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 in the land and the president’s senior military advisor. The chairman sits between the four-star service chiefs on one side, and the four-star 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 application of military power to mitigate crises of the day. Between them in that “supply and demand” equation sits Gen. Martin Dempsey mitigating disputes and fashioning tradeoffs.
As U.S. combat forces withdraw from Afghanistan this year, the service chiefs are trying to manage a force drawdown across the military as combatant commanders cope with myriad crises and an unstable world. 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 from their interview follow:
Defense One: Even before the U.S. has pulled its last combat troops out of Afghanistan, the administration is being widely criticized for its reluctance to use military force in response to numerous other crises. How do you balance the frequent demands for a U.S. military response with a stressed force and war-weary American public?
Dempsey: Well, I’m going to get a little philosophic with you here, but when you look at what the military instrument of power can accomplish, it is actually 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 in today’s world. But the result has been a weakened international order. And frankly, it’s harder to articulate the proper use of military power in that environment as opposed to a world with stronger centers of authority.
Defense One: How does a weakening international order impact your thinking on the best uses of military power?
Dempsey: Well, 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. I’m a huge advocate of doubling or even tripling our effort to build credible partners around the globe. And I’m also a huge advocate of enabling others who have the will, but perhaps not the capability to act.
Defense One: When talking about the many challenges and threats 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: Well, 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 and borders are decided through an internal electoral process, and not from the outside.
Defense One: And your preferred response?
Dempsey: My personal view is that this is a moment for NATO to decide what it intends to be in the future. You know, 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 – especially those Eastern countries that embraced NATO as it enlarged in the 1990s – that the alliance remains credible. So the Ukraine crisis is a challenge to the international order, and we should respond to it as part of our NATO alliance.
Defense One: Doesn’t NATO need to rediscover its old Cold War mission of deterrence?
Dempsey: That’s exactly right. But back to my “Two, Two, Two and One,” construct, deterrence has a somewhat different meaning in each case. With the two heavyweights Russia and China, that’s clear state-on-state deterrence. With the middleweights like Iran and North Korea, deterrence takes on a different role, because they can be less predictable and more roguish. And when you’re talking about networks like al-Qaeda and its affiliates, I’m not sure you can deter a network – I think you just have to defeat it. But to your point about NATO and Russia, when you’re talking about an alliance of nations and state actors, in that case I think we do need to revisit what it means to “deter.”
Defense One: Some experts believe China’s dispute with Japan and other neighbors over contested islands has produced the most volatile situation in Asia in many years. Are you worried that a miscalculation could draw U.S. forces into a confrontation with China on behalf of our treaty ally Japan?
Dempsey: Well, certainly the potential for miscalculation concerns me. I don’t think China or any of our Asia-Pacific partners seek confrontation, but the more they feel a need to assert their territorial claims, the greater the risk of miscalculation. So we spend a lot of time trying to put in place codes of conduct and accepted rules of behavior so that when our forces do interact the possibility for miscalculation is limited. The challenge is this patchwork quilt of issues that exist in the Asia-Pacific region, and the historic animosities that underpin them.
For instance, we just recently saw China confiscate a Japanese vessel as compensation for a World War II debt. In the United States, we may not think that anyone in the 21st century still thinks in those terms, but in Asia some of these animosities are as real today as they were many decades ago. Secondly, you also have the dynamic of a China that’s rising in the international order, and Chinese leaders may not feel that they’ve had a sufficient voice in establishing that order.
Defense One: Is the relationship you describe with a rising China as tricky as it sounds?
Dempsey: I’ll give you an example of how we deal with it on a military-to-military basis. When I visited China last year it was in the afterglow of the meeting between President Xi [Jinping] and President Obama, when both leaders expressed a fundamental desire to establish a new relationship. When I met with my Chinese military counterparts they said, ‘This is great, we’re going to take a blank sheet of paper and build a new relationship.’ And I replied, ‘Well, not so fast.’ It just so happens we’ve already got some writing on our paper, so it’s not blank. For starters, we’ve got historic relationships with the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Japan and Australia. And I said, ‘Surely you wouldn’t ask us to ignore those relationships?’ Well, of course they’d love for us to ignore them! [laughter] But the point is the United States doesn’t have a blank sheet of paper in the Asia-Pacific region, and that means we have to stay engaged and keep managing all of these complicated relationships and this patchwork of issues.
Defense One: Are you concerned that the prolonged civil war in Syria, which continues to attract thousands of Islamist jihadi fighters from around the world, begins to resemble the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s that gave rise to al-Qaeda and the Taliban?
Dempsey: As you know there is a historic, sectarian fault-line that runs from Beirut, Lebanon all the way to Baghdad, Iraq, and that is a fundamental problem. And Syria has become a magnet for militants who want to wage jihad against the West or internally against other Muslims and that is also very dangerous. But I don’t believe the military instrument of power, by itself, is going to change the fundamental dynamics there. So our approach across the region is to continue to work with regional partners, and to enable those partners by building capacity.
Defense One: Left to burn, might not the Syrian civil war destabilize the entire Middle East along that sectarian fault-line between Sunnis and Shiites, empowering extremists on both sides?
Dempsey: We’re trying to understand and gauge the element of time in the Syrian crisis. Again, not to sound too philosophical, but there are different Greek words for chronological time, and the notion of the “right time.” There are other very prominent regional initiatives going on, for instance, such as the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. So as military leaders, we’re trying to provide our best advice on the capabilities we can bring to bear in terms of building partners in the region, enabling them, and taking direct action, and when is the right time to employ those capabilities. And by the way, there’s a lot of disagreement in this city on those issues among well-meaning people.
Defense One: You and the other members of the Joint Chiefs 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 frankly, you can measure capability but it’s hard to measure intent. So risk is extraordinarily difficult to articulate in a way that people understand.
Readiness is also very dynamic, and it means something different for each service. The Air Force, the Navy and the Army all measure readiness slightly differently. So when you tie the words “risk” and ”readiness’ into documents like the Quadrennial Defense Review or the Defense Strategic Guidance, often times people will hear what they want to hear.
Defense One: 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?
Whenever I travel to learn what’s on the minds of the young men and women who serve, and their families, the clearer it becomes to me that the greatest risk we run right now 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 and [sequestration spending caps], where we could do the nation’s bidding. I’ve said to our elected leaders, both in the executive branch and in Congress, that we need budget certainty, flexibility and more time.
Defense One: Flexibility to do what?
Dempsey: To close the excess infrastructure we don’t need, kill the weapons systems we no longer need in favor of the ones we do need, and make modest adjustments to paid compensation and health care to slow the growth in our personnel costs. If given that flexibility we could find the resources necessary to get the job done for the country.
Defense One: How much more time do you need to downsize and reshape U.S. military forces?
Dempsey: First of all, we can’t do this one year at a time, or even in 5-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, flexibility 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. That is a dangerous mix for this country.
Defense One: Do you think that message is registering in Washington?
Dempsey: Well, it’s my job to articulate and explain it, and I’m not shirking that job. I have been working at this now for 2-and-a-half years. But whether it’s because of my inability to be persuasive, or because no one is listening, we’re still on the path of sequestration. And that is a very dangerous path.
Defense One: What’s your assessment of the performance of the all-volunteer military in its first period of extended war, and the impact of a decade of conflict on its overall health?
Dempsey: Well, first of all, I remember coming into a conscript army as a young soldier, and then it was re-engineered into an all-volunteer force. As you know, it was never originally intended to fight a protracted conflict of the sort that we’ve been involved in for the past decade. The intent was to have the all-volunteer force at the start of a conflict, and then to reinforce it either with a return to the draft or a full mobilization [of the reserves]. So the all-volunteer force was never sized, frankly, to bear the burden of a protracted conflict and constant deployments and redeployments. And yet that’s what we asked it to do, and I would say the all-volunteer force performed magnificently.
Defense One: Do you feel the stress of so many wartime deployments has taken a toll?
Dempsey: When you visited me in Iraq in 2003-2004, in the middle of what turned into a 14-month deployment, 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 strain. And yet they did. Even today, in some cases soldiers are more worried about not deploying than about having to deploy again, though their families may feel differently. 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.
Defense One: Given that the cost of fielding an individual soldier has more than doubled during these wars, isn’t the all-volunteer force also very expensive?
Dempsey: Well, an all-volunteer force is more expensive, that’s just the way it is. And we certainly cannot afford to take those volunteers for granted. We can’t take for granted the fact that we’ve been able to attract the best of American youth into the military, or that they have stayed with us and been willing to deploy and redeploy at such frequent intervals.
Looking forward, I certainly hope the nation continues to commit to having an all-volunteer force, as opposed to going back to some sort of conscription. In fact my strongest advice to our elected leaders is that we as a nation continue to invest in an all-volunteer force