Army Gen. Mark Milley joined other top military brass Tuesday in naming Russia as the top threat the U.S. faces today, as lawmakers questioned the wisdom of cutting an Army base in Alaska.
“Russia is the only country on earth that contains a nuclear capability that could destroy the United States,” Gen. Milley told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing to consider his nomination to serve as the next Army chief of staff. “It’s an existential threat to the United States, so it has capability. Intent, I don’t know; but the activity of Russia since 2008 has been very, very aggressive.”
Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in February 2014, annexing the Ukrainian territory as part of Russia, and have supported ethnic-Russian rebels in the eastern part of its neighbor. Other spheres in which Russians have acted aggressively include their jets approaching other nations’ airspace and buzzing U.S. planes and ships in acts the Pentagon called “provocative and unprofessional.”
Asked about the military’s ability to operate in Europe amid the growing Russian threat, Gen. Milley said he thought the U.S. military needed to increase ground forces on a temporary rotational basis to provide better deterrence.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, criticized the Army for planning to cut thousands of troops from bases in Alaska while naming Russia, also an Arctic nation, as the top threat. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage is expected to lose more than 2,500 troops, a 59 percent decrease in active-duty Army personnel at the base.
“Our most capable Arctic forces, before we even do the analysis, before we do the planning, we’re going to remove the most capable, indeed the most lethal, Arctic warriors that we have,” he said. “It takes a long time to become proficient in the Arctic.”
The cuts to personnel at Army bases in Alaska are part of broader cuts expected to reduce Army end strength by 40,000 troops by the end of fiscal 2018. The reductions are driven by the tight budget environment, officials said.
Mr. Sullivan said the Army should come up with a strategy for the Arctic — something more substantive than the current 13-page plan that he called “a joke” that only mentions Russia in a footnote — before making personnel reductions.
Gen. Milley promised Mr. Sullivan he would finalize an Arctic plan before the Alaska cuts are set to take effect in fiscal 2017.
The military is in the midst of a leadership shake up. New nominees to serve as the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as new leaders of the Navy and Marine Corps are appearing before the Senate committee.
Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, has asked the three nominees who appeared before the committee so far how they would rank the threats to the U.S. All three who have had their confirmation hearings have said Russia poses the greatest threat to America.
“My assessment today is that Russia poses the greatest threat to our national security,” Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month in a hearing to consider his nomination to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”
About 300 U.S. soldiers began training members of the Ukrainian national guard in April and the U.S. has also provided humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians.
Congress authorized the administration to provide lethal aid to Ukraine last year, but President Obama — who ridiculed Republican rival Mitt Romney during a 2012 presidential debate for calling Russia the greatest threat to American security — has declined so far to use that authorization to arm Ukrainians amid Russian claims that U.S. involvement will only escalate the conflict.
Gen. Milley, in his confirmation hearing, said he would support providing defensive lethal aid to Ukraine.
Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the nominee to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, also put Russia at the top of his list of threats. He placed the Islamic State and other al Qaeda-inspired groups at the bottom of the list.
“Right now [the Islamic State] does not present a clear and presence threat to our homeland and to our nation,” he said at his confirmation hearing earlier this month. “It is a threat we must deal with … but it does not threaten us at home.”
Gen. Milley named other top threats as China, North Korea, the Islamic State and Iran, but did not place them in a specific order.