DeM Banter: We need to know what the boss is thinking, no matter where you are at in your career…agree or disagree, these are issues we all face…this is an important piece.
July 28, 2012
On a desk once used by Douglas MacArthur, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey keeps a small wooden box engraved with the words “Make It Matter.” Inside are cards containing the photos and brief biographies of the more than 130 soldiers he lost in Iraq as commander of the Army’s 1st Armored Division. As he shepherds the military into the austerity era, Dempsey finds all the inspiration he needs in the box. NationalJournal Senior Correspondent James Kitfield spoke recently with Dempsey in his Pentagon office. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ The American public is understandably war-weary and focused on the domestic economic crisis. How do you explain to them that the threats the country faces continue to demand a strong U.S. military?
DEMPSEY I describe the period we’re entering as a security paradox. On the one hand, there are some deep thinkers who argue that violence around the world is actually at a historic low, with fewer people dying violently each year than during any period in history. On the other hand, I look at incidents such as the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in 2008. That operation was controlled by an operations and intelligence fusion center in Pakistan that used commercial, off-the-shelf technology such as Google Earth’s real-time mapping, satellite communications, GPS, BlackBerry texting, social media, and rapid Internet searching. And enabled by that technology, 10 terrorists were able to kill 200 people and wound another 300 in an operation that took Indian security forces three days to end. Similarly, the “Great Train Robbery,” so famous from the 19th century, involved two guys robbing a trainload of some 100 people. Today, one guy with a laptop can literally rob 100,000 people of their wealth or intellectual property. So the ability to commit violence and do harm is proliferating along with technology, and I want to be very clear-eyed about that growing threat. The world we are entering is one that feels safer on some level, but is actually much more dangerous.
NJ What technologies or capabilities will the U.S. military need to master in this era?
DEMPSEY If I look at the benchmark year of 2020, which is the military I will be responsible for helping shape, my big “Aha!” moment as chairman has been the realization that about 80 percent of that force is essentially on autopilot due to decisions already made. That has freed me to focus on the 20 percent I can change, especially new capabilities that we didn’t even have 10 years ago. The ones that jump out at me are ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], bigger and more capable special forces, and cybercapabilities.
NJ During past drawdowns, budget pressures upset the balance between priorities such as force structure, weapons modernization, manpower, and readiness. Can you keep those pillars balanced even as you absorb nearly $500 billion in reductions over the next 10 years—or $1 trillion if sequestration kicks in?
DEMPSEY We can provide the security the nation needs with the plan that the service chiefs and combatant commanders have all agreed to. National power is an aggregate of diplomatic influence, military capability, and economic power. When any one of those three legs is weakened, the whole foundation is shaky. So I’ve said publicly to our service members and their families that we have to demonstrate to the American people that we can be part of the solution to our economic problems. On the other hand, if sequestration is triggered, the cuts become so automatic that it throws the force out of balance right away.
NJ Do you see any of your biggest budget accounts taking priority?
DEMPSEY We absolutely have to get the people part right. If you look back at the interwar years before World War II, [Army chief George] Marshall invested the resources he had in people, sending the best and brightest people to the service schools, even though they had to exercise with wooden guns and tractors because they didn’t yet have rifles and tanks. Today, we have to continue to inspire the kinds of young people who have joined in the last 10 years to fight for their country. At the end of my time in uniform, if someone tells me I managed to get the people piece of this puzzle right despite a really ugly environment, I’ll be satisfied.
NJ Experts say that the per-person cost of the all-volunteer force has jumped 46 percent over the past decade.
DEMPSEY We’re trying to find ways to make the all-volunteer force more affordable, but it’s not easy and we need Congress’s help. There’s also the matter of necessity: The alternative to the all-volunteer force is some kind of draft, which is appealing on some levels but probably impractical. I would also argue that the all-volunteer force has proven incredibly resilient. There are some horrible statistics on suicide and other behavioral health issues, which are completely unacceptable—but, overall, the force remains strong. If you had told me when we were back in Baghdad nearly a decade ago that the force would keep up that pace for 10 more years, and overall our people and our families would remain strong and proud, I would have said you had been drinking!
NJ During the post-Vietnam drawdown of the 1970s, the Pentagon infamously favored force structure and modernization at the expense of readiness, leading to a “hollow force.” The Army also largely expunged the lessons of counterinsurgency after Vietnam. Has the military internalized the lessons from those mistakes?
DEMPSEY On readiness, the short answer is yes. Because we lived through that experience, most flag-rank officers are committed to the premise that no matter what size force we maintain, we will keep it in balance. Nor can we allow the lessons in counterinsurgency operations learned over the past decade to be lost. Right now, however, I have the opposite problem. If you are a lieutenant colonel or sergeant first class in the Army today, for instance, you don’t know anything else except counterinsurgency. And that’s not the only type of conflict we need to be prepared for.
NJ The national-strategy guidance says that the military will no longer be sized for large-scale, prolonged stability operations. It will cut 100,000 ground forces in coming years. Doesn’t that mean no more Iraq- or Afghanistan-like campaigns?
DEMPSEY Not really. We like to think we can pick our conflicts, but in reality, conflict picks you. There is still the thorny matter of our alliance with the Republic of Korea. That scenario certainly has the potential for significant land forces and stability operations. What we have tried to do with the new defense strategy is anticipate a decline in resources, and consider how we might leverage cutting-edge technologies to accomplish our current missions differently. And if we did get into another large, long-term stability operation, it would probably require us to access the National Guard and Reserves in ways we haven’t in the past.
NJ When Congress refuses to let you close bases, cancel weapons programs, or cut medical benefits, do you worry about your ability to keep the force in balance?
DEMPSEY That does concern me, but it’s a condition I don’t control. My moral compass requires that I provide civilian leaders in the Pentagon, White House, and Congress with an honest assessment of the impact of maintaining too much force structure or unnecessary weapons systems. At the end of the day, this is a democracy, and they will decide. However, I won’t shrink from explaining the impact of those decisions, and hopefully I’ll be persuasive.
NJ America has a long tradition of cutting defense too deep for too long during postwar drawdowns, and of sending brave but unprepared troops into battle in the next war. Can you break that cycle?
DEMPSEY Although those first battles of past wars have proven too costly, in each case American military leaders and forces adapted and ultimately prevailed. When I finish in this job, my personal measure of success will be whether or not I and the service chiefs developed leaders that are adaptable. That’s the attribute we value more than ever before, because the next time we predict the future wrong in terms of where, when, and who we are going to fight—and we will get it wrong again—we will need to adapt to prevail.