The next generation of national security leaders will be called to navigate the U.S. and its allies through a quickly changing global, geopolitical landscape, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday.
Speaking at the National Defense University's commencement ceremony in Washington, Milley told graduates they will likely face a "multipolar international environment" that will present increasing challenges.
"There is little doubt in my mind that each and every one of you are going to rise to significant positions of responsibility in the years ahead," Milley said. "It'll be you, each of you, that are in charge when decisions of great consequence are to be made. You are going to be the leaders that steer our nations through the numerous challenges ahead."
"And there's no doubt that the next couple of decades are going to see a whole series of very significant challenges and crises," he said.
Chief among those challenges, Milley said, will be the change from a "unipolar moment" in which the U.S. stood as "the most powerful nation on earth."
"Now, it is increasingly clear that we are really in a multipolar international environment with at least three great powers: the United States, China and Russia," he said. "And three is much more complicated than two and certainly much more complicated than one."
Many more countries will be on the rise in the coming decades, emerging as regional and, potentially, global powers and further complicating the geopolitical landscape, he said.
"That automatically means that you are entering a world in which you're going to reach senior responsibility; that is a world of much more complex international relations," Milley said. "And you will be its leader."
National Defense University provides graduate-level education aimed at preparing mid-and senior-level military officers and government officials to lead across the national security enterprise.
This year's graduating class included about 630 students from the U.S. and dozens of ally and partner nations.
Milley highlighted China's economic growth and military expansion, in particular, as a key geopolitical challenge.
He noted China's stated goals of becoming a regional hegemon in the next decade and exceeding U.S. military capability by midcentury.
"The bottom line is war between the United States and China is not imminent, nor is it inevitable. But the People's Republic of China is clearly on the potential path of military confrontation with its neighbors and the United States," Milley said. "And that could very well happen on your watch in the years ahead."
In addition to the changing geopolitical landscape, Milley warned of a rapid advance of technology that will usher in vast, consequential changes to warfighting the likes of which have not been seen in nearly a century.
He said a "fundamental change in the character of war" is being driven by advances in sensors, robotics and artificial intelligence that give nations the ability to observe, orient, decide and act at ever increasing speed.
"In today's extraordinarily dynamic world, your success and the success of your troops and the survival of your nation will depend on how well we, all of us collectively, take advantage of these technologies and how we optimize them for use in the military," Milley said.
He likened the current environment to that of the 1930s, when technological advances in the lead-up to World War II gave Nazi Germany the capability to overrun Europe with lightning speed.
The U.S. and its allies, Milley said, can never allow that to happen again.
He said the ability of the U.S. to harness new technologies and adapt to the changing nature of war is critical for deterring adversaries and upholding a rules-based international order.
"There are many attributes of future war that are going to have to be adapted to in the next 10 years," he said. "And you, each of you, are going to lead that change."