The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told graduates of the National Defense University at Fort McNair here today that the military must embrace change and innovation in this most turbulent time.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford spoke to 687 graduates of the Stanford White-designed National War College at this historic Army post. The military students will go on to command brigades, regiments, wings and ships throughout the U.S. military. The graduates also included 104 international military students and civilians representing 39 federal agencies and private organizations.
Making the Case for Adaptability
The chairman told the graduates that they must be ready to recognize the need for change and adapt to it.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun -- possibly the bloodiest battle of World War I. That battle claimed more than 500,000 French and German lives, the chairman said. “Verdun provides a pretty good case study, in my opinion, for the need for change,” Dunford said.
He said senior decision-makers on both sides were slow to embrace changes that were clearly evident years before -- most notably in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. New weapons weren’t accompanied by new doctrines, new techniques or new procedures, the chairman said. “The price of that was high,” he said. “Ten million in uniform were killed during the war.”
“There is no shortage of individuals who had great ideas throughout history but whose ideas weren’t recognized during their lifetimes,” he said. Change in the military, “was only effected after failure in war,” he added.
The chairman said he is not so sure the paradigm has changed. He pointed to an article written by Marine Corps Capt. Wayne Sinclair, who touted the effectiveness of armored personnel carriers developed in South Africa to defeat land mines. “You could say he is one of the godfathers of the [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle],” the chairman said. “The problem is that he wrote the article in ’96, and we didn’t actually make the changes until 2006.”
“Wayne went on to serve in Iraq, and he rode in the very same MRAP he called for, but not before the [improvised explosive device] almost brought the world’s most advanced military to a halt,” Dunford said.
There is no substitute for taking a clear-eyed look at threats and asking how a force must change to meet them, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer told the graduates. “There is no substitute for leadership that recognizes the implications of new ideas, new technologies and new approaches and actually anticipates and effects those adaptations,” Dunford said.
The real difference between the wars of the 20th century and today is “back then, we had a chance to recover if we got it wrong,” the chairman said. “Despite a slow start, the allies certainly adapted their tactics during World War II, and eventually they emerged victorious,” he said. “However, I wouldn’t assume in future conflicts we will have the same opportunity to recover.”
Just in the span of his own career -- Dunford entered the Marine Corps in 1977 -- there has been a marked difference in the pace of change, he said. He noted that his equipment when he entered active duty would have been familiar to his father, who fought in the Korean War. The tactics still harkened back to infantry battles in World War II. As a lieutenant, he was concerned with defending a 1,500-meter front and attacking along a 300-meter front, just as a lieutenant from the 1950s and 1960s would have done.
No longer, the chairman said. He described a visit to a lieutenant and his platoon in 2008. “The platoon was 40 miles from the nearest platoon on their left, 40 miles from the nearest platoon on their right, and about an hour by helicopter from the battalion command post,” he said. “And the platoon could transmit voice, data and imagery from a satellite.”
Similar changes have happened across the joint force, the chairman said, with profound implications for tactics, techniques and procedures in all aspects of warfare.
“I think one of the most significant applications and trends in the current security environment is the high likelihood that any future conflict will be transregional -- cutting across multiple combatant commands -- multidomain … and multifunctional,” he said, “as we see such capabilities employed by both state and nonstate actors who look for ways to harness them in order to avoid our strengths.”
These threats will mean significant changes to the U.S. military’s planning, organization and command-and-control constructs, Dunford said. “To be honest with you, we are already behind,” he said. “We’re already behind in adapting to the changed character of war today in so many ways.”
Given the extreme volatility of the world today and the pace of change, the chairman said, “I believe that makes the need for change and the ability to anticipate change all the more important.”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)