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US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. Photo: Reuters

US needs a hi-tech revolution to combat China, says General Mark Milley

  • Military must adapt to ‘fundamental change’ under way in the character of war
  • Joint Chiefs of Staff head wants smaller, more capable forces which fully embrace robotics and artificial intelligence
The US military will need to fully embrace robotics and artificial intelligence if it is to maintain superiority over China, according to the Pentagon’s top general.
Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley also said smaller, more capable forces armed with long-range missiles would need to be posted more widely around Asia to hem in the top US adversary.

“We are in the middle of a fundamental change in the character of war,” he told the Defence Forum Washington online symposium at the US Naval Institute on Thursday.

How China is pushing forward its plan for a powerful, modern military

Milley cited the spread of precision-guided munitions, drones and other robotic equipment, and advanced satellite communications, and said those who mastered them best would be “decisive” in war.

“Our ability to sense is unbelievable. We can see the world today as you could never see it before. We can reach out and we can track, see, identify,” he said, adding that with long-range precision munitions, if you can see it, “you can hit it. This is fundamental. And this has a huge impact on the future of combat”.

“If you put in artificial intelligence and you do man-machine teaming, add that to robotics, put in precision munitions and the ability to sense and see, throw in a few hypersonic weapons, and you’ve got a fundamental shift” in the global battlefield, he said.

Milley said robotic weapons would be ubiquitous within 10 or 15 years, with China rapidly developing such capabilities.

“They would like to not only match us but exceed us, dominate us, be able to beat us in armed conflict by mid-century.”


The growth of Chinese military power over the past four decades

The growth of Chinese military power over the past four decades

Milley, who is expected to remain in his job under president-elect Joe Biden, said the US should shrink its military footprint abroad, as permanent bases in places such as South Korea and Bahrain left US forces, their families and staff vulnerable.

“I am not a fan of large permanent military bases from the US overseas, in other people’s countries. Smaller forces, widely distributed, that are very difficult to detect will be key for a future military.”

To prevent China from taking control of the western Pacific in a conflict, he said, the US should have land-based units in the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia, operating long-range precision missile batteries that could take out Chinese navy ships.

“Why should we just cede that space to them? We shouldn’t.”

‘PLA leaders’ lack of combat experience’ a drag on modernisation drive

To back that up, Milley said the Pentagon needed to plan to build its naval fleet to more than 500 vessels by 2045, from the current level of around 300, with one-quarter or more to be unmanned, robotic ships, and up to 90 submarines.

“If you’re serious about great power competition and deterring great power war, and you’re serious about having dominant capability over something like China … 500 (ships) is probably your entrance ticket.”

That did not include adding more to the fleet of large US aircraft carriers, relatively easy targets for China’s potent long-range precision missiles, he said.

“I’m not saying you’re gonna have a war with China. I’m saying we want to prevent a war with China, and we’re going to have to invest in the capabilities in the force to prevent that from happening.”

“You want your opponent to know unequivocally that if they get in a fight with the United States of America, hands down, they will lose, and they will lose in a very large way, very swiftly and in a very catastrophic way to their national interest.”