Dempsey’s Next Mission: Balance U.S. Ambition, Ability

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has identified four priorities for his second-term with one purpose: reconcile U.S. ambitions with the Pentagon’s abilities. By Kevin Baron

As he nears the end of his first two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- and his nearly 40-year career in uniform -- sources close to Gen. Martin Dempsey insist that he enters Thursday’s Senate confirmation hearing feeling freer to lean forward and speak up with a new warning: the U.S. must balance its global ambition with reality.

Dempsey, President Barack Obama’s senior military advisor, heads to Capitol Hill 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 with which to attack them. 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 and more public levels and all while the president orders the Afghanistan war to an eventual close.

Senior military officials close to Dempsey expect to hear the chairman, in his second term, say more and more that he is wary about whether the military can meet the missions some may have in mind for them. “We risk strategic insolvency,” a senior military official close to the chairman 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. It’s usually a conversation non-starter.

So, if in addition to the current threat list the U.S. is going to consider any new military interventions, Dempsey’s pervasive concern is that the U.S. 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 described to Defense One as: strategy, force, people and relationships. In the near term, as described, 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 call for higher priority on defending the United States against retaliatory cyber terrorism and missile attacks. Increasingly, officials said, Pentagon strategists worry not enough attention is being given to this emerging threat. When the U.S. went into Iraq a decade ago, there was little threat to Americans back home. But if the U.S. were to get into a fight with Iran or North Korea, Americans could be at risk of retaliatory attacks, including direct missile strikes, as soon as five years from now.

Elsewhere, Dempsey remains concerned about readiness and balance within the armed forces, the officials said. 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 giving the brass permission to cut any of those. Meanwhile, the Defense Department has met sequestration demands with furloughs and some other measures, but has not yet hit big-ticket weapons programs. Exercises have been cancelled which commanders warn will put troops lives at risk and hurt the military’s ability to recruit and retain top talent.

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

On top of it all, Dempsey continues the task of building military-to-military relationships around the globe. It’s a task for any Joint Chiefs chairman, but one with a higher priority for new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who before and since taking office this year said he puts high-emphasis on alliances.

Left to be seen is how much Dempsey is able to control any of it. With Republicans and Democrats offering no clear budgetary solution despite endless warnings from top brass that their impasse harms national security, and the entire defense community seemingly clamoring to be written into the Quadrennial Defense Review, the chairman may have to pipe up and do a lot more explaining -- and convincing -- why the U.S. needs to check any of its ambition at the door. 

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