Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, today discussed myriad military challenges at the Aspen Security Forum 2021 in Washington with NBC news anchor Lester Holt.
Discussions surrounded the pacing threat of China, as well as Russia, North Korea, Iran, ISIS and challenges involving space and cyberspace, COVID-19, climate change and environmental issues including wildfires in the United States that the military faces. "There are a lot of challenges in the national security world ...," the chairman said, primarily citing China.
"We've seen a country in four decades … go from the No. 7 economy in the world to the No. 2 economy in the world," he said, adding China invested its riches in a significant military. "Forty years ago, it was a very large infantry that was peasant-based and mostly army. Today, it has capabilities in space, cyber, on land, sea, air, underseas; and they are clearly challenging us regionally."
China's aspiration is to challenge the United States globally, Milley said. "They've been very clear about that. They have a China dream, and they want to challenge the so-called liberal, rules-based order that went into effect in 1945 at the end of World War II. They want to revise it. So, we have a … country that is becoming extraordinarily powerful that wants to revise the international order to their advantage. That's going to be a real challenge over the coming 10 to 20 years, [and it's] going to be really significant."
The world is witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power it has ever seen, the general said, adding that the shift is a fundamental change in the character of war. "The last big [shift] was the introduction of the airplane, mechanization and the radio. Today, you're seeing robotics, artificial intelligence, precision munitions and a wide variety of other technologies that, in combination, are leading to a fundamental change in the character war. And if we, the United States military, don't do a fundamental change ourselves in the coming 10 to 20 years, we're going to be on the wrong side of a conflict."
Calling the Cold War a bipolar war between the Soviet Union and the United States, Milley said the nation is entering into a tripolar war with the United States, Russia and China all as great powers. And adding in all the technologies that are coming at us very quickly, he said, we're entering into a world that is potentially much more strategically unstable than the last 40 to 70 years.
Today, he said, the United States, Russia, China, allies and partners are going to have to be very careful and conscious about how they deal with each other going forward and coordinated communication between the great powers will be a necessity, he added.
Holt asked Milley about the potential for a reconstituted ISIS emerging in Afghanistan.
"[In] Afghanistan, our [interagency] mission … is to continue to monitor the indicators and warnings of a reconstituted ISIS or al-Qaeda," the chairman responded. "And if we see that, [we will present it to] the president with a variety of options."
The chairman said he believes the Taliban are going to be challenged on adequately governing Afghanistan. "Or, is Afghanistan going to devolve into warring factions and warlordism and further civil war, which provides the environment for reconstituted al-Qaeda and or ISIS? My personal estimate is that the conditions are likely for a reconstituted ISIS or al-Qaeda," he added.
"First, they have to reconstitute; second, they have to develop capabilities; then, they would have to plan, coordinate, synchronize, operate and execute," and it would take a considerable length of time for terrorists to do that, Milley said. "What we're going to do is maintain our ability to monitor, and if necessary, take action." The United States will continue to deal with a reconstituted ISIS or al-Qaida, if it happens, and at the same time deter China and Russia, he noted.
Until and unless a terrorist movement or ideology ceases, "we're going to be dealing with terrorists and terrorism for a long time to come," the chairman said. "How do you get rid of that movement? It is going to be dependent on rule of law, good governance and enfranchisement of people around the world, so the grievances that lead to terrorism are somehow stripped away."
He warned terrorism will probably never be eliminated, but it must be reduced to a small, manageable level. "That is going to take a considerable amount of time. We'll be dealing with it for a long time," he said.
"As we look to the future and our operational environment, and as we see the operational environment changing in a fundamental way, we have got to take a hard look at how our military is organized — the way we fight, how we develop our talent and leadership, [and] the equipment that we have," Milley said, reiterating the military has multiple concerns to deal with at any given time.
"On the one hand, you've got an issue with China or Russia, [and] you've got lesser regional challenges with North Korea and Iran, for example. Then, you've got terrorism, and we have to have many different capabilities in our inventory to deal with all of those simultaneously," the general said.
Space and cyber are of grave concern to the Defense Department. "There are significant capabilities that happen in space today, which our economy, country and military are entirely dependent on," Milley said.
"Space today is a new domain of more conflict. We don't want to have conflict in space. I would say that we are the No. 1 country on earth that has capabilities in space, but other countries are close behind," Milley said. Space is becoming a very contested domain for the United States to operate in, and a lot of work remains to be done in space and cyberspace, he said.