By Kathleen H. Hicks
May 5, 2015
General Joseph Dunford, nominated today by President Obama as the 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the odds-on favorite to succeed General Martin Dempsey. The leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee is already sending strong positive signals about his prospects for confirmation, but the hearing process is likely one of the easiest aspects of accepting the President’s call to duty. Indeed, the next two to four years portend an extremely challenging agenda for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Three broad priorities that will shape General Dunford’s legacy and success as the principal military adviser to the Secretary of Defense and the President—both those in office today and those in office beginning January 20, 2017—are framing the nature of the global security landscape and the U.S. military role within it, advocating for the level of resources and military forces necessary to sustain that approach, and setting the long-term trajectory for the force attributes, capabilities, and ethos needed to maintain the world’s best military.
The international system is shifting in ways not yet fully understood. The well-worn frameworks of “post–Cold War era,” “strategic pause,” or even “the Global War on Terror” are no longer helpful in defining the world we live in or can expect in the future. Indeed, no single, compelling frame may exist that could capture the complexity and breadth of challenges we face. From the role of states such as China and India, the expanding geographic reach of militant Islamist ideology, shifting alignments and order in the Middle East, and the seeming increase in “gray area” provocations short of traditional war from Russia, China, and Iran, many Americans are at a loss to describe what is happening and what the United States can or should do.
The President has an array of advisers to assist him or her in understanding the security environment. Historically, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has maintained a particularly strong interest in assessing the range of trends and events that shape the global landscape and leveraged this depth of attention to exert a powerful role in identifying priority opportunities and threats and communicating those to elected officials, the American public, and audiences abroad. Discerning the shifting nature of the international system, and designing an effective set of U.S. security tools within it, are monumental tasks, but they are not unprecedented. It is the same task that faced the so-called “wise men” who helped shape the U.S. approach to world affairs at the end of World War II. Our circumstances today are likewise daunting, requiring a similarly disruptive reexamination of the world and our strategies and capabilities for securing U.S. interests in it. General Dunford should continue his predecessors’ legacy of apolitical leadership in this space. As in all forecasting, this should be done with the humility to know that we are nearly always wrong on the specifics, to paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but with the conviction to believe that we can be better prepared for a broader range of futures by taking the time to examine the underlying dynamics underway in the worlds of technology, resources, geopolitics, and culture and finding ways to adapt to them. Most selfishly for the Chairman, by continuing an emphasis in this space, he can best promote a consensus understanding of the U.S. military’s role and purpose in the current environment and in the future. After all, perhaps the most sacred responsibility for any Chairman is to advise the Secretary of Defense and President on when U.S. forces should be put into harm’s way to protect the nation’s interests.
The next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs also has a vital role to play in advocating for defense needs—and even broader national security requirements—in the federal budget. It is simply a fact that many members of Congress will pay more heed to readiness concerns raised by senior military leaders than by civilian leaders. General Dunford will need to be front and center in the debate over the effects of sequestration-level spending on the military’s ability to play its role in protecting and advancing U.S. interests in the world. Righteous indignation over the sequestration mechanism has given way over the past two years to a general resignation about the seemingly unresolvable political impasse in which the defense budget is ensnared. General Dunford should serve as a pivotal voice of reason in this debate. Disturbingly, he will be advantaged in making a case for easing cuts on defense spending by the increasing visibility of the Budget Control Act’s effects on readiness, which, as in all downturns, has lagged actual cuts by several years. As ships are unavailable to deploy to Asia or the Middle East, Army units are pulled back from Europe, and the Air Force copes with fewer trained pilots than required, the Chairman can press lawmakers and the White House to either bring means into alignment with ends or propose a re-examination of ends to align with the more limited means available for defense.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of any Chairman is in helping guide the design of the future force. General Dunford’s tenure will come at a time when truly historic adjustments to the force are likely. Driven by the cross-currents of an increasingly complex security environment, changing cultural, technological, and demographic factors, and the decreasing availability of defense dollars, new forms of operational art and 21st century business processes will be needed. Of note, by the end of two back-to-back two-year appointments as Chairman, the United States is likely to have a force that is more demographically diverse than at any time in history, including women in combat roles, an entire new generation of service members who never served under “Don’t ask/Don’t tell” policies, and a breadth of ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds beyond that of any other organization in the United States.
Here General Dunford’s tenure as a service chief will likely translate most clearly into the Chairman’s position. At a joint level, General Dunford will need to advise the Secretary of Defense on many difficult tradeoffs that build on the strengths the U.S. military possesses while adapting it to the future it faces. Some of the areas of likely emphasis will be attracting and retaining a quality force in depth—active and reserve components—that is the best in the world on issues ranging from managing the nuclear deterrent to combined combat operations to cyber security to manned and unmanned systems operators to population-centered operations. It will also mean maintaining discipline in the force to respect the role of civilian leadership, adhere to the strongest ethics of military professionalism and personal integrity, and encourage a culture of innovation and adaptation.
Come January 21, 2017, General Dunford is likely to be one of the few senior officials in the United States Government still serving. As such, he has the somewhat unique opportunity to look beyond the political horizons that tend to consume most of Washington. A mark of his success in doing so will be the extent to which his independent, apolitical military judgement—drawn from consultation with the Service Chiefs and Combatant Commanders, as well as civilian leaders in the Pentagon and White House and on Capitol Hill—helps define our understanding of the security landscape and the military strategy and forces we need to succeed within it.