What the Joint Chiefs Chairman thinks about a Great Power War

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — “There are a lot of lessons learned coming out of the Ukrainian war. There’s lessons learned for Taiwan. There are lessons learned that we’re learning. There’s lessons European countries are learning, and there’s lessons learned that President Xi and the Chinese military are learning.”

That was Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley last Wednesday, speaking at a joint Pentagon press briefing with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin following a virtual meeting of the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group.

The press conference dealt primarily with Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invaders followed by a bit about U.S. military power. 

However, it was Milley’s rather frank answers to late questions about China and Taiwan that I believe need more public attention. They provide the best analysis of the Taiwan invasion situation and backup to President Biden’s remark that he did not believe any invasion of Taiwan was “imminent,” which came after his meeting with President Xi Jinping on November 14.

For example, Milley said, “One of the things people are learning [from Ukraine] is that war on paper is a whole lot different than real war. And when blood is spilled and people die and real tanks are being blown up, things are a little bit different. There’s a lot of friction and fog and death in combat.”

While Milley said he recognized that China had built up its armed forces and said that by 2027, “they want to be equal to or superior militarily to the United States,” he pointed out that Chinese troops had not actually seen any real combat since a month-long border fight with the Vietnamese in 1979.

Milley went on to say that the Chinese would be playing “a very, very dangerous game to cross the [110-mile wide] straits and invade the island of Taiwan. They don’t have the experience, the background to do it. They haven’t trained to do it yet. They do piece-part training. We watch it very, very closely, how many — how much amphibious capability they have, how much airborne capability they have.”

Taiwan has only 14 small beaches suitable for landing an invasion force, according to the Taipei Times, and they are well defended and bordered by cliffs and mountains.

Continuing, Milley said, “Now, they [the Chinese] could bomb it [Taiwan]. They could missile it. They could attack Taiwan in that sense but attacking and seizing the island of Taiwan across the straits, putting [hundreds of thousands of] troops [and equipment] on the island of Taiwan, that is a very difficult military task to do.”

Milley also pointed out the difficult areas of Taiwan that could be defended by the local populace, as the Russians have found in Ukraine.

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“You’ve got a large city of Taipei with three or four million people, with the suburbs, about seven million people,” Milley noted saying, “You’ve got very complex terrain with mountains. Most of Taiwan is a mountainous island. So, it’s a very, very difficult military objective, a very difficult military operation to execute, and I think it’ll be some time before the Chinese have the military capability and they’re ready to do it.”

Milley admitted he could be wrong if an incident happens, “Some sort of political thing could happen in a moment in time, and all of the decisions would change very, very rapidly. But I think that the Chinese would be high risk to take on an operation like that, and I think it would be unwise. It would be a political mistake, a geopolitical mistake, a strategic mistake similar to what the strategic mistake is that Putin has made in Ukraine.”

Speaking of Ukraine, Secretary Austin used last Wednesday’s press briefing to outline his views on what will happen there in the coming winter months.

Austin said he believes the Ukraine military has “to continue to keep the pressure on the Russians going forward, and I think winter fight favors the Ukrainians.”

One reason, he said, is that the U.S. and its allies provided “enormous amounts of winter gear into Ukraine, thanks to countries like Canada and others who have really been very, very generous.”

Since February, according to press reports, Canada has supplied nearly $1 billion worth of material and training including — in the last month — $25 million in critical winter gear such as 400,000 jackets, pants, boots, gloves, parkas, portable heaters, thermal blankets and sleeping bags.

Austin said that because Russian troops are fighting in a foreign country with their supply lines under bombardment, “it will be difficult for them to get the kinds of gear to their troops that they need to be able to fight effectively. And so, I think the Ukrainians will have the upper hand in this fight, as they have right now, but that they’ll continue to maintain that upper hand going into the winter.”

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Austin continued, “Just like we saw them [the Ukrainians] operate in February of last year [defending Kyiv], they know the land, they can — they can pull things from their local communities, and they’ll be prepared for this — for this winter weather. And I don’t think that the Russians will be as prepared, and they’ll continue to struggle to get things into their troops using the supply lines that they currently have.”

Rather than a winter pause, Austin said, “I think the Ukrainians are going to continue to pressure them…The Ukrainians know that, you know, allowing them [the Russians] to rest and refit and re-arm is a mistake. That’s an operational mistake and I don’t believe they’re going to make that mistake. My goal is to make sure that they have a means to do what’s necessary.”

Milley explained that with winter arriving, “Russia is choosing to use their time to attempt to regroup their forces and [meanwhile] they are imposing a campaign of terror, a campaign of maximum suffering on the Ukrainian civilian population in order to defeat Ukrainian morale.”

He said, “The Russians are striking throughout the depth and breadth of all of Ukraine with air-launched cruise missiles, with Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles, and with other types of munitions. They are striking the Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, and it has little or no military purpose… The deliberate targeting of the civilian power grid, causing excessive collateral damage and unnecessary suffering on the civilian population, is a war crime. With the onset of winter, [Ukraine] families will be without power, and more importantly, without heat. Basic human survival and subsistence is going to be severely impacted and human suffering for the Ukrainian population is going to increase.”

But Milley added, “Ukraine is going to continue to take the fight to the Russians. And I just had a significant conversation with my Ukrainian counterpart, and he assures me that that is the future for Ukraine.”

It is worth pointing out that two little-noticed Kremlin moves indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is working to solve his own problems arising from the Ukraine war.

Remember, Putin in mid-October, created the Government Coordination Council chaired by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, which I wrote about earlier this month. It was formed to supervise support for troops in Ukraine. On November 10, Putin announced that the Council had “been instructed to complete the formulation of the target figures for meeting the needs of the Russian Armed Forces, other troops, military units and agencies in the course of the special military operation [in Ukraine], as well as the areas and timeframe of these activities.”

Under Putin’s more recent order, the Russian Government and Defense Ministry “are to improve the quality of products supplied for meeting the needs of the Russian Armed Forces,” a clear sign that complaints have been true about the lack of food, supplies, and equipment available to the troops in Ukraine.

On November 14, Putin’s Presidential office also released an executive order amending regulations related “to the procedure for foreign citizens wishing to carry out military service in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and military formations in peacetime.”

There have also been stories about Russian recruitment of foreign soldiers for Putin’s Ukraine war based on the lack of qualified Russian conscripts and volunteers. For example, a recent article in Foreign Policy on October 25, said, “Members of Afghanistan’s elite National Army Commando Corps, who were abandoned by the United States and Western allies when the country fell to the Taliban last year, say they are being contacted with offers to join the Russian military to fight in Ukraine.” Last Monday’s Putin order would confirm such recruitment is going on.

One further set of exchanges Milley had with reporters last Wednesday, is worth noting.

A reporter asked Milley, “The last time the National Defense Strategy was rolled out [in 2018], the Pentagon said America’s military edge was eroding. Now that this new one has rolled out, is America’s military edge still eroding to China?”

Milley acknowledged China is the “pacing threat” to the U.S. and Beijing is “not shy” about wanting “to be the number one power in the globe by midcentury, by 2049. And they want to do that military, diplomatically, informationally, economically, and so on and so forth. So, they want to be number one by mid-century.”

He also pointed out that earlier, Chinese officials had said “they want to have a military that out does the United States military regionally by the mid-’30s…and then they advanced to that goal to 2027…And what they have said is that they want to be equal to or superior, militarily, to the United States. That’s only five years away. So, they’re working on that and they’re working on that very, very hard.”

But, Milley said, “Right now, the United States military is without question — despite whatever criticisms people have — the United States military is the most lethal war-fighting machine on Earth, bar none. The United States military is number one and we intend to stay number one.”

What neither Milley nor Austin said directly is that American military dominance is directly related to the U.S. being involved in worldwide military actions for the past 50 years – from Vietnam through Ukraine.

The U.S. did not always win, but that’s the reason our troops and their leaders are the best, because they have had the most experience. And admit it or not, that is why American tactics and weaponry and tactics are so advanced – because they have been tested in battles.

What Milley did say also rings true: “As long as we remain number one, then we will deter the war that people worry about, a great power war between China and the United States.”

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