Change occurring at a faster rate than ever before in a world that had grown more unpredictable in the last decade is the strategic reality that Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford confronted as he assumed the responsibilities of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey on Oct. 1, 2015.
Now, Dunford is turning the reins over to Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, ending a four-year term that saw great change.
Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Venezuela, Libya and Somalia were just a few of the places of concern to U.S. officials during Dunford's tenure.
By the numbers, Dunford served four years with five defense secretaries or acting secretaries — Ash Carter, James N. Mattis, Patrick Shanahan, Richard V. Spencer and Mark T. Esper — and, most importantly, two presidents. President Barack Obama nominated Dunford for the job, and President Donald J. Trump re-nominated him.
As chairman, Dunford had to deal with the fast-changing world. The U.S. military had concentrated on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations since the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001. The American military was unsurpassed in these types of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
But the strategic environment had shifted: Russia and China were asserting themselves in ways designed to break down the international order and to pose dangers to sovereignty and democracy. As chairman, Dunford was instrumental in crafting the new National Defense Strategy highlighting the return of great power competition and ensuring the U.S. military could retain its overmatch against Russia and China.
But that didn't mean the threat from violent extremism had ended. When Dunford took over, ISIS was knocking on the doors of Baghdad. The extremist terror group exploded out of Syria and swept an ill-prepared Iraqi military from their country's western and northern provinces. The immediate need was to build a coalition to counter the group, and Dunford worked with allies and partners worldwide to gather like-minded nations and organizations against the threat.
He quickly realized that countering ISIS would require a whole-of-government solution, and that the coalition would be far more effective working through indigenous forces. The fight against ISIS would not be fought with divisions of American troops, but with local security forces from Iraq and Syria — trained by coalition partners — who fought hard to defeat the physical ISIS caliphate.
The chairman had to balance divergent needs: to fight the conflicts of today and to ensure future military capabilities. He had to improve military readiness now, and ensure readiness for his successors, and he had to formulate the correct force posture worldwide of American military might — not only today, but for tomorrow.
China and Russia had studied the American way of war, Dunford has often said. They looked at what the United States military could do from Desert Storm through Enduring Freedom to Iraqi Freedom and devised ways to counter America's overwhelming advantage on land, sea and air.
Space and cyber were new domains that could be exploited, and Russia and China did so. Both nations launched information operations against the United States, aware that America's greatest military advantage was its network of allies. Russia began trying to weaken NATO, while China worked to separate the United States from its traditional Pacific allies.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and fomented conflict in the eastern part of that nation. China built artificial islands in the South China Sea and tried to stifle freedom of navigation in the region.
In Syria, Bashar Assad's rule was falling until Russia injected troops and propped up the regime, ensuring the Syrian civil war would continue. China proposed the "One Belt, One Road" policy. Any nation that accepted the policy and the money that came with it would quickly be in financial thrall to China.
The two nations directly oppose the United States in the cyber domain. Russia tried to influence the 2016 U.S. elections. China uses cyber tools to steal American economic and military technologies and secrets.
During Dunford's term, the Defense Department established U.S. Cyber Command as a unified combatant command. Cybercom now is an integral part of the department, ensuring the defense of U.S. cyber capabilities. The command is also doing all it can to protect the American electoral system from being compromised.
The same is true of space. The U.S. military depends on space-based capabilities for everything from navigation to precision strike capabilities. Russian and Chinese military personnel saw what the U.S. military could do beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and continuing through the counterterrorism conflicts. The two nations have developed anti-satellite systems, jamming capabilities and directed-energy weapons to knock out American assets. Just this month, DOD established U.S. Space Command to energize and coordinate American efforts in this domain.
North Korea and Iran are two other nations that Dunford had to deal with as credible threats. North Korea accelerated efforts to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. It exploded a device in 2016 that North Korean officials claimed could be carried by intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un continued missile testing, and all nations in the region were concerned. The last nuclear test was in September 2017, but this is a country that continues to concern U.S. military planners.
Iran continues to be a malign influence throughout the Middle East, and the chairman has had to deal with the threats it brings to U.S. interests in the region and to freedom of navigation. The Iranian regime sponsors proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Iranian-built drones and cruise missiles hit Saudi Arabian oil facilities Sept. 14. Iran mined oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, shot down an American Global Hawk surveillance aircraft and detained oil tankers.
The Joint Chiefs chairman is instrumental in ensuring the United States has what it needs in the right places to counter these threats. In addition to serving as the principal military advisor to the president, the secretary of defense and the rest of the National Security Council, the chairman now has the responsibility to be the "global integrator" of American forces, providing the defense secretary with military advice on the allocation and transfer of forces among geographic and functional combatant commands to address transregional, all-domain threats.
Military planning, force management and decision-making must be made at the speed of relevance, Dunford has stressed.
The chairman is responsible for assisting in strategic planning and direction of the armed forces to ensure the effective conduct of operations. Dunford — and his successors — must work to speed senior leaders' decision-making, integrate operations worldwide and deliver forces capable of competing and winning against any possible adversary.
The speed of war has accelerated. Actions that once could be contained to one city or nation are now felt and seen instantaneously around the globe. When Dunford first took office, he spoke about buying more time for leaders to study options and make decisions. Global integration is key. The term is self-explanatory: The chairman must globally integrate the planning process in support of the secretary of defense.
The department has always done some form of global integration, but the changes to the speed of war and the changed character of war mean that integration needs to be done in a much more aggressive way, Dunford said. "In the past, when you had conflict and you assumed it was going to be isolated to a given theater, combatant commanders from the bottom up identified all capabilities and capacities that they would need and then we would sort of cross-level across the combatant commands," Dunford said.
Gone are the days of regionally based operational plans. Twenty years ago, a North Korean attack on South Korea could have been contained to the Korean Peninsula. Today, the threat extends far beyond the peninsula. U.S. Strategic Command needs to understand what the threat is. U.S. Northern Command needs to ready to defend North America and the homeland. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has to be ready to move troops and capabilities. U.S. Cyber Command needs to defend computer systems while attacking enemy systems. U.S. Space Command must prepare for combat in orbit.
To ensure the U.S. military's competitive advantage, Dunford has laid out four pillars of global integration: planning, decision-making, force management and force design. "Those are the four main areas that, at the end of the day, I thought our integration needed to be improved [to compete in today's strategic environment]," the chairman said in an interview when the policy was announced.
The new defense strategy emphasizes accelerated decision-making and flexibility to reflect today's changed security environment, the chairman said. "We feed that decision-making from the top down, then get bottom-up refinement from the combatant commanders and deploy the force," Dunford said. "But we deploy the force in a way that is consistent with what I refer to as the 'boxer's stance' — meaning you get the best posture for what you believe is the most likely problem set, while preserving your ability to respond to the unexpected."
Dunford also had to confront problems with readiness during his term. It is hard to overemphasize the damage the Budget Control Act of 2011 did to the Defense Department. Training hours, spare parts, reconditioning, repairs, replacements, exercises and much more were delayed or eliminated.
Added to this were problems with simply passing a budget, and long periods of continuing resolutions and even government shutdowns eroded U.S. military capabilities.
Dunford worked with the defense secretary and others in both the Obama and Trump administrations to convince Congress of the damage and seek remediation. The military now is recovering now from the readiness trough it found itself in, but this effort needs to continue. The department needs to be able to plan moving forward.
Dunford traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to visit fellow chiefs of defense, the combatant commanders and facilities from Djibouti to Guantanamo to South Korea. He presented Purple Hearts to Marines wounded in Syria at their firebase. He led USO trips to visit service members on Christmas Day for the past three years.
Each time he travels, he takes advantage of the time to stop and talk to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen he meets. This is his time, and with no reporters present. When asked what they told him these past four years, Dunford won't get specific. "I will tell you that when I talk to the troops, I don't get cynicism or complaints," he said. "They are confident in what they are doing and the missions they have been given."
Read Gen. Dunford's farewell message to the Joint Force
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