General Kurilla to Command CENTCOM
Several months ago, after America’s Kabul failures, we noted that America’s military leadership had virtually no military combat experience. Secretary of Defense Austin had never been in combat during his military career and had served on several staffs. General Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had experienced limited combat in Panama over 30 years ago.
This may be changing. Lieutenant General Michael Kurilla is clearly a warrior who has led his troops in the heat of battle. As an infantry officer, he has fought in the CENTCOM areas of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. In addition to his CENTCOM service, he has served in Panama in a combat role, Haiti, Kosovo-Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He has been the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
He has received two Purple Hearts for receiving combat injuries. He has been awarded a Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor for his life saving actions in 2005 in Mosul, Iraq. Neither the Secretary of Defense nor Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have received these highly regarded medals.
In Mosul, when his troops came under fire, he charged to the front and came under fire. Although he was shot three time (one bullet broke his femur) and was lying in the middle of the street, he continued firing his rifle, while directing his men. His actions saved several seriously injured American soldiers.
A war correspondent at the firefight wrote, “Make no mistake about Kurilla – he is a warrior, always at the front of the charge. But it is that battle-hardened bravery that makes him the kind of leader that Americans admire.”
This event was not a chance happening. Kurilla went on missions nearly every day for that year. That is unusual as field grade officers like Kurilla usually stay at headquarters and rarely go out on combat missions.
After Senate confirmation, he will replace General McKenzie, who is retiring this spring. After his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, he headed to Europe, where he commands the 18th Airborne Corps, which has sent troops to Eastern Europe to counter Russian military movements.
Along current CENTCOM General McKenzie, Kurilla agrees that Iran is the major regional problem as it has attacked US forces in Iraq and Syria. They are also behind other destabilizing activities against US allies in the region.
“They try and hide their behavior and it can cause them not to take action for a period of time,” Kurilla said. “That is my experience when I was at CENTCOM.”
Although he is suspicious of Iran’s activities and noted that US policy is that Iran can’t get a nuclear weapon, he endorsed an “enforceable agreement that limits Tehran’s ability to gain nuclear weapons.”
He warned the Senate committee that easing sanctions against Iran could help fund operations that endanger US forces.
He also wants to publicly share Iranian behavior when the intelligence can be safely exposed.
Kurilla admitted that current airborne surveillance operations over Afghanistan aren’t as effective as hoped because they are launched from a distance, and they spend two-thirds of their time flying to and from Afghanistan.
“It’s resource intensive to do the finding, and then the fixing and finishing of the targets that you are going after,” he said
To improve American intelligence of Afghanistan, Kurilla said he would consider some “case by case” intelligence sharing with the Taliban, if it proved fruitful in targeting ISIS-K, which is a common enemy to both the US and Taliban. He also favored rebuilding “human intelligence capability that was lost during the withdrawal” from Afghanistan.
Kurilla admitted that the US has spent little time tracking the actions of ISIS-K and al Qaeda and he would, if confirmed, look at the best options to keeping them from attacking the American homeland.
Kurilla also stressed alliances with nations in the CENTCOM area. He urged help from nations like Saudi Arabia.
Kurilla noted that CENTCOM is home to nine out of ten most dangerous terrorist organization in the world. He also noted that there are two long running wars in Yemen and Syria.
“I think going through our partners and allies and strengthening those with a united front with all of our partners and allies is the best way to confront them.
Kurilla also sees potential for collective Arab (GCC and Jordan) Israeli air defense. This could include integrating air defense radar systems and even coordinating which nation will launch the air defense missiles.
Kurilla also spoke of the sacrifice made by Americans during the Afghan War. “While we are no longer in Afghanistan, we must honor and acknowledge the sacrifice by more than one million service members.”
What to expect of Kurilla as CENTCOM Commander?
Since both Republican and Democrat senators are praising Kurilla, he is certainly the next CENTCOM commander.
But how will his experience change CENTCOM?
Kurilla has a warrior’s ethic. When new officers came to his command, he would give them the book Gates of Fire, a book about the Battle of Thermopylae where three hundred Spartan warriors held off Persian King Xerxes army of over one million soldiers for six days whole the main Greek Armies mobilized for war. The deaths of those 300 Spartans gave Greece the time to eventually win.
Kurilla ordered his junior officers to read the book.
We can expect Kurilla to make the CENTCOM forces more combat ready and the officer corps to take their responsibilities and combat training seriously.
In addition to going out daily on missions, Kurillla would regularly meet with Iraqi police and army officers and drink coffee in small cafes. He wanted to know what was happening at the local level instead of relying on intelligence reports.
Admittedly, Kurilla will have to meet many military officers and politicians during his time as CENTCOM but, don’t be surprised if he finds a way to meet the other ranks – especially the average American soldier.
As someone who has been in combat and been wounded, he will not be eager to commit his forces to combat unless they are well prepared. He will also carefully plan operations unlike SecDef Austin’s and General Milley’s poor planning in Kabul last August.
Expect him to be aggressive in combat.
Since the commander of CENTCOM is an operational position, if there is any military action in the CENTCOM area, he will be the overall commander of all forces in the area, not just Army forces. In addition, there is no military officer between him and the president of the United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Milley can’t countermand his orders. Only the Secretary of Defense and President can give him orders.
Conversely, Kurilla has no authority regarding diplomacy or relations with other CENTCOM nations. He will meet with leaders of many nations, but anything coming out of those meetings is informal and not necessarily binding or agreeable to the president or State Department.