At the top of the United States military’s vast, global bureaucracy sits the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking military officer and the president’s senior military adviser. The chairman sits between the service chiefs on one side, and the combatant commanders on the other. The chiefs are responsible for developing, training and equipping the armed forces for the future. The commanders are responsible for deploying those forces, and their focus is on the crises of the day. Between them in that “supply and demand” equation sits Gen. Martin Dempsey, mitigating disputes and fashioning trade-offs.
As U.S. combat forces withdraw from Afghanistan this year, the service chiefs are trying to manage a force drawdown as combatant commanders cope with myriad crises. That has made Dempsey’s job one of the most difficult of any chairman of the Joint Chiefs in modern times. Defense One contributor James Kitfield recently discussed those challenges with Dempsey. Edited excerpts follow:
Even before the U.S. has pulled its last combat troops out of Afghanistan, the administration is being criticized for its reluctance to use military force in response to numerous other crises. How do you balance the demands for a U.S. military response with a stressed force and war-weary American public?
Dempsey: When you look at what the military instrument of power can accomplish, it is more effective in dealing with strength-on-strength situations than it is in dealing with strength-on-weakness scenarios. And we’re finding that a weakening of structures and central authority is pervasive in today’s world. The Middle East is a poster child for that dynamic. But if you look at almost any sector of civilization—from international organizations, to big corporations to places of worship—their authority has diminished over the past decade. That has to do with the spread of technology that has made information so ubiquitous. But the result has been a weakened international order. And it’s harder to articulate the proper use of military power in that environment.
How does a weakening international order impact your thinking on the best uses of military power?
Dempsey: It means you have to rebalance the instrument of military power. I would suggest to you that there are basically three ways we can influence the security environment around the world: direct military action, building partnership capacity and enabling other actors. Honestly, this is not magic, and there’s not much more to it than that.
Over the past 10 years we’ve done most of our heavy lifting on the direct action side. Increasingly, we are doing more, however, to build partners so that they can counter threats in their own regions. We are also enabling other nations to act. A good example is the way we’re partnering with the French in Mali [to counter al Qaeda-linked terrorists] in West Africa.
As I look forward and think about the need to rebalance the use of military power, I think we will need less direct action because it is the most costly, disruptive and controversial use of American power. By contrast, we need to do more in terms of building partners.
When talking about the many threats and challenges the U.S. military must respond to, you break them down into a “Two, Two, Two and One” construct. Can you walk us through your thinking?
Dempsey: There are the two heavyweights in Russia and China. There are two middleweights in Iran and North Korea. There are two networks, in terms of al Qaeda and its affiliates. And then there’s the one new domain, which is cyber. All of them require a somewhat different approach. In terms of the two heavyweights, for instance, I’m not predisposed to the idea that our relationship with either Russia or China will inevitably lead to conflict. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that we should be able to chart a path that won’t lead to confrontation. But Russia’s actions in Ukraine are troubling precisely because they are disrupting the international order we ascribe to, which holds that national boundaries are decided through an internal electoral process, and not from the outside.
And your preferred response?
Dempsey: This is a moment for NATO to decide what it intends to be in the future. The NATO alliance has done a great job in partnering with us in Afghanistan. That showed the alliance was willing to look beyond its own borders and become a regional force for good and stability. Now I think the crisis in Ukraine is causing NATO to look back to its own backyard, and forcing it to decide whether it still has the capability and capacity to reassure its member states that the alliance remains credible. The Ukraine crisis is a challenge to the international order, and we should respond to it as part of our NATO alliance.
Are you concerned that the civil war in Syria, which continues to attract thousands of Islamist jihadi fighters, begins to resemble the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s that gave rise to al Qaeda and the Taliban?
Dempsey: There is a historic, sectarian fault line that runs from Beirut, Lebanon, all the way to Baghdad, Iraq. And Syria has become a magnet for militants who want to wage jihad against the West or internally against other Muslims. But I don’t believe the military instrument of power by itself is going to change the fundamental dynamics there. So our approach is to continue to work with regional partners, and to enable those partners by building capacity.
You have issued dire warnings about the impact of budget cuts associated with the sequester spending caps. Are you frustrated that no one seems to be listening?
Dempsey: I’ve discovered that the two hardest words to adequately articulate in my line of work are “risk” and “readiness.”
Risk is hard because the meaning is so dynamic. It’s a combination of capability and intent on the part of those people who would do us ill, and you can measure capability but it’s hard to measure intent.
Readiness is also very dynamic, and it means something different for each service. So when you tie the words “risk” and “readiness” into documents like the Quadrennial Defense Review or the Defense Strategic Guidance, often people will hear what they want to hear.
Do you stand by your statement that U.S. military forces are on a path of decline that, unless reversed, will reach a point where “it would be immoral to use that force”?
Dempsey: The problem is we’re kind of the victims of our own success. Whenever a crisis comes up—whether it’s a humanitarian crisis, disaster relief, or particularly a security threat—we tend to just deal with them. Frankly, that is disguising the suffering our men and women in uniform are enduring from all this uncertainty. How big a force will we be? How ready will we be? Will we have the money necessary to equip and train ourselves properly?
The greatest risk we run as an armed force is uncertainty. That’s not to say I would embrace sequestration spending levels, because I actually believe they will take us to a level that puts the nation at risk. But I do think there is a level of spending between where we are [sequestration spending caps] and where we could do the nation’s bidding. We need budget certainty, flexibility and more time.
How much more time do you need to downsize and reshape U.S. military forces?
Dempsey: We can’t do this one year at a time, or even in five-year increments. If you let us spread this challenge over 10 years, however, with more flexibility and budget certainty, then we can figure it out, and do the things that make us the world’s greatest military. We can reshape the force, recapitalize and modernize its equipment, train it to our former high standards, and also treat the young people who are going to leave the service with dignity and respect. But if we continue down this path of one-year-at-a-time, death-by-a-thousand-cuts budgets, without certainty, flexbility or adequate time, then I worry that we could break this force. Lacking those things, and driven to sequestration spending levels, we will end up with a U.S. military that is both too small and not ready.
Do you feel the stress of so many wartime deployments has taken a toll?
Dempsey: When you visited me in Iraq in 2003-2004, if you had asked me then what would happen if these troops have to do three or four more deployments over the next decade, I would have told you that it would break the force. Forget the costs and even the human dimension of those who wear the uniform, I just didn’t believe that the families could bear up under that kind of pressure. And yet they did. Even today, in some cases soldiers are more worried about not deploying than about having to deploy again. So when you ask me about the health of the all-volunteer force, I can’t answer in any other way than to say they’re magnificent.