The Army must look to the future — and new, emerging technologies that could change the way soldiers fight — even as it continues to build its readiness to fight today, the service's top general said.
"The near future, in terms of readiness, is a pretty straightforward affair," said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. "From now to 2020, more or less, what you see is what you've got."
Any advancements or improvements in equipment or technology will be marginal in the near-term, he said.
"You're not going to see going from a smoothbore musket to a rifled musket," Milley said. "That kind of leap ahead is unlikely [in the near-term]. But that kind of leap ahead is likely in 2025 to 2050."
That period, which Milley refers to as the deeper future, is something the Army must already be working on, he said.
"We need to significantly pick up our game," he said. "There are significant technologies … that clearly are going to change not the nature of war, but they're probably going to deeply change the character of war."
This includes advancements in areas such as robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, explosives and transportation, Milley said.
"There's a wide, wide array of technologies out there, and we're putting a lot of time and effort to think about that so we make sure we're investing in the right way ahead," he said.
At the same time, the Army is honing in on building readiness in today's Army as it grapples with a shrinking budget, a sweeping drawdown and reorganization, and growing threats around the world.
"Nobody can predict the future," said Milley, who spoke Thursday at a breakfast hosted by the Association of the United States Army's Institute of Land Warfare.
However, the U.S. faces several threats across the globe that each present a "unique strategic and operational challenge," Milley said.
They include Russia, the Islamic State terror group, and North Korea.
"Those are all different, from a military perspective, and we have to be prepared as an Army, or as a military, for that matter, for all of them," he said.
The Army must be able to win when called upon to fight, Milley said.
"Our task at the end of the day is to win wars in defense of the nation," he said. "Whether we're actively engaged in ground combat or not, our mandate always is to prepare. Readiness is what we label as our No. 1 priority. It is the fundamental driver of all of our commanders, all of our organization, our staffs throughout the Army, every day, day in and day out."
This means properly manning units, making sure soldiers receive the training and education they need, and ensuring units have the best equipment available, he said. The Army also must make sure its soldiers are well led, Milley said.
"The United States has a long history of being unready at the beginning of conflict," he said. "We in the Army, we leaders in the Army, cannot allow ourselves to fall into that historical pattern. We have a moral and ethical obligation to our soldiers and the American people."
Building readiness takes time, and it doesn't last forever, either, Milley said.
"Readiness is a relatively short-term endeavor," he said.
In the Army, the bottom line is not profit or loss, Milley said.
"Our bottom line is victory or defeat," he said. "The profit margin is not measured in dollars. The profit margin in the military is death. It's measured in blood."
This is why the Army is looking at several initiatives to build its readiness as well as its ability to regenerate or grow the force quickly if needed.
One "big-ticket item" Milley is considering is standing up new brigades built specifically to conduct advise-and-assist missions. These units would be smaller than regular brigades, and they would be manned primarily by officers and senior noncommissioned officers.
These units would be similar to those currently advising Iraqi and Afghan troops, Milley said.
"We've been advising and assisting all along, but the way we've done that is we've ripped apart brigades," he said.
The leaders would deploy while most of the soldiers would stay home, Milley said.
"The situation is not conducive to readiness," he said. "Then it takes three years to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We had to do it, but I think now we can make some choices, and we can build in to the force structure."
And if needed, if there was an emergency that required a surge in forces, the Army will already have units with "coherent, cohesive chains of command," Milley said. The Army would bring in new soldiers, train them and roll them into these existing units, effectively shortening the time it would take for those units to become combat effective, he said.
The Army also is working to rely more heavily on the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, increase partnerships between the components, and add more combat training center rotations for Guard brigades.
Army leaders also are looking to increase the number of days Guard and Reserve soldiers train every year.
"I'm not sure 39 days is the right answer," Milley said, referring to the current model of one weekend a month, two weeks a year. "We want the Guard and Reserve to be more responsive. It is possible that if a conflict breaks out in the future, it'll happen in a faster rate of speed. Thirty-nine days of training ahead of time and counting on post-mobilization training may not be a wise thing for us to do as we go forward."
The U.S cannot go to war without the Guard or Reserve, Milley said.
"It can't happen," he said. "War consumes a lot of assets … and you just can't get there without the strategic depth that's necessary and provided by the Guard and Reserve. War is a national challenge, and, for our part, we cannot execute without the Guard and the Reserve."
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.