WASHINGTON — Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley sounded the alarm that the US Army is currently in a state of "high risk" when it comes to being ready enough to defend the nation and respond to a large conflict.
"On the 'high military risk,' to be clear, we have sufficient capacity and capability and readiness to fight counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism," Milley said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday. "My military risk refers specifically to what I see as emerging threats and potential for great power conflict and I am specifically talking about the time it takes to execute the task ... and the cost in terms of casualties."
Milley added he has submitted a personal, classified assessment to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defense secretary characterizing the military’s risk as high.
SASC Chairman John McCain, of Arizona, said declaring the military to be at high risk "is a strong statement" that he believed was generated from "long and hard" thinking.
The Army’s budget has shrunk in almost every aspect in recent years and the service is having to reduce its size to a total Army of 980,000 soldiers, which include all three components. Yet with the emerging and current threats in Europe, in the Middle East, and elsewhere, Army leaders believe the force should be as big as 1.2 million soldiers to meet the Pentagon strategy and guidance.
McCain quoted from the Army Capabilities Integration Center director Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster's testimony given earlier this week to paint a clear picture of what high risk to readiness looks like: "When we minimize our Army, we maximize the risk to our soldiers, the risk that in a crisis they will be forced to enter a fight too few in number and without the training and equipment they need to win."
One piece of evidence that the military's readiness is at high risk is the fact that only a third of the Army's Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) are ready to deploy and only a couple of those are ready to deploy immediately.
Milley explained that the pair of BCTs that are most ready could fight tonight and, in fact, one is forward-deployed now. "The others," he said, "they are going to require something in terms of training to get them ready."
The Army is already stretched thin, McCain pointed out in his opening testimony that the Army is already stretched thin: There are 186,000 soldiers deployed in 140 locations around the globe.
And back home two-thirds of the Army's BCTs "would require some amount of time to bring them up to satisfactory readiness to deploy in combat," Milley said.
The "high risk" assessment for the Army does not take into account what might happen if sequestration is implemented again next year. That would mean lowering the active force from 450,000 troops to 420,000, which could spell disaster in terms of being able to respond to a major world crisis, according to Milley.
Another problem that puts troops at risk is the closing gap in the US military's ability to outrange and outgun other major militaries' weapons systems and capabilities.
The chief admitted he believes the US military is outranged by Russian ground-based, direct- or indirect-fire systems, tanks and artillery. "It's close," he said. "It's not overly dramatic but it's the combination of systems — we don't like it, we don't want it — but yes, technically outranged and outgunned."
Russia is still the number one No. 1 threat to US national security, he noted.
What that means for national security is dependent on what the US strategy might be in Europe. "The fundamental task there is to deter, maintain cohesion of the alliance, assure our allies, and deter further Russian aggression. If we got into a conflict with Russia then I think it would place our soldiers' lives at significant risk."
What would help to decrease that risk is readiness, Milley stressed, properly training, equipping and manning units.
"We have a lot of 'not availables' in the force right now," he said.