Army Gen. Mark Milley, a hard-driving armor officer whose overriding concern has been readiness of the force, took the oath Monday as the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, succeeding retiring Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford.
In a drizzly parade ground ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, adjacent to the Pentagon, Milley was sworn in by Dunford as the nation's top uniformed officer and chief military adviser to President Donald Trump.
With Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in attendance, Milley said in brief remarks that all the service branches he will now oversee are prepared to "lay it on the line" to keep America safe.
"In the inevitable dark days ahead, we stand ready to keep the peace and, if necessary, win the war" in the "new era of great power competition now upon us," Milley said.
Trump said that record-setting defense budgets passed in his administration have given Milley a force "stronger than it's ever been by a large factor."
"You're my friend, you're my adviser, you deserve this position," he told Milley, adding that he "never had a doubt" about nominating him for the position.
Milley, known for his blunt and direct manner, pledged to give Trump "informed, candid, [and] impartial military advice."
In his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing in July, Milley said that, as Joint Chiefs chairman, he would not be "intimidated into making stupid decisions" by political pressure.
"I know I have big shoes to fill" in succeeding Dunford, he said, but going forward, "our adversaries should know never to underestimate our skill, our capability and our combat power."
As of Monday, the two top positions in the Defense Department are held by an Army veteran in Defense Secretary Mark Esper and an Army four-star in Milley. Last December, the posts were held by two Marines -- Dunford and then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired general.
In his remarks at the ceremony, Esper, a West Point graduate and retired Army lieutenant colonel, said the nation is "very fortunate to have another great leader" take over from Dunford.
"The president could not have selected a more competent adviser or a more capable soldier to help prepare our military for the challenges of the future," Esper said.
"As one exceptional chairman departs, our nation gains another," Trump said. He turned to Milley and said he had been told that "if it rains on a big occasion, it brings luck, so Mark, I think you're going to be the luckiest general in history."
Milley became Army chief of staff when only two brigade combat teams were rated at "the highest level or readiness," Trump said. "Today, that number stands at 28, an extraordinary achievement."
The 61-year-old Milley, a 39-year veteran, was in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps while earning a political science degree at Princeton University; he also holds a master's degree from Columbia University.
Trump seemed surprised when he read off Milley's education achievements, diverting from his prepared remarks: "Wow, I didn't know you were such a great academic."
As chairman, Milley will preside over new lineups among the Joint Chiefs and the unified combatant commands.
Gen. James McConville is now Army chief of staff; Adm. Michael Gilday is chief of naval operations; and Gen. David Berger is Marine commandant.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, who had been considered one of the front-runners for chairman, is expected to retire next year.
Among the combatant commands, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie is now head of Central Command; Army Gen. Richard Clarke heads U.S. Special Operations Command; and Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters heads European Command.
Milley takes over as chairman with a mandate to shift the military to great power competition with Russia and China under the National Defense Strategy formulated by Mattis, even as the counterinsurgency wars of the Mideast and Africa show no signs of abating and the crisis with Iran has forced another U.S. military buildup in the region.
However, at the ceremony, Trump again said that the Islamic State in Syria has been "100% obliterated," although Pentagon officials have repeatedly warned of a persistent ISIS presence in Iraq and Syria.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.