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Top U.S. General On COVID-19, Reorienting For Great Power Competition


This country's top uniformed military officer is wrestling with a special problem of the pandemic. The military has to protect its people, but unlike schools and businesses, it can never shut down.

MARK MILLEY: We still have to defend the nation and sail ships and fly planes and so on. How are we, as a military, going to operate in this environment and, if not this environment, some other pandemic environment?

KING: General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked through the challenges with our co-host, Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: General Milley is a four-decade veteran of U.S. operations around the world. He's also a history buff who knew we would play this interview today, May 8, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. That war is on his mind as Milley considers the scale of the pandemic today.

MILLEY: We, the United States, have lost over 70,000 killed in the last 90 to 120 days or so, which is comparable to the number of U.S. killed in action in World War II at the height of the war in - you know, from Normandy, June 1944, till August, September 1944. And we have an opportunity here to demonstrate global leadership. And the first step in that, I think, is to turn the corner here domestically. And we are looking at this as more or less a campaign operation where the military, the uniformed military, have got to learn how to operate in this environment for the long haul.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about doing this in the long haul. You said the other day the U.S. military does not have a goal to test everyone in the military, although it's a number of people that you conceivably could test them all at some point. Why not test everybody?

MILLEY: Well, optimally, you do want to do that. But we also have to exercise rational decision-making with resource-informed plans. There's tests for the entire country. We're not the only customers within the country. And that's where we come up with the 50,000 a week, 200,000 a month. And then, we'll do what's called sentinel testing - 10% to 15% of the force per month. We're going to test those that are in tier 1 units, such as the strategic nuclear forces. We're testing everybody that embarks upon close quarters, like a ship or a sub, because of the number of tests available.

INSKEEP: Are you pretty sure, General, that you will not be in a situation where you'll send a ship off to sea or send a unit off to a war zone and they've got that one case that you missed and they're going to infect everybody?

MILLEY: In terms of certainty, no. Based on what we've seen so far since the beginning of this, the tests are not 100% certain. But we feel very confident that's as rigorous a level of scientific screening that we can do given the resources and what we know about this infection right now.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about China, General. Secretary of State Pompeo said the other day there was, quote, "enormous evidence" that this virus came out of a lab in China. Have you seen any such evidence?

MILLEY: Well, I see it as, essentially, three questions that people are kind of circling around in the media. One - was this virus natural or was it somehow manufactured by man or perhaps manipulated by man?


MILLEY: And clearly, the weight of evidence - in fact, the intelligence community put out a statement, I think, the other day that said they think it was not manmade, but it was natural. The second key one - was it manufactured in a lab or was the location the Wuhan wet market or was it some other kind of location in China? And the answer on the location is we don't know, and we won't know until China becomes more transparent and opens up and allows international investigators to get in there...

INSKEEP: But the secretary of state said there's enormous evidence that it came from a lab - enormous evidence. Have you seen such evidence?

MILLEY: No, what I'm saying is, is right now it - for me - what I've seen is that it's an unanswered question, whether it's from a lab and accidentally released or intentionally released, which is the third issue. Is it accidental or intentional? The weight of evidence there is, clearly, that it's accidental. So those are the three things - probably accidental, probably natural, and unknown - the location.

INSKEEP: Now, you referred to - and often refer to - reorienting the United States to be ready for a great power competition. What does the U.S. military need that it does not currently have to be able to properly confront China, if necessary, in five years or 10 years as their military grows?

MILLEY: Well, the first thing is, we certainly do not want a great power war. And what you need in order to maintain the great power peace and keep it at competition, as opposed to conflict, is to maintain a very, very robust military that is second to none, that maintains, essentially, an overwhelming degree of capability - strength, if you will - and your opponent knows your strengths. Well, therein lies the concept of deterrence. So, if we do that, then the great power peace will be sustained.

INSKEEP: The Chinese have developed missiles that, it's thought, could knock out a U.S. aircraft carrier. They're able to launch things into space. They have great cyber capabilities. Is there something that keeps you up at night when you think about their growing capabilities and what the U.S. would need to do to stay well ahead of them?

MILLEY: Well, it's no great secret that the Chinese have a very powerful economy. And the Chinese have set out for them an objective that they publicly talk about, that they want to be the coequal, or even surpass, the United States by midcentury. And they are moving out in all of the - without going into classified projects or anything - they're moving out in all of the areas that you mentioned - things like hypersonics and antisatellite systems, artificial intelligence, and a wide variety of other capabilities. If that were to happen, that would indicate a very unstable security situation. And that is what we, the United States, need to guard against.

INSKEEP: What is a way that artificial intelligence could be used in warfare that you want to stay well ahead of the Chinese on?

MILLEY: Well, two things - think about robotics. You're going to see the widespread use of robots in the conduct of military operations. Now, if you combine that with something like artificial intelligence, which can process information at scope and scale far greater than a human being can, then you combine that with decision-making, target acquisition, friend-or-foe identification and then combine that with some protocols that allow the artificial intelligence with the robot to make decisions, well, now you're getting into an area of a change in the character of war that is fundamental.

And I would argue that the military that leverages artificial intelligence in combination with robotics could, potentially, have a decisive advantage in some sort of future conflict. There's a lot of ethical issues involved in that, too, because human decision-making for centuries - millennia - has been fundamental to the conduct of warfare. And now you're introducing concepts where artificial intelligence and machines could - and I'm not saying they will, but they could - become a powerful actor in the conduct of war in and of themselves. And that is a scary bit of thinking.

INSKEEP: General, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

MILLEY: Thanks, Steve. Appreciate the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "SOLITARY BEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.