General Mark Milley's Motivations and Advice

General Mark Milley's Motivations and Advice

Interview with Senior Staff Writer Gina Harkins

When Gen. Mark Milley was a new second lieutenant in 1980, he didn't think he'd end up becoming the 39th chief of staff for the Army. “I was never the type of person who said, 'I'm going to spend 30 years in the Army,' ” Milley told Military Officer. A career infantry officer and Princeton University graduate, Milley now is heading into his second year as the Army's top general. He has led his service through the end of the years-long personnel drawdown, steep federal budget cuts, and the lifting of the ban barring women from serving in combat roles. As the U.S. military gears up to fight more complex enemies in the future while still battling brutal terror groups around the world, Milley says tomorrow's officer corps must be more tech-savvy and physically fit than ever. But he says the service lacks the proper budget needed to take on future threats. “The Army needs steady, reliable, and predictable funding,” he says.

Milley took to Capitol Hill this spring to make that case, telling members of the House Armed Services Committee exactly why operating under continued resolutions in place of actual budgets was harmful to not only his service, but the country as a whole.

“I think - candidly - failure to pass a budget, in my view as both an American citizen and the chief of staff of United States Army, constitutes professional malpractice,” he said. “I don't think we should accept it as the new normal.

“I think we should pass [the budget] … and get on with it,” Milley added. “The world is a dangerous place and is becoming more dangerous by the day. Pass the budget.”

Milley has served as the head of Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., the service's largest command. He also was the commanding general of III Corps and Fort Hood in Texas and served in both the 82nd Airborne Division and 5th Special Forces Group.

He has led troops during combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Panama.

Milley recently weighed in on his service's readiness challenges, what he hears from Army families, and his leadership advice for other officers. Excerpts of that interview, edited for clarity and space, follow.

You've talked about readiness being your top priority. What are the Army's biggest challenges in meeting readiness requirements, and how are you ensuring deploying units have what they need?

Units headed to combat zones remain the priority. They are manned and equipped at the highest levels needed to deploy and successfully perform their missions.

One of the challenges in increasing readiness for nondeploying units is the lack of steady and reliable funding created by the Budget Control Act and sequestration. We have made strides in recent years to increase readiness for a range of contingency operations in nondeploying units by increasing training center rotations for both the active component and National Guard brigade combat teams. I want to ensure we continue to make progress.

You've also said soldiers must be ready to face off against a near-peer enemy across two theaters simultaneously. What are some of the skills you want to see the Army improve upon after 16 years in Iraq and Afghanistan?

We are focusing on combined-arms maneuvers at company, battalion, and brigade levels. We also include live-fire exercises with massed infantry, armor, artillery, and aviation units and squadrons.

It's important that our lieutenants and sergeants today gain the experience in collective higher-end skills like completing tank-crew certifications and conducting battalion-sized artillery-fire missions. We are also working on improving our air and missile defense, cyber, electronic warfare, protection, and mobility capabilities.

With that probably comes a need to modernize the force. If you were freed from the budgetary restrictions the military has faced in recent years, what are some of the areas you'd invest in?

Our modernization budget has decreased by 33 percent, just since 2011. That has a negative impact on science and technology, research and development, and long-range procurement. We must do the research and development today in order to build the equipment our soldiers will be using in 2030.

Some of the Army's focus areas include mobile-protected firepower, long-range precision fires, cyber, electronic warfare, and other assets we will need to win in multi-domain battles.

Does the Army have any career fields that are critically short that need more soldiers?

Right now we have bonuses available in about 50 different military operational specialties. Some of the high-demand specialties are armor crew member, cavalry scout, fire support specialist, and cyber.

As warfare gets more technical, what are the skills soldiers are going to need on the battlefield?

Leaders in the future will need to be technologically savvy, develop the skills to fight in urban areas, develop leaders capable of operating and leading in a very decentralized manner with minimal guidance, and develop leaders who can operate only with commander's intent. They are going to be leading small units and will be constantly on the move, operating in arduous environments.

I don't believe they will be able to rely on communications equipment to be in constant contact with headquarters to receive guidance like we do today because in the future operating environment, if you can be seen, you can be hit. They are going to have to be ethically strong to lead in an environment with little supervision.

You've talked about the importance of family readiness and the expectation that other commanders make that a top priority, too. What do you hear from Army families about their challenges, and what are you doing to improve their experiences?

Taking care of our families has a direct impact on military readiness. It's an investment in our people. I want to provide families with a quality of life that is commensurate with their service and sacrifice, but sequestration has forced us to make some hard choices.

We heard loudly and clearly the critical importance of child care programs earlier this year as a result of the federal hiring freeze. Programs like child care and school-age care; proper maintenance and upkeep of our military housing areas; high quality, accessible medical care; and good local schools are all critically important for family well-being and for keeping soldiers focused on the mission at hand when they are deployed.

When I travel to Army installations around the world, my wife accompanies me and tours medical clinics, schools, and child development centers. She meets with a wide range of spouses to get a sense of their concerns. That feedback is invaluable to me, as it helps inform the decisions that I and other Army senior leaders make.

The National Guard and Reserve have been incredibly active in Iraq and Afghanistan, often deploying alongside active duty units. How are their new operational detachments that plug into headquarters elements helping to relieve the pressures on the active duty force?

Our system was expressly designed to ensure the Army can't go to war without all three components, which requires the support and involvement of our country as a whole. Armies don't win wars; nations win wars. So it's not about taking the pressure off the active duty force, it's about readiness. I want the total Army to increase readiness.

The pilot program to augment active division headquarters with reserve component soldiers is just one part of total readiness. We are also increasing the number of training-center rotations and warfighter exercises for the Reserve and Guard and are looking at increasing training days for certain units in the National Guard to ensure they are available to deploy rapidly, without an extended predeployment train-up.

Military and other defense leaders have raised concerns about such a small portion of the American population being eligible to serve in uniform. Is the Army facing any challenges in that area with such a small pool qualifying physically, mentally, or morally for military service?

Our biggest challenge is that 70 percent of America's youth are not qualified for military service. The pool we recruit from is small, and it's very competitive. We will maintain high standards when we recruit, and we won't drop quality.

Another challenge we face is that the number of high school seniors is on the decline through 2023. This year is an especially challenging year - there are 81,000 fewer graduates this year, which is a 2.3-percent decrease from previous years in available candidates we can recruit.

Servicemembers' pay raises have remained a bit stagnant in recent years. They don't always keep up with the civilian pace. Are you at all concerned that troops' pay raises are negatively affecting Army retention?

I am always concerned about ensuring we take care of our soldiers. That said, our research shows that military pay and compensation has been consistently competitive with private-sector jobs as soldier purchasing power has kept pace with the Consumer Price Index over the past five years and has surpassed the Employment Cost Index over the past 20 years.

Personally, I'd love to see soldiers be paid more, because I don't think we can pay them enough for what we ask them to do. I want them to know that their Army leaders fight for their pay raises.

Female soldiers have been able to serve in combat roles for more than a year now. How are the women who've requested to move into those roles doing? Does your service face any remaining hurdles in terms of gender integration?

They are doing well. What we have seen is that soldiers who meet the standards do well no matter what the job.

We're following a “leaders first” strategy for integrating infantry and armor units and assigned the first two female infantry captains to the 82nd Airborne Division. Thirty female lieutenants have graduated from their Basic Officer Leaders courses and, after additional job-specific training, will be assigned to the 82nd [Airborne] and 1st Cavalry divisions.

We've also had female noncommissioned officers who have been trained and assigned to infantry and armor units, and the first group of female enlistees started basic training this spring. There are now five Ranger-qualified female officers, and this spring, the first female officer was assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment.

I understand both of your parents served in World War II, your mother as a nurse and your father as a Marine. What impact did their service have on your own decision to become an Army officer?

My parents were in the service, and it seemed like just about everyone else in my neighborhood had a parent or an uncle who was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, the Philippines, or Normandy. It had a profound impact on me because it implanted a subconscious desire to serve. I just grew up with a strong sense of wanting to serve my country.

What made you want to make a career out of the Army?

I realized that I was lucky to be an American and to have the privileges and the honor of growing up in this country, and I wanted to pay it back. I took it one small chunk at a time, and I really, truly enjoyed serving in the Army. I felt really proud of being part of something bigger than myself.

What impact has that decision had on your own family?

My family, like every other military family, has sacrificed so I could serve. They moved just as often as other military kids. My wife had to raise them single-handedly during multiple deployments, just like every other Army spouse. She's also worked - and continues to work - as a nurse, so she is very familiar with juggling full-time work with the volunteer work of an Army spouse.

I'm so proud of her and of my kids, who have grown up to be great adults.

Mentors play an important role in developing good officers. Who would you say has had the most influence on your career as you've moved up the ranks?

I'd have to say my parents, first of all. They had the strongest influence on me. I had some high school coaches and professors in college who also had a hand in shaping me to be the person I am today [as well as] several battalion commanders, some Ranger School instructors, and more recently, senior leaders I had the honor to work for.

The bottom line is, I have been incredibly lucky to have lots of great mentors every step of the way.

What advice do you have for a young officer who might want to follow in your footsteps?

Take it in small chunks. Do the very best that you can do, and give it your all. Most importantly, maintain your ethical and moral compass. Maintain your integrity and don't be judgmental about others - help them to grow.

Read a lot and be a skeptical, intellectual, critical thinker. Rigorously analyze what you are looking at. And obviously, focus on readiness, on training your soldiers, [and] on being tactically and physically fit, because I think the future environment is going to be really rigorous.