When the email inboxes of every airman with Air Mobility Command pinged on Thursday afternoon with a lengthy memo from their commanding officer, Gen. Mike Minihan, many recipients thought it was sent as a mistake.
"I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025," one part of Minihan's memo, dated Feb. 1, read. Another section instructed airmen with weapons qualifications to "fire a clip into a 7-meter target with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most. Aim for the head." He also advised airmen to update their virtual Record of Emergency Data, essentially their dependents' contact information and wills.
Some were shocked at what they read: Their commander confidently believed that they'd be at war with China in two years and they needed to prepare for combat.
An Air Force officer with Air Mobility Command who received the email and attached memo, and who spoke to Military.com on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said the communication sparked immediate concern.
"Some of my airmen are going to get scared when they read this memo," the officer said. "I felt like a random email blast to thousands of airmen was an inappropriate way to direct them to essentially prepare for war with a near-peer adversary."
Minihan, a four-star general who has led Air Mobility Command since 2021, has been known for his loud, proud and high-energy public persona. While some lawmakers have praised his comments, the memo was seen as a step too far by some airmen who serve under him at Air Mobility Command, and his speculative timeline for conflict with China has been deemed dangerous by national security experts.
Department of the Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said the service didn't have any comment on the situation, adding that Air Mobility Command confirmed the widely circulated memo as being authentic.
In particular, the section advising airmen to "fire a clip" and "aim for the head" was widely criticized by airmen.
One Air Force C-17 Globemaster III pilot under Air Mobility Command, or AMC, who spoke to Military.com under condition of anonymity because they're not authorized to speak to the media, said Minihan's comments were unrealistic.
"I am not aware of a single incident where an aircrew member has shot someone in the head," the pilot told Military.com. "His direction completely misses the mark. AMC moves cargo; we are not SEAL Team 6."
The Air Mobility Command officer who voiced concern that the memo would alarm airmen under their command said fellow airmen noticed Minihan's use of "clip" instead of the proper term, a magazine, was "inaccurate" and that the advice to "aim for the head" was seen as "dramatic."
Additionally, marksmanship training in the military does not typically teach service members to aim for the head in combat but, rather, to aim for the center mass of a target to increase the chances of landing a shot.
"Someone sarcastically joked, 'Aim for the head. Spoken like a true marksman!'" the officer recalled.
Minihan speculated that presidential elections in Taiwan and the United States in 2024 would provide the impetus for China's military to strike.
"[Chinese President Xi Jinping] secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022," the memo read. "Taiwan's presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States' presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi's team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025."
Some lawmakers, namely Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., praised Minihan's comments.
"The U.S. military must be ready and able to respond at anytime to growing Chinese aggression," Cotton tweeted Jan. 28. "Gen. Mike Minihan has the correct mentality -- our bureaucracy needs to catch up."
But the Pentagon has since been clarifying and backing away from Minihan's position that conflict is looming in 2025.
"These comments are not representative of the department's views on China," one defense official told Military.com in an emailed statement.
Additionally, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said that diplomacy is still the preferred path.
"The National Defense Strategy makes clear that China is the pacing challenge for the Department of Defense, and our focus remains on working alongside allies and partners to preserve a peaceful, free and open Indo-Pacific," Ryder said in an emailed statement.
Minihan's style of pugilistic rhetoric was most recently on display at the Air Force Association's Air, Space & Cyber Conference this past September. During a speech titled "The Mobility Manifesto," he shouted parts of his remarks.
"Lethality matters most," Minihan said. "When you can kill your enemy, every part of your life is better. Your food tastes better, your marriage is stronger." He later added, "We are lethal. Do not apologize for it. The pile of our nation's enemy dead, the pile that is the biggest is in front of the United States Air Force."
Minihan, notably, is not the first high-ranking military official in recent years to publicly speculate that a conflict with China is on the horizon.
Navy Adm. Philip Davidson, then the 25th commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a March 2021 hearing that China could invade Taiwan "this decade -- in fact, in the next six years." He retired later that year.
This past October, Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, told attendees at a virtual Atlantic Council event of Davidson's prediction of a 2027 window, "In my mind, that has to be a 2022 window or potentially a 2023 window."
Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies, told reporters during a press briefing Monday that Minihan's comments, as well as those from other officers, only confuse and stoke tensions with China unnecessarily.
"What we're effectively signaling is we have no idea, and I'm not sure we understand just how damaging that is," Blanchette said. "But now having this menu option of various years, depending on the official that you're talking to, I think comes across as undermining the credibility of our statements and our assessments on precisely the relationship where your words matter."
It is not yet clear what, if any, repercussions Minihan will face for the language used in his memo.
Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also told reporters that there's no benefit in saying a conflict could occur.
"I really think that those comments by the general are not consistent with the range of possible outcomes," Kennedy said. "And I think we are seemingly trying to talk ourselves into a conflict that doesn't need to occur."
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.