WASHINGTON — Gen. Mark Milley, who previously served as one of the top US commanders in Afghanistan, took over as Army chief of staff just six a few weeks ago when Gen. Raymond Odierno retired.

The Princeton graduate's nomination to be the next chief came as a surprise to many. Prior to becoming chief hHe was commander of the US Army Forces Command at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and his. Milley's name had come up, but not necessarily as a contender for Army chief. He was the officer who decided to charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion following Obama's decision to exchange him for five Taliban commanders for Bergdahl's release last year.

The chief sat down with Army Times' reporter Michelle Tan to talk about the future of the Army as well as his recent worldwide travels, to the Middle East, Europe and Asia, which focused on getting out to key operational areas and meeting with commanders.

Here are some edited excerpts:

Q. What is your impression of the situation in Iraq?

A. At the very core of whatever solution comes out is going to end up having to be an indigenous solution to the problem of ISIS or the radical Islamic movement that is going on there. So what does that mean? That means now you are in the realm of local politics inside Iraq and Syria and stuff like. So the Iraqi government is going to have to take a series of actions in order to appeal to the Sunnis, for example, outreach to the Sunnis, outreach to Sunni tribes.

The political piece, the internal politics for Iraq are fundamental to the long-term solution. The Iraqi government, the Iraqi security forces, military police are going to have to become more aggressive and more offensively minded relative to ISIS or ISO in order to defeat them militarily, and it is going to be the combination of political action and military action.

At the operational level and at the strategic level, many people have described it as a stalemate ... in that the Iraqi security forces, neither of the Iraqi security forces nor ISIS, have the military capability to overrun the other.

The Syrian government is a different situation. They may or may not, and probably do not, and they are probably more a part of the problem than the solution.

Q. What does that mean for our soldiers?

A. Well, that means our job right now, and I think appropriately, is to continue to build partner capacity, to continue to train, advise and assist the Iraqi government. We cannot, and I do not think we should, do it for them because that will not be sustainable over time.

I think a critical path, task for the Iraqi government is to outreach to the Sunni tribes in the Sunni regions of Iraq and to enfranchise them, to empower them.

Q. Would you consider putting more troops in Iraq?

A. I think that advising forward to a certain level, and I do not know what that level, would be maybe brigade level, regiment level. I think typically my experience, personal experience plus my reading of history through other operations, etc. cetera, is that the indigenous force or the force that you are advising typically performs better when advisers accompany them out into various operations. So that is on the one hand. On the other hand, you've got to weigh the complexity of the situation and the risk associated to the force, and there are judgment calls.

Q. So what is your take on what Russia recently has started doing in the last day or two in Syria?

A. They are throwing fuel onto the fire that already is inside Syria.

I've got to let this play out for a few more days and see what direction ... things go with the Russians inside Syria. I think it is worrisome, and I think it is something that I believe is complicating, not simplifying, the situation inside Syria.

Q. What were some of the takeaways from your travels to Europe?

A. In Europe you have got some significant geopolitical, somewhat traditional geopolitical issues going on.

In Russia in their living memory, they have three huge significant invasions in their history... So Russia has deep into their psyche, into the historical psyche of the country, a deep-seated fear and insecurity of foreign invasions into the heartland of Russia, and they perceive the advance of the NATO boundaries, so to speak, to be threatening to them. And then there is also a whole series of internal political issues inside Russia, or nationalism and so on. And then you have got a leader, President Putin, who is aggressive, he is opportunistic, he is relatively young, very assertive. He is quite popular inside his own country. You have got demographic issues with the Russian people. They are on a downward demographic slide. You have got significant internal economic issues inside Russia.

So what is Russia's intent going forward into the future? I do not know and I do not pretend to know, but I can tell you what their behavior has been since 2006, 2008 timeframe, and their behavior has been very aggressive and it has been aggressive in violation of a wide body of long-standing international norms.

So what does all that mean to us in the United States and NATO? It certainly has gotten everyone's attention. It is a very significant and very serious situation and it is unambiguously been aggressive. I said in testimony that I believed Russia to be the number one threat to the United States and I said that because of capability and demonstrated behavior. So their capability, their conventional capability, has been modernized with this hybrid warfare concept, but also their residual capability from Soviet times of their nuclear arsenal, their nuclear weapons arsenal. Russia today, as they have been for many, many years, is the only existential, truly existential threat, to the [US]. They are the only country on earth that can destroy the United States.

Q. The Army's European Commander, Gen. Ben Hodges, has said we have to make 30,000 soldiers in the theater feel like 300,000. What are your plans there?

A. [Supreme Allied Commander] Gen. Philip Breedlove recognized the situation ... and he has asked for a variety of capabilities through the joint staff and Department of Defense, etc cetera. So our piece of that pie, our contribution to that, is to go ahead and try to provide those capabilities to Europe. We have no intention, nor do I think it is necessary, to go back to the days of the Cold War and have 300,000, 350,000 American troops sitting in Europe. But there are other things that can and should be done.

So rotational forces, for example, we can and should and will rotate brigades and other capabilities through Europe to plus up the amount of ground forces. Air defense capabilities, engineering capabilities, mechanized armor capabilities, special operations capabilities and so on and so forth. Rotating units through on a wide variety of exercises and those sorts of things to demonstrate our capability, to exercise our abilities, tactical abilities, to exercise strategic movement ability from the continental United States into Europe. I still want to do that. In addition to that, we want to improve and enlarge pre-position stocks of equipment. And the purpose for that is because in the event of a contingency, that will speed up our response times to go ahead and move ground forces if required.

And then the other piece is building partner capacity. ... We have advisers in the Ukraine working with Ukrainian National Guard. We have got units doing joint exercises with the Baltic states in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. We have got units doing joint exercises in Poland. We have got them in Germany. We have got them in Hungary, Romania.

Q. What are your primary concerns with budget and end strength?

A. We have got one army that right now is, roughly speaking, about 980,000 troops. ... So we got one army, 60 brigades, 18 divisions, 3three corps and just shy of a million soldiers.

We will reduce the size of the active force by 40,000. That was announced already. Then we have to look forward now to the '17 budget, the '18... The [presidential budget for] '16 is on the Hill. That is the 40,000 cut. So now we have got to look forward and begin to shape the '17, '18, '19 budgets, etc cetera. We are going through that review process right now.

I have said that readiness is my number one priority and I absolutely firmly believe that and that number one priority is not going to change in the four years that I am the chief of staff. . . . To me the greatest sin that I can commit is for me to send soldiers into harm's way that are not ready. — tThat they are undermanned, under-equipped, not properly trained, poorly led, and that will result in soldiers being killed or wounded. I cannot look myself in the mirror with that.

Q. So how do you preserve readiness as your number one priority?

A. What I have got to do is ensure that adequate money is committed to the manning, training, equipping and leadership functions which constitute readiness. ...  I have got to make sure that units are resourced money-wise, budget-wise, to conduct sufficient home-station training and conduct rotations at the combat training centers. I have got to make sure that money is committed to ensure that their equipment has got spare parts and the maintenance of their equipment so that their equipment is in a combat-ready status. I have got to make sure that units are properly filled with the numbers of people

Q. If readiness is your priority, where does that put modernization?

A. I cannot ignore the future fight. That is modernization. So when I say my number two priority is the future, the future Army, I am talking about the modernization, the structure, the doctrine of an army that will exist long after I retire.

Email: mtan@militarytimes.com

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.

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