Serving in Washington in any capacity can be a daunting task and not one for the faint of heart. And then there is the politispeak. The old “Potomac Two-Step” politicians are quite adept at sidestepping questions and then redirecting them to speak at length without ever really answering the question. In most cases, the media doesn’t mind or even call them on it.
But occasionally, there come along certain individuals who are generally outsiders to the Beltway and can be plain-speaking, blunt… and refreshingly honest. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ticked off Congress when he famously said, “I don’t have time for Congress.” That little statement nearly caused Senator John McCain to have a stroke, but eventually, Mattis got better at communicating with lawmakers — although he probably never completely warmed to the task.
But Joe Biden’s nominee for defense secretary, retired General Lloyd Austin III could do worse than take some notes from how Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller has handled the job. There are times when the political double-speak is needed, even preferable. But sometimes there are instances when, as Dr. Jeffrey Pelt said in the “Hunt for Red October,” we have to dispense with the bull.
Miller has only been on the job for about two months, since former Secretary Mark Esper was fired, but has already had enough memorable quotes to fill an entire term of service.
Miller was a Special Forces officer who was among the first SF troops on the ground in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. He is a shoot-from-the-hip, no-nonsense kind of guy who can speak to politicians. Yet, he has the knack of speaking clearly so that the meaning of what he is saying is never lost in translation. Such clarity is refreshing.
Miller spoke about the switch in Afghanistan from a SOF war to what he called the “Big Army” move toward nation-building.
“I thought special operations and irregular warfare capability should have stayed in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the decision was made to do that. It should have been big Army, big Air Force… and I think we probably would have had a little different outcome in Afghanistan if we would have done — maintained what we were doing then and are doing now,” Miller said.
Just before Christmas, Miller made a surprise visit to Camp Morehead in Afghanistan. The camp is where the American SOF troops train the Afghan commandos who are key in the fight against the Taliban. The visit was particularly important given the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.
“I went there on purpose because I’m going to get the real deal from these guys. And their smart-ass comments and their insights led me to the conclusion we’re in a good place,” Miller said in an interview with Stars and Stripes.
After the fiasco of the January 6 events, Miller came under fire for the slow deployment of National Guard troops to the Capitol. Whether or not those criticisms can be laid at Miller’s feet or the overly complicated process that is required for the troops to be deployed is debatable. But rather than giving the standard response, Miller was blunt.
“The same people that morning that were concerned I was going to be a part of some military coup to overthrow the republic based on the fact ‘if there are military people on the streets can you imagine what signal that would send to America,’ the same people who did that day were, by the end of the day, begging for armed soldiers in the Capitol.”
Further, Miller has been quite blunt on how Pentagon’s mindset on item procurement needs to change from its Cold War mindset.
“I know we had that period, but big, big units, big high-dollar weapons systems, you know, just this huge enormous complex… I still think we have a hangover on a lot of that… high-tech, very expensive weapons systems, he said to an assembled group of reporters aboard a Defense Department aircraft recently. And we need to go smaller, swarmy, mass over — quantity over quality, in some cases. That was my thinking.”
Miller once had a conversation with an Air Force pilot. The conversation went like this:
“Talk about a wicked problem,” the pilot started.
“I gotta tell you, yesterday we were talking to some guy, some lieutenant colonel, or colonel. I said, ‘What are you flying?'” Miller said. “He said ‘F-35.’ I was like, ‘That’s a piece of …'”
Miller explained that the pilot went on to describe the F-35 as an “unbelievable aircraft,” as have other pilots who have flown it. Miller, however, remains convinced that it is a throwback to the Cold War and Pentagon’s backward behavior.
Miller isn’t alone in that aspect. Another former defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, described the F-35 aircraft as “awesome,” but that the program is “f—ed up.”
With President-elect Biden’s inauguration tomorrow, Miller said, “[I] cannot wait to leave this job. Believe me,” according to a transcript of a statement released by the Pentagon late last week.
Miller also went against conventional thinking which says that China is the biggest threat facing the U.S. When asked what the biggest threat facing the U.S. in the foreseeable future is, he was predictably direct.
“What do I think? I think it’s changing our mindset that is focused on… Everybody says, ‘Oh, all we’ve been focusing on is counter violent extremism, and the Chinese stole a march on us.’ … Historians will figure that one out… I think it’s not accurate.”
Miller’s time is at an end, but Austin (if he is indeed confirmed) should take notes. Sometimes one has to tell it like it is.