Peace with Russia, China ‘Fraying at the Edge,’ Milley Tells Graduating Cadets


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Air Force Academy class of 2021 is graduating into a security environment where the relative peace the United States has held with Russia and China is “fraying at the edge,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told graduating seniors Wednesday.

That peace “is under stress,” Milley said. “We would be wise to lift our gaze from the never-ending urgency of the present to set the conditions for a future that prevents great power war.”

“You can expect to be at the edge many, many times, to make hard choices with imperfect information,” the Army general told the Air Force’s newest officers. “You will have to keep your guard up against the enduring nature of evolving security challenges.”

On Thursday, Milley will join Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Capitol Hill, where they will press the case for the vast modernization both leaders see as necessary to match China’s technological rise.

Milley’s remarks to the Air Force graduates hinted at his concern that retaining existing missions in the interest of meeting current threats will leave the U.S. more vulnerable.

China is expected to surpass U.S. capabilities in artificial intelligence by 2025, according to the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, and is expected to have an equal number of fifth-generation fighters by then as well, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said this week.

“The country that masters new technologies, combines them with doctrine and develops leadership to take advantage of them. The side that does that best will have a decisive advantage at the start of the next war,” Milley told the graduates.

Before Wednesday’s ceremony, some cadets told Defense One that the uncertainty of the year just past had prepared them for their next chapter.

The class of 2021 experienced the full arc of COVID, from initial infections in the U.S. in early 2020 all the way to getting vaccinated this spring.

It culminated Wednesday at Falcon Stadium, where each of the 1,019 graduates was allowed to invite eight guests, a luxury last year’s class did not get after COVID forced the Academy to close and send everyone except the seniors home.

Cadet 1st Class Greg Barry was finishing his junior year when he was sent back to his home to Albuquerque, New Mexico, after COVID broke out.

Barry returned to campus last June. As a senior and a vice cadet wing commander—the roughly 4,200 cadets at the academy are split into wings of 1,000 each—he and others were responsible for guiding the newest arrivals on the traditions there. But nothing about the year was normal.

“It was just uncertainty,” Barry said. “The rules and understandings continually changed. And for us, you know, coming back from all over the nation, I think that was really tough for people to just be thrown into a totally different environment.”

“It was harder to get these freshmen used to the place because, you know, when we have lunch, there's 10 people that sit at a table, and you get to hear from all the upperclassmen about their life, what's going on. And that's kind of how you learned so much about the Academy, from that lunch. So, I think it took people to realize, you know, we need to be creative with how we engage and how we get together.”

The class was also shaped by the domestic turmoil of 2020, from the national anger over the death of George Floyd to the uncertainty created after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Cadet 1st Class Emily Berexa said the past year “showed me what kind of leader I want to be.”

When George Floyd was murdered, they talked about it in class. When the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol occurred, her squadron and classes were encouraged to discuss it, she said.

“It's something I definitely carry with me moving forward, just the ability to have those conversations, whether it is national events or things that are affecting the base or the unit on a smaller scale,” she said.

After graduation, Berexa will attend Oxford University to pursue graduate studies in engineering. Then she will begin pilot training to fly “whatever they give me,” she said.

She said she feels prepared to face an uncertain security environment in her future military career too. As a cadet, she completed the Academy’s jump program, in which “your first skydive is a solo jump,” she said.

“You are learning to face your fears and knowing ‘OK, I'm responsible for making sure I get down to the ground safely,’” Berexa said.

This year’s class was the second to graduate officers directly into the Space Force; 112 are entering the newest military branch, Milley said.

“Twenty years from now, in 2041, many of you will be at the helm of our Joint Force as colonels and brigadier generals,” Milley said. “Do not wait until then to be bold. Innovate. Challenge yourselves to meet the threats that loom on the faraway horizon. Always be ready to deter great power war.”