The New Chiefs in Town


On July 9, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for General Joseph Dunford, who has been nominated to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dunford’s hearing should not be contentious, but it will mark the beginning of a little-noticed but incredibly significant change: the impending and near-total departure of the nation’s senior military team.

Between now and the end of September, five of the seven four-star service and joint chiefs will step down from their positions and be replaced by new leaders. The chiefs of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps will exit in September along with both the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By the same time next year, the chiefs of the Air Force and National Guard Bureau will depart as well, and the nation’s entire four-star military leadership in Washington will be made up of entirely new faces.

This will be the first time in 32 years that all of the chiefs will have departed within a 12-month period, and only the fourth time since the Department of Defense was founded in 1947.* Six of the seven departing chiefs will have been at the helm of their respective organizations for four years. (Dunford is the exception that proves the rule: He served for less than a year as commandant of the Marine Corps before being nominated to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) Since most service chiefs serve four-year terms, and most chairmen and vice chairmen serve two consecutive two-year terms, these new chiefs will likely constitute the nation’s top military team through the summer of 2019 — about 2 1/2 years into the next presidential administration. The decisions they make during their tenures will shape the nation’s military for many years to come.

The demands facing this new team will be markedly different from those that faced the past four sets of chiefs, dating back to 2001. By necessity, the first three sets of those chiefs focused on fighting large, long, and complex land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current chiefs have been transitional leaders in many ways, dealing with the muddled ends of these major wars while also beginning to wrestle with today’s unexpected new challenges from the rise of the so-called Islamic State to a resurgent Russia. By contrast, the incoming chiefs will start their terms in a new strategic era that has moved beyond the 9/11 wars. They will need a fresh approach that is much more focused on the future, while continuing to deal with the ever-changing crises of today.

The new chiefs will have to address three main challenges, which will pose competing demands on their time, energy, and resources.

First, they will face the challenge of today’s world and today’s fights. These include battling the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East; contending with Russian aggression in Eastern Europe; continuing the embattled drawdown in Afghanistan; and dealing with increased Chinese assertiveness in the Western Pacific. The new chiefs will also have to manage a wider set of lesser challenges as well as any unforeseen crises that erupt. In many cases, cyber warfare and threats from non-state actors will be greater concerns than traditional interstate violence.

The next chiefs will have to deal with these evolving global disputes while maintaining readiness during the ongoing drawdown. Having forces ready to successfully prevail in today’s fights will be their primary daily concern, as it has been for the chiefs before them. Even a shrinking military with tight budgets must remain ready to respond not only to ongoing threats such as the Islamic State, but also to react quickly and decisively to unexpected crises such as a North Korean attack, a naval confrontation in the Western Pacific, or a major terrorist incident. The chiefs will have to find ways to carve out unnecessary overhead and non-combat functions to focus scarce dollars on funding flying hours, steaming days, and live-fire training.

They will also face significant budget constraints that will require very difficult strategic choices. The defense budget — already constrained by the 10-year budget caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act — is now being consumed by costs that contribute little to actual military capabilities. Military buying power is shrinking, largely driven by the ever-escalating costs of military pay, benefits, and healthcare. Overhead from excess military bases, large civilian and military staffs, and waste in failed weapons procurement have also deeply eroded available dollars for both force structure and readiness. The new chiefs will have to work with Congress to mitigate if not reverse these damaging trends. Wringing the most military capability out of tighter budgets will also require rethinking roles and missions — especially the relationship between active and reserve forces.

Second, the new chiefs will have to shape the force for the wars of tomorrow. Their decisions about personnel, acquisitions, and force structure will set the foundations for what kind of military the United States fields for decades to come.

They must ensure that the military remains able to recruit and retain America’s best and brightest into the all-volunteer force. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s Force of the Future initiative promises significant — perhaps even revolutionary — changes in the military personnel system, and the new chiefs will be responsible for successfully implementing those changes. They will also need to think more broadly about who can serve in the military and whether all members of each service should have to meet the same requirements. Cyber warriors, for example, may not need the same entry-level training or physical attributes as infantrymen.

The new chiefs will make crucial acquisition decisions under tight budget constraints that will determine much of America’s military capabilities 10, 20, and even 30 years from now. Before making decisions about individual weapons systems, they must first determine the best strategic investments for the force as a whole — such as finding the right balance among future land, air and sea power capabilities; how much to invest in advancing space and cyber; and how deeply to back unproven but potentially revolutionary technologies to win the wars of the future.

The decisions of the new chiefs about force structure will shape future U.S. military capabilities just as much, if not more than, their acquisition decisions. These decisions will determine what kind of military the United States will field: how many and what types of ships, the number of tank battalions or infantry brigades, and the size and number of fighter, bomber and transport squadrons, for example. These choices are ultimately all about tradeoffs, with each service inevitably arguing for a greater share of the defense budget pie. These arguments are informed by how each service views the nature of future war and levels of risk. The next chiefs will have to reach consensus on the most fundamental questions: What kind of wars should the United States be most prepared to wage, with what type of capabilities, and where can the nation take acceptable risk?

Third, the new chiefs will need to bridge the civil-military divide. One of their foremost roles and responsibilities is to communicate with and advise their civilian leaders by explaining complex military options and levels of risk clearly and effectively. To do so, the new chiefs — especially the chairman — will have to establish trust with civilian elected leaders on the Hill and in the White House, and with the senior members of the national security policymaking team. Building trust and confidence between those who hail from the vastly different galaxies from which we draw our civilian and military leaders is no small task. And the next chiefs will have to navigate that complex path through two different administrations and three different U.S. Congresses.

The chiefs will also have to take on the challenge of re-connecting the U.S. military and the American people after over 15 years of war. Americans largely lionize and revere their military today, but that supportive connection between soldier and citizen may fade with the headlines. Moreover, the U.S. military may risk looking less and less like the population it serves — more rural, white, conservative, and male than the general population. The new chiefs need ensure the nation and its military do not grow too far apart, an outcome that would be deeply unhealthy for both. (We will discuss this issue of civil-military relations at greater length in our column next month.)

The new chiefs are coming to town at a major strategic juncture for the United States. The world is rapidly changing, and the power of the United States is increasingly being challenged around the world. Yet they must exhibit far-sighted leadership while simultaneously addressing today’s challenges. They must quickly begin to take steps to re-shape today’s combat-experienced military toward a different future — one marked by fast-moving global change, exploding technology, and new threats. At the same time, they must rapidly become trusted advisors to the nation’s civilian leadership by clearly imparting sound military judgment about risk and options while building confidence in their apolitical role. The next chiefs have a daunting set of tasks, and their decisions will shape the U.S. military, for better or worse, for decades to come.


* The previous three times were June 29, 1974 – July 1, 1975; June 21, 1978 – July 1, 1979; and June 18, 1982 – July 1, 1983. At those times, however, there were only five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the position of vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff was not established until the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, and the chief of the National Guard Bureau became a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a result of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.