The longest-ever gap in civilian leadership atop the Department of Defense came to an end on July 23, when Mark Esper was sworn in as secretary of defense. His presence in the chain of command, second to Trump, may seem enough to ensure civilian control of the Armed Forces. But the implementation of this American tenet is more complex. Civilian control is a process, not simply a person. And out of sight of most Americans, civilians are losing control over key processes that manage war plans, deployment decisions, and the programs that determine what kind of military the U.S. builds for the future.
Many see no problem with this tilt toward military management of the department. The U.S. military is one of the most-respected government institutions, its technical and operational expertise seemingly unrivaled. It can seem counterintuitive for civilians to manage key decisions of war planning, conflict, and building the future military. But even those who urge civilian deference to military expertise know strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s observation that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Statute, and history too, have determined that America is better served when politicians shape the nation’s approach to its defense, even though it is messy, difficult, and naturally infused with tension.
This balance between civilian and military influence over defense policy shifts frequently. But last year, the bipartisan, Congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission warned that “civilian voices have been relatively muted on issues at the center of U.S. defense and national security policy.” We three authors have all advised defense secretaries on these areas — one of us also worked on the Commission — and we fear that these recent changes privilege military perspectives with consequences for democratic control of the armed forces. Disrupting this balance is not simply a matter of law or scholarship. It upends comparative advantages that servicemembers and civilians can bring to bear on complex security challenges, and it deeply increases the risk of politicizing the military.
Secretary Esper seems attuned to the general problem. During his Senate confirmation hearing, he told Chairman Inhofe and Senator Shaheen that he intended to fill extended vacancies in key civilian roles. He pledged to work closely with the Congress on budgetary matters to ensure that defense resources are in line with national interests and priorities. And during a recent press conference, he asserted the importance of civilian control over the military. We applaud his approach so far. And we urge him to do more.
Digging into the war plans should be at the top of Esper’s to-do list. Title 10 instructs the secretary of defense to provide military planners with up-front policy guidance for war planning and then to periodically review those plans, ultimately approving of or rejecting the final product. In his own confirmation hearing, William Perry said his top priority would be “reviewing and assessing war plans and deployment orders.” As the 19th defense secretary understood, these issues are rife with high-stakes, political-military consequences and require critical oversight by civilians. Concerns about the faithful execution of the law in recent years has led to language in the annual Defense authorization bills re-emphasizing the importance of civilian oversight of war planning and reviews.
Over the last several years, formal engagements for civilian review of war plans have been cut back, with significantly less secretary-level oversight. Guidance to the Joint Staff also eliminated several of the secretary’s in-progress reviews, a key component of civilian control over the planning process. Instead, planning revisions and the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have evolved to become more symbiotic. The chairman now serves as the “global integrator” of war plans requiring a global view of the potential crisis. Such practice, though conceptually attractive, can impute to the military the kind of strategic, diplomatic, and political context that civilians traditionally provide.
Civilian oversight and input of war plans is not only an expectation of Congress, but a logical division of labor. War-planning is an inherently political endeavor, reliant on not only the operational options the military uniquely provides, but also the domestic and geopolitical choices embedded in deterrence, escalation management, and acceptable costs and risks. Moreover, civilians have shown that when offered war plans that ignore political-military interests, they will develop their own options that poorly consider military capacities. Esper can reassert civilian oversight of this process immediately by restarting planning reviews.
Title 10 also gives authority to the defense secretary to direct the deployment of the U.S. military. How, where, and in what ways the military operates plays a crucial role in shaping and setting the global security environment in line with U.S. national security priorities. The secretary generally offers long-term guidance on the regular allocation of forces and provides specific approval for crisis deployments, with inputs from his civilian and military staff. But under the “global integrator” approach, this practice has shifted to enable the chairman to make his own tradeoffs of forces against global needs and threats below a particular threshold. On the margins, such changes are not a catastrophic release of civilian control, and a compelling case can be made that time sensitive or low-impact decisions of small numbers of forces do not merit the secretary’s attention. But cumulatively and over the course of many secretary-chairman relationships, this arrangement may erode the secretary’s power over military activities. As the National Defense Strategy Commission asserted, “Put bluntly, allocating priority—and allocating forces—across theaters of warfare is not solely a military matter. It is an inherently political-military task, decision authority for which is the proper competency and responsibility of America’s civilian leaders.”
Secretary Esper should review at length the delegation authority given to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in deploying forces, adjusting the number, type, and purpose for which he feels comfortable signing away his Title 10 authority. As importantly, he should involve the defense undersecretary for policy in shaping these decisions.
Finally, Title 10 also requires the defense secretary to direct the “goals, priorities, and objectives” for building the future U.S. military. He is responsible for managing more employees than Walmart and leading an institution whose annual budget is more than three times larger than ExxonMobil. In doing so, the secretary must consider how best to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars requested of the Congress to ensure the military has a force that appropriately balances among capability, capacity, and readiness to ensure it can win future wars. This requires not only broader political context, but also choosing winners and losers across the military services.
In 2018, Secretary Mattis released a blunt defense strategy that refocused the military away from fighting terrorists and wrestling with Middle East conflicts toward competing with China and Russia. Yet the strategy faces real challenges in its implementation. From near-term crises with Iran to competing strategies that offer alternate priorities, there is no shortage of distractions in time, attention, and resources.
Esper will need to ensure that his priorities drive the military’s priorities in guiding the future force’s shape and purpose, not the reverse. Implementing the National Defense Strategy will only occur through his vigilant supervision and willingness to take risk in those areas where the military will be reluctant. It is not easy for a generation of military leaders who have grown up fighting wars in the Middle East to deprioritize the region. Nor is it simple for the defense institution to give up long-standing assumptions on force structure. But Esper has to be the one to calculate the political and policy risks on these sensitive issues, which can give the military the space needed to generate the innovative operational concepts only it can build.
Perhaps it is tempting to believe that if the military assumes one or more of these political decisions, the questions will lose political relevance and therefore can be answered in a purely technocratic way. And here is an area where Esper’s instincts may be failing him. At the end of August, he declared that he will keep DoD out of politics, in part, by acting “in an apolitical way” himself. Perversely, this is much more likely to lead to the politicization of the military. Military officers will be used by political leaders for their own ends; senior leaders will be promoted based less on their service branch’s institutional interests and more on domestic political considerations. The defense secretary and his staff serve as a crucial buffer between the military and the political whims precisely by being the ones to engage in politics on behalf of the Department. Esper should not dodge these bullets; he should take them so the military does not have to.
Esper should take a zero-tolerance approach to politicization of the military. And he should strengthen the technocratic bulk of the civil service to ensure that he and his successors have a professional class who can support him in these crucial roles.
To be clear, the goal is not civilian micromanagement. The Founders and their successors determined a division of labor between civilian and military servants that maximizes their comparative advantages while also demanding frustrating but productive friction. But in the end, that division is designed to favor the judgment of elected politicians. For Esper to shift power back toward civilian officials while demanding excellence from both elements of his staff in these three processes—planning, force allocation, and sizing and shaping the military—is not only by the book, it’s a democratic outcome.