ARLINGTON: President Trump’s nominee for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, went out of his way this morning to praise US allies – including the Kurds in Syria – and the alliance-based strategy of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
“The Army has aligned itself with Secretary Mattis’s National Defense Strategy, which we will not walk away from,” Gen. Milley told an Association of the US Army breakfast. “It’s a solid strategy, it’s written in history, it’s written in the blood of generations past, and we subscribe to it.”
A retired four-star himself, Mattis resigned in protest over Trump’s surprise announcement of a rapid US withdrawal from Syria, which could leave US-backed Kurdish forces at the mercy of their longtime adversary, Turkey. Turkey, coincidentally or not, was not among the regional allies Milley mentioned this morning.
Milley, who currently serves on the Joint Chiefs as the Army’s Chief of Staff, also offered a defense of “disciplined disobedience” — the idea that, in chaotic battlefield conditions, subordinates might serve their superiors best by disregarding the letter of their orders and following the spirit, if conditions had changed and there was no chance to confer. Now, Milley started talking about this idea early in his term, before the 2016 election, and he’s always talked about it in purely tactical terms, as a matter of what’s called “mission command” doctrine between military superiors and subordinates…. but we can’t help but wonder if the idea would inform his approach to Trump, whose own staff are already infamous for trying to redirect their often-impulsive boss.
“Totally In Line” With Mattis Strategy“
The Army is pursing a path totally in line with the NDS, ensuring that we stay ahead of our competitors and remain ready and very lethal for anything that comes in our future,” Milley continued. “Lethal” was one of Mattis’s favorite buzzwords, and the chief strategic competitors he enshrined in the barely year-old National Defense Strategy were Russia and China, whose authoritarian leaders Trump has often praised, although he’s also imposed harsh tariffs on Chinese goods. Acting Secretary Shanahan recently told top officials his priority was “China, China, China.”
(The new acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan , in remarks at the Pentagon, and Navy officials at the ongoing Surface Navy Association conference, have both cited the continuing validity of the Mattis strategy as well).
“Allies and partners” was another Mattis mantra that Gen. Milley invoked this morning. How, I asked, does the Army reassure friendly foreign militaries that the US will be still there for them despite all the recent strains?
“The United States and the United States Army does value our alliances,” Milley said immediately. “Many of them are represented in the room.” (AUSA events draw a healthy representation of foreign liaison officers and military attachés). The Army conducts international conferences, officer exchanges, and other military-to-military contacts all the time, he noted, and it always fights alongside foreign forces.
“The Army’s always gone to war with our joint partners — the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines — and we’ve always gone with allies and friends and partners in the region,” he continued. “That’s been true for well over a century and I think it is likely to be true in the future.”
“As we conduct current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq — I just came back from the trip there — we have very robust alliances there and a very robust coalition,” Milley said. “We went into Syria with partners, indigenous partners in the area, and [we] destroyed the physical entity of the (ISIS) caliphate….through a very, very sophisticated campaign that was not without cost — mostly paid for by Syrians and by Kurds and by Iraqi patriots.”
“The cost in blood was significant,” Milley emphasized. “Now — I just got back a couple of days ago — we’ve got the remnants, relatively small … remnants of ISIS/Daesh as an organization, cordoned off in a fairly small geographical area. We are determined to finish that off and then hand it back off to our indigenous partners.”
Milley didn’t specify which “indigenous partners” he wanted to hand off to, but the only ones he named in 47 minutes of remarks were Iraqis and Syrians, specifically the Kurds, an increasingly independent and well-armed faction within both nations. He made no mention of other regional partners, including the Turks, a NATO ally, to be sure, but an increasingly troublesome one.
Milley’s emphasis on the “cost in blood” paid by US partners also sounds a lot like a rebuttal to President Trump’s frequent complaints that American allies aren’t paying their fair share To be fair, though, Trump usually aims that remark at wealthier partners like NATO, Japan, and South Korea, not at shoestring irregulars like the Kurds.
Pressed by another reporter on the administration’s conflicting statements on US troops in Syria and Iraq, Milley pooh-poohed the idea of a government in disarray. US policymaking has always been a complex process, he said. “Some people from the outside look at it and think it’s chaotic… others from the inside think it’s chaotic… Those criticism have been true since it began a couple hundred years of ago, so I don’t see anything particularly novel.
“I believe, from what I’ve seen, we have an effective means of coordinating amongst ourselves — the Joint Chiefs of Staff, White House, the State Department, the interagency, and we’ve developed a reasonably decent strategy,” he said.
But, I asked Milley in an impromptu press gaggle after his AUSA remarks, are you hearing anxiety from our partners in Syria about the administration’s shifting policy? “I haven’t interacted with those particular allies and partners in Syria, so I can’t give you an answer to that,” he said.
Advise, Modernize, & Disobey
Milley also reaffirmed his commitment to building specialist units to advise foreign militaries – the Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) — which he said would be an enduring mission. (Again, this doesn’t entirely jibe with Trump’s distaste for assisting other countries). “We’ve been doing security force assistance in various forms for well over a century,” Milley said, “and we think, the United States Army thinks, we will be involved in security force assistance for many years and decades to come.”
Milley spent most of his time this morning talking up his reforms to restore Army readiness and jumpstart modernization; our regular readers will be familiar with his talking points on both, and there was little new today. With his term as Army Chief of Staff ending soon, even if his nomination for Joint Chiefs chairman is not confirmed, Milley emphasized how much remains to be done.
“The truth is we’re just beginning, we are just scratching the surface,” he said. “I believe we have set conditions for success in the future, but we have not yet achieved success and we should be under no illusions. We cannot rest on our laurels, we have to keep the pedal to the medal and keep pressing forward… Your Army needs everyone — everyone in this room, everyone in industry, everyone up on the Hill to keep leaning into it.
“The support from the Hill in particular is critical,” Milley emphasized, with an eye on the 2020 budget request scheduled to go before the Congress next month. “We think we have a good solid budget that’s defensible and we’re prepared to go up to the Hill.”
Milley, Army Secretary Mark Esper, and their respective deputies Gen. James McConville and Ryan McCarthy have held regular “night court” sessions to scrub the budget, he told reporters after his remarks, cancelling about 80 programs outright and shrinking or delaying another 106, with the goal of moving money to the service’s Big Six modernization priorities: long-range precision artillery, new armored vehicles, new aircraft, network improvements, better air and missile defense, and new soldier equipment. “We are trying to be utterly ruthless in adhering ot the six priorities that we laid out,” he said.
But with the second-to-last question he took, Milley waxed eloquent on an internal, tactical Army matter that might – might – have some resonance for his future strategic role as Joint Chiefs chairman under Trump.
“The whole concept of disciplined disobedience, it’s all about mission command, it’s all about intent and it’s all about answering the question of why,” Milley. “The higher commander should explain to the subordinate in a conversation back and forth what the purpose of the operation is… Everything else is peripheral.”
“So ..if I understand [my] superior’s purpose, and the superior also issues a 500-page op order or execution order that has 52 annexes and in annex Z, paragraph 14-3, it says we’re painting the rocks pink…. I look at that and say hmm… that doesn’t make any sense to me right now because it doesn’t accomplish the purpose,” Milley offered.
“So I, as a subordinate, blow off ‘paint the rocks pink’,” Milley said. “I, as the subordinate, have the authority, and I am underwritten by the superior, to blow off any task, any specified task, that does not contribute, in my view, to accomplishing the purpose.”
“It’s all built upon trust,” Milley said. “The superior and subordinate have deep trust in each other.”
Edited 12:35 pm to add clarification of “disciplined disobedience” concept, additional quotes on Syria and Army budget priorities.