Ambition vs. Ability

Defense Department

After his first two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey is feeling freer to lean forward and speak up with a new warning: the United States must balance its global ambition with reality.

Dempsey, President Obama’s senior military adviser, is tasked with confronting a set of global problems that seems only to have grown since he took office two summers ago, but with fewer dollars, troops and weapons. As Washington imploded into budgetary hysteria over a defense spending slowdown and mandatory sequester cuts, the Middle East exploded with pro-democracy movements toppling and threatening decades-old dictatorships; U.S. troops chased al Qaeda and other terrorist groups spreading across the region and North Africa; North Korea threatened nuclear war, resulting in a massive and costly U.S. show of force from Alaska to Guam; cyber warfare has reached alarming levels; and all while the president ordered the Afghanistan war to an eventual close. 

Senior military officials say Dempsey say is wary about whether the military can meet the missions some have in mind. “We risk strategic insolvency,” a senior military official told Defense One. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile our ambitions with our abilities.”

It’s not a new concern for Dempsey, whose career is heavily influenced by the experience in Iraq—an invasion with what proved an inadequate follow-on plan for occupying and running the country. He has consistently cautioned that before he would recommend military intervention in Syria he wants to hear Washington’s plan for what happens next. 

So, if in addition to the current threat list the United States is going to consider any new military interventions, Dempsey’s pervasive concern is that the United States must carefully assess both how it can afford to enter new conflicts and stay in them—a calculation that includes both fiscal and strategic costs.

It’s a part of four priorities Dempsey is expected to outline during his next term, which officials describe as strategy, force, people and relationships. In the near term, Dempsey is expected to remain focused on balancing U.S. strategy with resources, which includes “finishing strong” in Afghanistan and staying ready on the North Korean peninsula and in the Persian Gulf near Iran.

Dempsey also is expected to place a higher priority on defending the United States against retaliatory cyber terrorism and missile attacks. Increasingly, Pentagon strategists worry not enough attention is being given to this emerging threat. 

Elsewhere, Dempsey remains concerned about readiness and balance. Troops already are under pressure from ballooning health care costs and a political fight to slow spending and trim infrastructure, but Congress has shown little taste for cutting any of those. Meanwhile, the Defense Department has met sequestration demands with civilian furloughs and other measures, but has not yet hit big ticket weapons programs. Exercises have been canceled, which commanders warn will put troops’ lives at risk and hurt the military’s ability to recruit top talent.

Dempsey also faces ethical problems in the ranks, beginning with sexual assault, while trying to normalize major social shifts made with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which affects military benefits; and the move to open combat to more women.

On top of it all, Dempsey continues the task of building military-to-military relationships around the globe. 

With lawmakers offering no clear budgetary solution—despite warnings from top brass that their impasse harms national security—and with the entire defense community clamoring to be written into the Quadrennial Defense Review, the chairman may have to do a lot more explaining why the United States needs to check any of its ambition at the door. 

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