going through a fundamental change in the character of war.

Q: How can innovation and technology affect how we sustain our Soldiers in the next fight?

A: In introducing things like artificial intelligence, robotics, and 3D printing to the battlespace, think about the implications on the Army's logistics enterprise as we adapt for Multi-Domain Operations. The ability to sustain yourself is a huge deal for a mechanized, modern Army.

Sun Tzu said, "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." Think about information management and the ability to see ourselves. What if vehicles had sensors that can transmit fuel data? That data could be aggregated from the platoon to the brigade at various headquarters to have just-in-time logistics for refueling. The same could be done for water or ammunition levels.

A lot of this is already being done today in the commercial world. Tesla's vehicles are kitted out with all kinds of sensors for precise levels of monitoring that can be broadcast back to central control stations. Go to any major oil company and they know exactly how much fuel or natural gas is being produced, where it is, and how it's being transported.

Think about what that type of information technology could mean for commanders. They could know if a vehicle breaks down, and why it happened. They could know if a Soldier is wounded and exactly where the Soldier is and what their vital signs are. Those can have huge implications in the logistics world.

Look at robotics. In World War II, we had the Red Ball Express running huge trucks in massive convoys from the beaches of Normandy, all the way through France, and into Germany to keep Patton's tanks supplied with fuel. Consider all of the casualties we've taken in Iraq and Afghanistan; many were on logistics convoys simply going from point A to point B. If you had robots, you could just load up your fuel, ammunition, or food on a vehicle, program the maps, and satellite-guide it from point A to point B. There's no human being in it. The vehicle might get blown up, and you might lose your fuel or chow, but you're not going to get anybody killed. Robotic trucks are running up and down the highways and byways of California right now delivering goods.

Think about 3D printing and the ability of maintainers to produce their own spare parts. The requirement to do a supply run would be negated for company and battalion commanders if they could just print their parts right there.

These things are all in the world of the possible; they're not here yet, but they're all possible. They will all have implications on the character of war, and in order to stay current, our logistics force structure, doctrine, and processes are going to have to be modified and adapted.

Q: How do you foresee Army Futures Command (AFC) affecting readiness for moving forward?

A: If you think of readiness--current readiness of legacy systems and what FORSCOM does--we're sustaining and using systems that were in the modernization program 20 or 30 years ago. Modernization is really just a different word for future readiness. Our job for modernization today is to set the conditions for the future readiness of the force. We have to be thinking 10 even 20 years down the road, laying the groundwork and setting the outlines even though we're not going to be around when many of these things actually come to fruition. He who gets there first with the most is going to have a decisive advantage in combat.

We're setting ourselves on paths for artificial intelligence and robotics, but we're still years away from artificial intelligence being militarily practical and useful. I may not even be alive when we've got large units that are robotic. We know the Chinese and Russians are moving out on these paths very quickly. So we can't be caught short in the future, because at that point, the butcher's bill is going to be paid by kids who aren't even born yet.

About three years ago, the late Sen. John McCain very clearly and unambiguously pointed out how off track Army modernization and procurement had become. We got the Army staff together and realized he was right; processes were slow and very bureaucratic, and a lot of the programs were quite expensive. It wasn't because we had bad people, but we weren't delivering to the needs of the warfighter on time. So in many ways, AFC was conceived by Sen. McCain, not so much in the detail but in the impetus for it, and he was one of the driving forces behind its creation.

Prior to AFC, modernization and procurement programs were diffused throughout the Army and there wasn't a sole, senior-ranking officer-in-charge. We had a command laser-focused on the readiness of the current force: FORSCOM. We had a command focused on logistics readiness: AMC. And we had a command focused on the training, education, and accession of the force: Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). But when it came to modernization, some of it was in TRADOC, some was in AMC, and some was in the Army Staff; you didn't have coherency. So AFC was largely designed to bring unity of command to the whole idea of modernization. It's the command the Secretary of the Army and I are looking at to be the pathfinder for the future of our Army.

We knew it needed to be a four-star command, and we were lucky enough to name Gen. Mike Murray as the commander. He has great subordinates with him in Lt. Gen. James Richardson and Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley as well as a great supporting cast in the Pentagon with Dr. Bruce Jette, as the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology, and his military deputy Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski.

We positioned the AFC headquarters in Austin, Texas; that's the central node and has about 500 people. But AFC is much bigger than that and has tentacles all around the country. AFC is 20,000 to 25,000 people, because we took pieces from AMC, the Army Staff, and other organizations across the enterprise.

It's just standing up now, but there's a real sense of energy. It's the biggest institutional, organizational reform the Army has made in over 40 years, and I think it will have a lasting impact. We're going to start seeing the fruits of that labor in the next 12 to 24 months, but that's just the beginning. We won't see the real blooming of AFC's value for a couple more years, but it will happen. It's an important thing to have done, and I'm excited about seeing what they produce.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give young men and women entering the joint force today?

A: While there's obviously change over time--like change in the character of war--I think there are also threads of continuity. To the Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine recruit entering the military today, think of the threads of continuity all the way back to the Continental Army, and remember why we fight. We serve the colors of our nation to protect the essential ideal embedded within our Constitution that all Americans are created equal in the eyes of the law. We fight so all have an opportunity to rise to the level of their merit based on hard work and their knowledge, skills, and attributes.

Sure, there are benefits of serving: the pay, education, medical care, and housing. But we must never forget the very central, core idea of why we're here. Our whole purpose is to protect the American people and the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. This means recognizing the hazards of our profession and being willing to give our lives in order to protect and pass that idea on to the next generation.


Arpi Dilanian is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4's Logistics Initiatives Group. She holds a bachelor's degree from American University and a master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Matthew Howard is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4's Logistics Initiatives Group. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Georgetown University.


This article was published in the April-June 2019 issue of Army Sustainment.