Milley Warns That War with Iran Would Disrupt Strategy to Confront Russia, China

Gen. Mark Milley speaks at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 11, 2019, for reappointment to the grade of general and to be Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Gen. Mark Milley speaks at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 11, 2019, for reappointment to the grade of general and to be Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley warned Thursday that war with Iran would delay and disrupt the overall National Defense Strategy, which is aimed at great power competition to deter Russia and China.

"If it did happen," conflict with Iran would have a "significant impact" on the strategy to focus more on "near-peer" competitors instead of the counter-insurgency efforts that have dominated military operations since 9/11, he said at his confirmation hearing to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

However, Milley later added, "I don't think anyone is seriously considering" major attacks against Iran, which could involve as many as 150,000 troops.

Under questioning by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, Milley said, "I don't know if it's realistic or feasible" to defuse the crisis in the Gulf through diplomacy, but U.S. policy is to "get back to the negotiating table."

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The U.S. should "approach this from the diplomatic angle" rather than military conflict with Iran, he added.

Should he be confirmed by the Senate, Milley said he would also back diplomacy to avoid conflict with Russia and China.

"We're living in a period of great-power competition," but "our goal should be to sustain great-power peace," he said in his opening statement.

He acknowledged that that goal will be difficult to achieve, given China's stated determination "to have the capability to defeat us by mid-century."

At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Milley stressed his qualifications to succeed Marine Gen. Joe Dunford as Joint Chiefs chairman, while acknowledging he has much to learn.

His 39-plus years in the military have "provided me with the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to lead" the Joint Chiefs, but "I do not know all the answers," he said.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, wanted to know whether Milley as JCS chairman and top military adviser to the commander in chief would have the wherewithal to stand up to President Donald Trump when necessary.

"The Oval Office can be an intimidating place," King said.

Milley said he would follow the example of Dunford and other high-level commanders who have "seen a lot of combat. We're not going to be intimidated into making stupid decisions."

He faced little opposition during the hearing and appears headed to quick confirmation by the full Senate.

"I think you're the man for the job," Milley was told by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi.

His confirmation would make him the top uniformed officer of a military committed to radical transformation of its roles and missions through the National Defense Strategy, even as the Pentagon's leadership is in flux and disarray.

The turmoil in the Pentagon's E-Ring became even more evident only hours ahead of Milley's testimony.

The nomination of Air Force Gen. John Hyten to become Milley's No. 2 as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs was put in question after allegations emerged that he had been accused -- and cleared by an internal investigation -- of sexual misconduct against a former staffer.

The female officer told The Associated Press that Hyten repeatedly made sexual advances, saying, "My life was ruined by this."

Earlier this week, Adm. Bill Moran, the highly regarded Trump choice to succeed Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, withdrew from consideration for the nomination and announced he was retiring after maintaining contact with a former aide who had been accused of groping at a 2016 Christmas party.

In questioning Milley, Sen. Jack Reed, R-Rhode Island, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, said the military has been "hamstrung by the fact that there has not been a permanent Senate-confirmed secretary of defense for nearly seven months" since former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in December in a dispute with Trump over Syria policy.

"During this time, two different political appointees have helmed the department in an acting capacity," Reed said. "In addition, vacancies are pervasive across the senior level, particularly the civilian posts."

In response, Milley said that filling those positions is "really important" to improving the readiness of the force, but noted that the responsibility mostly rests with civilian leaders.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the committee chairman, told Milley he will be assuming the Joint Chiefs chairmanship while America is "threatened as never before" across the globe by resilient terror groups and the advancing military capabilities of Russia and China.

Inhofe said Milley's job will be to meet those threats despite "years of budget cuts that have left our military in a crisis it will take years to fix," even though military spending for fiscal 2019 was $716 billion, an increase of $82 billion over the previous year.

The Senate last month passed its version of the National Defense Authorization legislation for Fiscal 2020, which would put the defense budget at $750 billion. On the House side, the current proposal is $733 billion.

The $17 billion difference leaves open the possibility of stalling in a Senate-House conference committee, which could lead to a series of continuing resolutions (CRs), as has happened in previous years. That would require spending to be kept at current levels until an agreement is reached.

"I think the impact of a CR would be significant" on training and readiness for the force, Milley said.

In presenting his bona fides to the committee, the 61-year-old Milley noted his family's military background. He said his father served in the Marines' Fourth Division and participated in the Pacific landings at Kwajalein, Tinian, Saipan and Iwo Jima during World War II.

Milley was commissioned out of the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps as an undergraduate at Princeton, and has acquired a reputation during his career for combining blunt talk with a keen intellect.

In an address last year to the Association of the U.S. Army, Milley described his concept for achieving quick and decisive, full-spectrum victory on future battlefields.

In the next war, the military would "shift from battles of attrition to battles of cognition, where we think, direct and act at speeds the enemy cannot match in order to achieve a perfect harmony of intense violence," he said.

Milley has seen combat in Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan as a career infantry officer.

He commanded the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, from December 2003 to July 2005; served as deputy commanding general (operations) for the 101st Airborne Division from July 2007 to April 2008; and was commander of the 10th Mountain Division from November 2011 to December 2012.

He also served as the commander of III Corps, based at Fort Hood, Texas, from 2012 to 2014, and as commander of U.S. Army Forces Command, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, from 2014 to 2015. He was appointed Army chief of staff in August 2015.

While at Forces Command, Milley was instrumental in bringing the court-martial case against former Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who left his post in Afghanistan and was held for five years by the Taliban.

Milley rejected earlier recommendations for leniency and made the decision that led to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy against him. Bergdahl eventually pleaded guilty, was reduced in rank to private, dishonorably discharged and fined $10,000, but was spared prison time. His lawyers are appealing the verdict.

One of the areas where Milley pledged immediate change is transparency, saying he would order a return to on-the-record briefings at the Pentagon.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, told Milley, "There have been no on-camera briefings at the Pentagon for more than 300 days." She said the public believes in the military and its mission, but it also has a right "to know and understand what's happening at the Pentagon" through regular press briefings.

Milley replied, "I don't know why" the briefings have been cut off, and "I didn't even realize it's been that many days. But if I'm confirmed, I commit to transparency" and regular press briefings.

"The American people have a right to know, and the media is the means by which they do that," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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