Eyeing China, Top US General Sees Tech Revolution on Battlefield

The Pentagon's top general believes that with the spread of precision-guided munitions, drones, and other robotic equipment, there has been a "fundamental change in the character of war."

The Pentagon’s top general said Thursday that the US military has to fully embrace robotics and artificial intelligence if it is to maintain superiority over China.

Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley also said that the Pentagon needs smaller, more capable forces armed with long-range missiles 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,” Milley told the Defense Forum Washington online symposium at the US Naval Institute.

He cited the spread of precision-guided munitions, drones, and other robotic equipment, and advanced satellite communications, and said that those who master them best will 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.”

Smaller Bases, More Ships

Milley, who is expected to remain in his job under President-elect Joe Biden, said the US should shrink its military footprint abroad, saying that permanent bases in places such as South Korea and Bahrain leave 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,” he said.

To back that up the Pentagon needs 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,” he said.

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,” he said.

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