General Mark Milley, the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is about to retire after a four-year term and a 43-year career of military service. It is therefore telling that a man with such a long career would, to cement his legacy, recommend establishing a “Leader of a Joint Futures Organization” — that is, a sort of “future jointness czar.”
Milley’s argument, in the just-published issue of Joint Force Quarterly, demonstrates the U.S. military’s direction — one that undermines the power of the services and centralizes strategic, operational and technological development within a pseudo general staff. This will create a military organization incapable of adapting to future conflict and reacting to unexpected technological change.
Milley’s proposals, in short, will lose the U.S. its next war.
Few positions in the American state have as much cultural power as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. That is to say, the position has immense influence on the thinking, structure, processes and direction of an immense organization — in this case, the U.S. security system — in shifting it toward a new objective. Milley’s views must therefore be read carefully.
The U.S. security system is in need of a refresh. It faces two concurrent challenges: first, the intensification of Eurasian strategic competition, and second, a shift in the character of war.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dragged strategic contestation into the open. No longer can the Western policy class claim that conflict is largely restrained to subversion, manipulation and so-called “salami-slicing” and hybrid warfare. Monarchies may largely be dead, but their final argument remains. The Eurasian revisionist powers — Russia, China and Iran — all seek to transform the Eurasian security system, eject the U.S. from the landmass and thereby impose their will on the world. This end involves war, or more likely, multiple wars.
General Milley makes a similar observation, although without explicitly identifying the probability of conflict. Yet the general framing is similar enough to demonstrate strategic rationality, that is, a grasp of the obvious: Great power war is increasingly probable, and therefore must again dominate the strategic attention of American defense policy.
Milley’s second point is that a shift in the character of war is underway, driven by a variety of technologies such as artificial intelligence, unmanned systems and precision fire. These necessitate a new intellectual approach to the conduct of war.
He is correct in the main on this count. But his argument is curious: He identifies a mish-mash of technologies without making any effort to prioritize them, then immediately turns to harmonization between the services as his solution to the new combat environment.
Milley’s case for inter-service harmonization is, more specifically, a case for a wholly joint approach to doctrinal, technological and strategic development. It rests not upon new technology, but on technology that came into being during the Cold War. Milley’s point of departure is AirLand Battle, the doctrine that assisted the flowering of operational theory in U.S. military practice. Milley’s criticism of AirLand Battle is that it was insufficiently joint — it never included a naval role, nor did it delineate properly between aerial and ground responsibility for long-range fires.
Read the rest at The Hill.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.