"Our No. 1 task is readiness," Gen. Mark Milley said on the first day of the Association of the United States Army annual meeting. "And it's not just readiness according to some [Army Force Generation] cycle. It's readiness now, because we have no earthly idea what will happen a month or two from now."
After shouldering deployments for the past 13 years, the Army now faces troop and budget cuts. The service is responding to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq, and demands in hot spots around the world, Milley said.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates "once said the one thing he knows for certain is that 100 percent of the time we've gotten the future wrong when it comes to predictive intelligence as to where the next conflict is going to be," Milley said. "There's nobody who can predict where we're going to be in three months, six months, or 18 or 24 months."
That's why readiness — and the ability to conduct a range of military operations, from humanitarian assistance to combat operations — is FORSCOM's top priority, Milley said.
"An army, any army, doesn't matter which army it is, only has two tasks — it's either prepare for war or prepare for combat, or conduct combat," he said. "Absent the actual act of fighting, then our fundamental task is to prepare for the act of fighting. It means training. It means manning. It means equipping. It means leading."
In order for the Army to win, however, it must integrate the Guard and reserve, Milley said.
In his remarks, which took place during the National Guard and Army Reserve breakfast, Milley highlighted the importance of the two reserve components.
The total Army force didn't happen by accident, Milley said. Efforts to integrate the components go back to World War I, he said.
And after the Vietnam War, Gen. Creighton Abrams, who commanded military operations during that conflict, realized the war was lost because "the will of the American people had broken," Milley said.
"War is ultimately a contest of wills, to determine one will over another will," he said. "Creighton Abrams knew that."
The will of the American people broke because "we didn't have any connective tissue with the American people during the Vietnam War, and the people didn't have a stake in the fight," Milley said.
To overcome that gap, Abrams designed an Army that could not engage in war without the American people, Milley said.
He "designed a force so that this Army cannot possibly execute combat operations in a war without the Guard and the reserve," Milley said.
"He redesigned us, and it's evolved over time, but fundamentally he redesigned us so today more than 70 percent of logistics is in the reserve, eight of the 18 divisions are in the Guard," Milley said. "We cannot execute sustained operations unless we integrate the Guard and reserve, [and] there's not a person in America who doesn't know when the National Guard is mobilized."
Today, the Army, led by Secretary John McHugh, is implementing its Total Force Policy, integrating all three components, particularly in training and relationship-building, Milley said.
The Guard and reserve are part of the Army's regionally aligned forces effort, supporting theater security cooperation activities around the world, Milley said.
"The United States Army cannot execute operations anywhere without the Guard and reserve," he said.
The Army also is integrating Guard and reserve soldiers and units into its combat training center rotations.
This means future rotations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, or the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, will heavily feature Guard and reserve soldiers training alongside active-duty soldiers.
"Two years ago we had about 18 percent or so of a [combat training center] rotation was National Guard and reserve," Milley said. "We are trying to ratchet that up. My objective is to come in about 50 percent."
FORSCOM is already making progress, with the most recent rotation coming in at about 42 percent Guard and reserve, he said.
"What we don't want to do is go back to 10 percent Guard and reserve, 90 percent active," he said. "That is not Total Force."
Another key effort is the partnership program that pairs active-duty units with Guard and reserve counterparts.
"We've tried to line up all the corps with National Guard divisions, brigades with brigades, and I think we've got pretty much everybody partnered up somewhere," Milley said.
These partnerships foster relationships, sharing of experiences, and combined training opportunities.
"No matter what the exercise, my guidance to all FORSCOM commanders, regardless of components, is to think multi-component, total Army, in everything we do," Milley said. "Pretty soon you [could] find yourself, I hope not, with the 1st Infantry Division on the left and the 29th Infantry Division on the right. The relationships that we forge in training here in the United States, every day, in and out, through that partnership program, is key."
As the Army tries to prepare for an uncertain future, its soldiers, from all components, must focus on readiness and partnerships, Milley said.
"Our task is to either prepare for war or win a war," he said. "The only thing more expensive than fighting and winning a war is fighting and losing a war. In the United States of America, we cannot afford to lose, whether it's win against Ebola, win against [Islamic State], win against the Taliban, it doesn't matter. It's our job to deliver, it's our job to win. There's no second place in this business of combat."
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.