Even as the Army continues to sharpen its core warfighting skills inside tightening, unpredictable budgets, the service also must look to the future to prepare for a quickly changing, increasingly volatile battlefield, the Army's top general said.
"We prioritized the present, and we mortgaged the future," said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. "Frankly, the biggest challenge is having a predictable, steady stream of money to work with industry, [science and technology], and research and development, to accelerate, advance and explore these opportunities and options for the future."
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The readiness of the Army today to respond to contingencies around the world, from humanitarian assistance to combat against a near-peer competitor, is Milley's top priority, he said. But the Army also, simultaneously, must lay the groundwork for the future, specifically "the quarter of a century between 2025 and 2050," he said.
"For the next 10 years, we're not talking radical shifts" to doctrine, equipment or the organization of the Army, Milley said. "But when you get to 2025, 2050, that's different."
The Army must first figure out what the operating environment will be in that timeframe, then identify the attributes of the type of force it will need, Milley said.
This includes everything from the organization of the Army to the type of weapon systems it'll need to the kind of training and talent management models it will require, Milley said.
"It's obvious you can't predict the future with certainty," he said. "But there are certain things that I feel confident that we can articulate and we know will probably be true in those 25 years."
To start, the world is "rapidly urbanizing," Milley said. Today, between 50 percent and 60 percent of the world's population live in urban areas, he said. By 2050, Milley predicts that will jump to 80 percent to 90 percent.
"You're seeing a massive growth right now, as we speak, of megacities," Milley said. "Today, an example of a megacity is Seoul, South Korea, with 27 million people, that has urban sprawl essentially from the [demilitarized zone] all the way south of Seoul, and it is this massive urban belt and complex."
The Army has been designed, manned, trained and equipped for the last 241 years to operate primarily in rural areas, Milley said.
"In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas," he said. "We need to man, organize, train and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas, and that's a different construct. We're not organized like that right now."
The world's population also will continue to get younger, Milley said.
"Because of the demographic growth of youth, there are certain regions of the world that are more predisposed to instability than others," he said. "The Middle East and Africa, for example,
have large youth bulges coming in the next few decades. It's not a certainty, but it's a probability that we have large youth bulges, and when you have weak or tepid economies, your probability of instability is higher."
The political environment also is changing.
"For about 15 years, we fundamentally were in a geostrategic unipolar world, with the United States being the dominant, unquestioned political, diplomatic, economic and military power on Earth," Milley said. "That is coming into challenge, and it's shifting to a multipolar world, with the clear unambiguous rise of China, the return of a revanchist Russia, and then, of course, you've got Brazil and India and other countries also rising."
The availability of technology also is changing, Milley said.
"You're seeing a wide variety of technologies out there that are advancing very, very rapidly," he said. "The internet of everything, robotics, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, miniaturization, you're getting technologies and biological science, neuroscience and the physical sciences that can alter the human performance to conduct certain tasks."
Robots are already playing a significant role in the air domain, Milley said.
"That's what Predators and UAVs are," he said. "All of these technologies together, what they tell me is that we are on the cusp of a fundamental change in the character of ground warfare. And this change is going to be so significant, so fundamental, that it would be analogous to going from a smooth-bore musket to a rifled musket to a rifle. It's the difference between going from horse cavalry to tanks and wheeled vehicles."
If the Army doesn't adapt, "we're not going to end up prevailing on the battlefield," Milley said. "And we're not going to get it right, but what you have to do is you have to do it less wrong than your enemy."
In the future, the Army likely will face a battlefield that is "intensely lethal," Milley said. This means the Army must be able to protect itself and operate in small and nimble units that are widely distributed across a large battlefield, he said.
"You're going to have to do that in order to survive, and then you're going to have to rapidly aggregate to achieve mass and combat power to achieve an effect on a battlefield," Milley said. "So it's going to have to be a force that's essentially in a stage of constant motion."
It's also going to be a force that needs smart, adaptive leaders, he said.
"You can't have leaders who are not risk-takers, who are not independent, who are not adaptive," Milley said. "You have to have leaders who are very strong morally, very strong ethically, who are very confident in their skills, who are very comfortable in operating independently but within the construct of a set of values and ethics in which they don't violate American principles."
The Army is working hard to lay the groundwork for the future, conducting tests, simulations and analytical studies, Milley said.
"Over the course of the coming year, we will probably come to some fundamentally basic decisions on our organizations, our operating doctrine, and, probably, some major broad areas of weapons programs that are going to be needed in that timeframe," he said. "That'll be one of my big areas of personal effort over the course of the next year."
The challenge remains steady, predictable funding, Milley said.
"It is almost impossible to work with industry and convince them to explore investment opportunities and technologies that could have application to ground warfare unless you can guarantee them a steady stream of resource dollars," he said. "The money we have right now is only adequate enough to essentially provide seed corn for these technologies and develop some prototypes and some concepts. It's not enough money to actually go into production-level programs or take the programs into production levels. We don't have enough money to do that."
The goal is "when money does become predictable, money does become sufficient," the Army can further invest in these programs, Milley said.
"We've prioritized readiness at the expense of [research and development]," he said. "We have a balanced budget, but it biases toward readiness for today."
In terms of readiness, the Army continues to make "measurable progress" in its effort to rebuild its fundamental, core warfighting skills, Milley said.
"But we have a long way to go, and it'll be several years before I'm comfortable with where we need to be," he said.
For 15 years, the Army and the other services have focused on the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, Milley said.
"We've developed high levels of skill … but the cost of developing those skills and the cost of having to fight that war for a decade and a half is that our skills at fighting a higher-end threat, a near-peer competitor, a nation state, and the bread and butter tasks of conducting combined arms operations atrophied because we didn't practice it for 15 years," he said.
Milley cited as examples the Army's combat arms units.
"Most infantry units have not practiced, on a routine basis, battalion- or brigade-level combined arms live-fire exercises," he said. "Most armor units have not routinely, for a decade and a half, gone to gunneries. Very, very few artillery units have done battalion gunnery. Aviation, we haven't done a legitimate brigade air assault since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Apaches haven't done battalion-level missions since the invasion of Iraq in 2003."
The wars have led to a "training gap in our skill set, our toolbox," at fighting higher-end threats, leading the Army to renew its focus on training and, in some cases, re-learning these skills, Milley said.
"We have to keep that going because we're going to be fighting that type of war," he said.
The Army's already seeing progress, he said.
Today, most of the Army's active-duty brigade combat teams have had the chance to complete a rotation at a combat training center, he said.
"They've hit the sled at least once, but that's not good enough," he said. "They're going to have to do it more."
Milley said he's confident the Army will continue to build on its training.
"We've identified what the problem is, we've put the right fixes in place, we're resourcing it correctly, and we're seeing improvement," he said.
But it's going to take time to reach the Army's goal of having about two-thirds of its Regular Army formations at a level of readiness that enables them to "deploy and fight tonight," Milley said.
"If personnel does not continue to drop and tempo remains constant, and we have steady, consistent funding from Congress, then my estimate is it'll take until roughly 2020, 2012 timeframe to rebalance the Army in terms of readiness," he said.
Even though the Army has "a readiness challenge" and "a modernization challenge" while it faces threats from around the world, it should not be discounted, Milley said.
"No one should ever forget that the United States Army is not a small army," he said. "We've got a million soldiers, and they're committed soldiers. They're smart, they're hard, they're tough, and they're combat experienced. We're very well equipped, and even today, we're reasonably well trained. Even with all these challenges, we're still better than our adversaries."
The U.S. military as a whole remains the dominant force in the world, Milley said.
"It's hard, there are challenges. We're good, but we want to be better," he said. "We want to be dominant. We don't want a fair fight."
A strong, dominant military also can serve as a deterrent, Milley said.
"Deterrence is way cheaper than war," he said. "The only thing more expensive than deterring a war is fighting a war, and the only thing more expensive than fighting a war is fighting and losing a war."
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.