Fighting Joe Dunford’s World


Next week, Marine General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Dunford will take over as the 19th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dunford will be only the second marine to hold the job, replacing Army General Martin Dempsey who has held the position for the past four years. As the nation’s senior-most uniformed officer and principal military advisor to the president, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs oversees a domain that includes virtually every imaginable global threat and national security problem. Dunford will inherit many of the challenges that Dempsey faced, as well as unforeseen crises and challenges that will inevitably arise. He will take charge of a military struggling to transition from two prolonged land wars that must become adaptable enough for a very different future.

One of Dunford’s most important responsibilities will be to provide advice to the president and to other decision makers on how to respond to today’s wars and smoldering conflicts. The range of challenges is vast – including combating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, pushing back against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, dealing with an ever more assertive China in the Western Pacific, and determining the residual U.S. force size in Afghanistan after 2016. Here Dunford will be at his strongest. He understands the limits of military power and can offer sound counsel on the seemingly implacable conflicts of the Middle East, suggest ways to rebuild confidence in the NATO alliance in the face of Russia, persist in pressing America’s case by reaching out to friends and allies in the Pacific, and continue to shape the ever-changing global fight against non-state actors targeting the U.S. interests at home and abroad.

Dunford will also have to prepare the military for a wide range of non-traditional future threats – including shadowy cyber attacks on the United States, terrorists seeking to strike the homeland, hybrid warfare in gray zones, and the disruptive effects of climate change, mass migration, and demographic shifts. He will have to wrestle with the resurgence of high-end nation state threats – countries equipped with weaponry that may be equally or more sophisticated than that found in the U.S. arsenal. He may also have to rethink the relative importance of regions – Asia, the Middle East, Europe, the Arctic, and beyond – and consider how to balance the growing military demands of space and cyber with those of land, sea, and air. And he must imagine things that are currently unimaginable – for example, corruption of the entire panoply of U.S. computer-based networks and systems reliant on chips that may be unreliable or worse in the next big conflict. He must critically assess the current vulnerabilities of the U.S. military – and shore them up to avoid the potential of catastrophic defeat. None of the counters to these emerging threats will be cheap, easy, or popular. But all will now fall under his purview to envision, evaluate, and mobilize action when required.

He will also face many challenges inside Washington. October 1 marks the beginning of Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 and the onset of mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration for the U.S. military and rest of the federal government. All indications suggest that Congress will once again fail to pass a defense budget by that date, which means that the Department of Defense (DOD) will be funded through continuing resolutions (CR) for some if not many months. But a more intractable problem is that the budget caps established by the 2011 Budget Control Act limit the defense budget for FY 2016 to $499 billion. Many members of Congress support increasing the defense budget, but they cannot do so without also increasing domestic spending. Since Congress remains deeply divided over both of these issues, it seems likely that the caps will remain in place. Congress may well appropriate extra funds for the Department of Defense through the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, but that will not be sufficient to offset the caps on the base budget.

Dempsey was spared some of the pain of the budget caps for the past two years thanks to the Ryan-Murray budget deal that restored $22.4 billion to the defense budget in FY 2014 and $9.4 billion in FY 2015. But even so, the budget caps forced deep cuts to service readiness – the ability to respond to today’s crises and conflicts. The challenge facing Dunford may be even greater this time around because the effects of the cuts can be cumulative – digging an ever-deeper hole. Air Force flying hours, Navy sailing days, Marine Corps availability for crisis response, and Army training and modernization will all continue to be cut back.

As Dunford settles into his new position, he will also have to shed the cloak of being a single service chief. The transition from focusing on the needs of one service to balancing the requirements of all is one that many new chairmen must make. During his short year as commandant of the Marine Corps, Dunford’s top priority was maintaining the combat readiness of his small service – often referred to as “America’s 911 force.” As chairman, he will have to take a much broader perspective on the current and future needs of the U.S. military as a whole. Given tight budgets, he will have to oversee tough tradeoffs both within and among the military services. He will have to balance the need for the costly near-term readiness necessary to fight today’s wars with the expensive investments that must be made today in order to prepare the military for the unknown wars of tomorrow. And he will also need to weigh the hard combat lessons of his recent first-hand experience in Iraq and Afghanistan with the recognition that he must prepare the force to fight vastly different and potentially much more dangerous types of wars in the future. Moreover, many of the decisions he and his fellow chiefs will make about hardware, investments, and even personnel management during their terms will continue to shape the force for the next 10, 20, and even 30 years.

Dunford will have to figure out the best ways to reshape the All Volunteer Force (AVF) to fortify its resilience and future viability as it emerges from 14 tough years at war. The nation has changed considerably since the AVF began in 1973 – larger by almost 110 million people, more ethnically and geographically diverse, and now composed increasingly of millennials who have been born since 1980. The lessons of 15 years of war, in concert with a changing U.S. population with different outlooks on military service, suggest that changes are necessary if the AVF is to continue to meet the nation’s current and future military needs. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has made this one of his highest priorities – his Force of the Future initiative is designed to ensure that America’s next military can continue to compete successfully to attract the best and brightest of American talent. Dunford will have to help lead the implementation of this ground-breaking initiative – and since most chairmen serve two 2-year terms, his direct influence will likely extend well beyond Carter’s tenure. The Force of the Future initiative is shaping up to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform a personnel system that remains stubbornly stuck in the industrial era. Carter needs Dunford to help him get this right, and fully marshal the services behind it so that the quality people upon which the U.S. military relies will continue to want to serve in uniform.

Dunford’s new role also places him directly in the public spotlight as the nation’s most visible senior military leader. His speeches, Congressional testimony, press conferences, and interviews all provide him a bully pulpit to communicate – not only to the troops, but to the American people, lawmakers, and senior policymakers. He will have to navigate the yawning civil-military gap between his combat-experienced senior service leaders and the 321 million fellow citizens they serve, most of whom never have heard a shot fired in anger, and many of whom do not even know anyone who has done so. Dunford won plaudits for his performance in Afghanistan for skillfully navigating the political minefields of dealing with civilian leaders during contentious debates on troop strength. His skills in this area will be on demand every day of his tenure.

Dunford’s world requires managing the tempests of today while readying the force for the rising storm clouds of the new and dangerous threats of tomorrow. As chairman, he will have to navigate both of those worlds, and provide thoughtful and farsighted advice both to his bosses and the American people across two different administrations in the next four years. In many ways, he will be the first “postwar” chairman since the 9/11 attacks, one who is not engaged in overseeing hundreds of thousands of American troops committed to fighting large land wars across Iraq and Afghanistan. He must make the shift to fighting new wars and toward wars not yet imagined, and help lead his force in that direction. Whether the U.S. military remains prepared for tomorrow’s world and its unpredictable demands will be greatly shaped by his decisions and those that he directly influences.


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.