Dempsey Wants to ‘Rebalance the Use of Military Power’

The U.S. military needs to do less foreign fighting and more foreign training, says Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

ARLINGTON, VA - FEBRUARY 24: U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey answers questions during a press conference at the Pentagon February 24, 2014 in Arlington, Virginia. Hagel and Dempsey spoke about the upcoming Defense Department budget requests during the press conference. A proposal released February 24, plans to shrink the U.S. Army to pre-World War II levels.
National Journal
James Kitfield, Defense One
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James Kitfield, Defense One
May 13, 2014, 6:48 a.m.

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:

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: 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?

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 NATOto de­cide what it in­tends to be in the fu­ture. You know, the NATOal­li­ance 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 NATOto 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 ourNATO 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 aU.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

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