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Milley: Shrink ‘Big Target’ HQs As Russia Outguns Us

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. photo

Gen. Mark Milley

CAPITOL HILL: The Army’s official futurist may have overstated the case when he said “we are outranged and outgunned by many potential adversaries,” the service’s chief of staff said this morning — but not by much. To make things worse, Gen. Mark Milley told the Senate, we have become dependent on huge headquarters with lots of highly detectable electronics that make them “nothing but a big target.”

We are outgunned on the ground by Russia, our No. 1 threat, said Gen. Milley, with other “great power adversaries” (i.e. China) catching up. The huge headquarters and logistics “tail” the US Army grew in Afghanistan and Iraq is a particularly tempting target for Russian-style massed artillery.

“We need … to pare down those headquarters to very small, nimble, mobile capabilities that can in fact survive,” Milley said, “rather than put an 800- or 1,000-man headquarters on some tactical battlefield of the future where they’re nothing but a big target.” That will require new organizations, new technology, and new ways of commanding combat units under fire.

Army photo

H.R. McMaster

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s “outranged and outgunned” comment yesterday made such an impression that it was quoted by both Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain and Sen. Roger Wicker. Wicker asked Milley directly if he agreed with McMaster’s assessment. Normally, one administration witness agrees automatically to any statement made by another (even if they really don’t), but Milley started with a caveat about “many potential adversaries.”

“I think — H.R. is wonderful, I love him like a brother — to say ‘many’ is probably an overstatement,” Milley told Sen. Wicker. “But to say [that] the capability gap is closing, between major great power adversaries and the United States in terms of ground forces? Absolutely true.” And, said Milley, McMaster’s completely correct in warning that further cuts to the Army’s size — beyond the 450,000-strong active-duty force currently planned — would risk the service’s ability to “secure the nation.”

The Russian artillery in particular has more weapons with more range than its US Army counterpart. Milley is concerned by the Russians’ skillful combination of electronic warfare to detect a target, drones to nail down its position, and then using massed artillery to wipe it out.

In 15 years of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, American headquarters and logistical bases have swelled. In particular, wireless networks blossomed and their transmissions would act as a neon red “look here!” to a technologically savvy enemy. So when Sen. McCain and his fellow senators asked about oversized headquarters, their focus was on the fiscal cost, but Gen. Milley had another potential cost in mind.

“If you were to deploy a brigade or a division,” Milley said, “the on-the-ground footprint of that headquarters is very large [and] you’re emanating a variety of electronic signals from radios and all these computers and everything else that we have….We’ve seen in the Ukraine they [the Russians] can acquire the electronic signal very quickly, fly unmanned aerial vehicles over there, acquire the target, and they’ll mass artillery on you — so you’ll be dead.”

In future warfare, he warned, “large ‘tails’ are going to result in significant amounts of casualties and potentially… the loss of a battle, a campaign or even a war.”

But headquarters serve a vital function, especially in information age warfare where the ability to collect, analyze, and disseminate vast amounts of intelligence data can mean victory or defeat. One way to square this circle, Milley said, is “reach-back.” Leave a lot of the HQ staff back in the US, sending and receiving the intel data via global networks, with a small command element actually in the combat zone.

What Milley didn’t mention is that reachback requires high-bandwidth, long-range transmissions that an enemy can hack or jam, which escalates the cyber/electronic warfare battle even further. The Army’s readiness for such a war of electrons is an open question.

Another impediment to smaller, nimbler headquarters is the Army’s own digital intelligence system, DCGS-A. “I’ve got personal experience with it: a very good system at the strategic level, at the operational level,” said Milley. “But when it gets down at the tactical level, [it’s] more difficult to work with, not quite as fast, and difficult to jump from location to location in a mobile battlefield.”

In other words, DCGS-A works well for large and relatively static army, division, and corps headquarters with lots of available bandwidth and skilled IT staff. At brigade and battalion headquarters that don’t have those advantages, and which may have to set up and take down the system multiple times as they maneuver, DCGS-A is more problematic.

Some members of Congress have pushed the Palantir system as an alternative, noting its positive reviews from troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many senior officials say that Palantir does boast a friendlier interface, but does not manage or provide the enormous amounts of data that DCGS-A does. Milley was mum on the subject, stating only that “there may be some other options out there. I’m not sure, but we’re taking a hard look at that.”

What do you think?