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Gen. Dunford's Remarks at the National Defense University Graduation

By General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr.

Under Secretary Kennedy, General Padilla, distinguished guests, and most of all to this year’s graduates. You’d expect me to say it, but it truly is an honor to be here to celebrate a significant milestone in your career.

Having said that, I was listening to General Padilla, and on the one hand he said that you were the best and the brightest, and on the other hand, he said ‘you did it’ as though he was surprised that you did it [Laughter]. I’m actually not sure which to believe. [Laughter]. But I will be gracious today—it is your day—and I’ll believe you really are the best and the brightest, and it’s not a surprise that you finished.

I would like to begin by recognizing the many international fellows that are here and the civilians from across the United States government and industry. My experience tells me that those of you who are here will go back and become future senior leaders in your countries and in your organizations. And I know for a fact that you have enriched the educational experience here at the National Defense University, so thank you.  

There’s another special group that I’d like to recognize and that’s the many family members that are gathered here today, in particular, the spouses.

It’s not lost on me that at this stage in your life, your graduates could have retired and moved on to a second career … instead, they chose to advance their professional education and by doing so, incurred another commitment to service. 

They couldn’t have made that decision without your support, and I realize that. And I just want you to know that your support is recognized, it is appreciated, and for those of you that are graduating, I just ask you to help me in recognizing the spouse and the families that have provided the support that allowed you to make it.  [Applause].

You know, General Padilla spoke about the faculty and staff and there are a number of things that contribute to the National Defense University’s success. But it really is the faculty and staff that are the center of gravity, and I’d ask the class of 2016 to once again help me and recognize the individuals that really do make the National Defense University world-class. And for the faculty and staff, I’d ask that you just please stand up. [Applause]. 

You know, I’m mindful that commencement ceremonies are not about long speeches. And I know that most of you are in a hurry to get to your next duty station, some of you have TMO this afternoon, many others are living in a hotel right now, and I’m almost gathering the fumes from your exhaust, I mean many of you have left your vehicles running in the parking lot, [laughter] and you’re just waiting for the ceremony to be over before you make the great escape.

But to that point, how many of you are going to the Joint Staff? Your vehicles should actually be running in the parking lot because, you know, since you’re already here, we got the welcome aboard set up for you at 1700 this afternoon, and be back at it tomorrow. It’s all about taking care of people.

I won’t go long, but as you prepare for the challenges of your next assignment and frankly the next chapter of your careers, I wanted to leave you with a few thoughts about something that I’ve grappled with throughout my career, and particularly, in my last few assignments.

I want to talk about adapting to change in the profession of arms. And I think that the comments I would make would be equally applicable to those members of the interagency, U.S. government, and the civilians who are here as well.

You know I’ve thought about change a lot in particularly when I came into my current assignment over the last couple of months, specifically our ability to anticipate to recognize and to adapt to change. I’ve also thought about how rapidly the pace of change has been accelerating. As most of you know, 2016 marks 100 years since the Battle of Verdun, a battle that claimed over 500,000 lives. Verdun provides a pretty good case study, in my estimation, for change.

Recently I opened up a few books and refreshed my memory on the circumstances surrounding the battle.  I had occasion to do that as I was getting ready for Memorial Day. And as I read, I reflected on the senior leader decision-making throughout the war … the tactics, the techniques, the procedures that were used, and frankly, the character of war in 1916.

I was reminded and struck by how slow decision makers were on both sides to adapt during the war … or to actually grasp the significance of changes that were clearly evident some years prior to that during the Russo-Japanese War. New weapons were fielded on the eve of World War I, but the implications really weren’t fully appreciated, tactical and doctrinal development lagged … and the price for that delay was high … 10 million in uniform—10 million—were killed during the war … a figure that’s unfathomable to us in the 21st Century.

To some extent, you can say the same thing about World War II … for example, while the German blitzkrieg reflected their appreciation for the potential of armor supported by close air support, the dominant thinking about western armies was that the tank really was just a support for those forces that were on the ground.

Men like Fuller and Hart had trouble getting traction with their new ideas between the wars, and I know you spent some time this year talking about change, but there’s no shortage of individuals who had great ideas throughout history, whose great ideas weren’t recognized during their lifetimes. 

And frankly, as I look back at change in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was typically really only effected after a failure in war; that was the primary driver of change in the past two centuries.

You might think all that is history and that we’re a lot more adaptive today than they were in the 19th and 20th Century. I’m going to share with you today, I’m not sure that that’s actually true.

And I want to just share an anecdote about an article that was written by a captain by the name of Wayne Sinclair. In the article, Wayne explained that the threat posed by small homemade bombs offered a radical transformation in the way that we should think about transporting ground forces.

He noticed trends in explosives and vulnerabilities in our ground vehicles could potentially put our troops at risk.  He even pointed to a promising solutions by the South Africans and others in his article.

And you could say that he was actually one of the godfathers of the MRAP.  The problem is that he wrote his article in 1996, and we didn’t actually make the changes until 2006. 

Wayne went on to serve in Iraq and he rode in the very MRAPs he had called for, but not before the IED nearly brought the world’s most advanced fighting force to a halt.

And the moral of the story is probably pretty clear to you, there’s no substitute for taking a clear-eyed look at the threats we’ll face, and asking how our force has to change to meet them. There is no substitute for leadership that recognizes the implications of new ideas, new technologies and new approaches and actually anticipates and effects those changes, actually affects adaptation. 

So my first point to you this morning is not to leave your intellectual curiosity and openness to new ideas behind when you depart the national defense university … don’t be complacent … as leaders, create an environment within which innovation, the questioning of conventional wisdom and creativity are not only allowed, but actually encouraged … and assume you don’t have all the answers …

You know, I frequently talk about the relationship between confidence and experience in my career. When I was second lieutenant, I would tell you that my level of confidence was somewhere up here [gestures high]. I would look at my battalion commander, looked at him conducting his job, and said, ‘you know, that doesn’t look that hard. I can do that.’

And of course, my level of experience is down here. And in all sincerity, I would tell you today, you know, after 39 years of active duty, my level of experience is arguably up here, my level of confidence today to have all the answers is way down here someplace. And I’d ask you to remember that too as you leave and as you engage with your organization, as you listen to new ideas, you’ve got to be open to those ideas and not immediately be dismissive because you have more experience. Having more experience doesn’t necessarily give you a corner on all the good ideas inside your organization. And as simple as that is, I just offer you guys food for thought as you leave the school today.

You know I mentioned that the cost of responding slowly in the 20th century was quite high, but back then, there were actually opportunities to recover if we got it wrong … despite a slow start, the allies certainly adapted their tactics throughout World War II and eventually they emerged victorious.

However, I wouldn’t assume that future conflicts, we would have the same opportunity to recover. 

I say that because, again, the pace of change in my estimation has rapidly accelerated … and in many ways, the nature of the changes has brought an even more profound impact on our profession …

As I look back on my own career, there is a big difference in the pace of change in the first 25 years than there has been in the last 14 years.

[Aircraft flies overhead] I’ll just wait a minute here.

When I was a lieutenant, I used the same cold weather gear that my dad had used in Korea in 1950, 27 years earlier—and I don’t mean the same kind of gear, I mean we went to the warehouse, dug it out, and it was the same gear. [Laughter]. And the radios that we used, you know, this is again my lieutenant days, PRC 25 uncovered radio from Vietnam.  The jeeps would have been familiar to World War II veterans, and to be honest with you, so would the tactics.

And despite incremental development in weapons and the dawn of the nuclear age, I think a lieutenant from World War II or Korea would have been very comfortable in the exercises I participated in as a lieutenant.

But now, there are very few things that have changed—very few things that have not changed since I was a lieutenant. And I was actually reminded of this in 2008.

[Aircraft flies overhead]. Fred, you should have told the President to sit tight while I was—while I was speaking. [Laughter]. You know, I thought he worked for me, but actually, now I know he doesn’t. [Laughter].

But, you know, to this theme of change, it really struck me. I went to visit a platoon in 2008. And the platoon commander and his 80 marines were 40 miles from the nearest platoon on their left, 40 miles from their nearest platoon on their right, and about an hour by helicopter from the battalion command post.  And to give you some perspective, my appreciation of time and space when I was a lieutenant was a rifle company attacked on a 1500 meter frontage—I’m sorry, defended on a 1500 meter frontage and attacked on a 300 meter frontage.

So you think about time and space in 1977, 2008, pretty significantly different.

The marines in Golestan were wearing protective equipment and driving vehicles that would have been unrecognizable to infantry marines or soldiers just five years before 2008. That’s how much change had taken place in that period of time.

The platoon could receive and transmit voice, data, and imagery from a satellite—a platoon could do that! And in 2003, inside of a division of over 20,000, we had 4 systems that could actually do that.

The platoon in Golestan was supported by HIMARS which can put precision fires out to over 60 kilometers. When I was a lieutenant, we relied on the 105, had a max effective range of about 11,000 meters. And I don’t want to offend any artillerymen here, but I would tell you that the word ‘precision’ was not in our lexicon when we talked about the 105.

Today, similar changes can be seen across the joint force … and the changes have implications—perhaps, more profound implications—at the operational and strategic level as well as the tactical.

I think one of the most significant implications and trends in the current security environment is the high likelihood that any future conflict will be trans-regional, cutting across multiple combatant commands; multi-domain, involving land, sea, airspace, cyberspace; and multi-functional, information operations, cyber capabilities, space capabilities, and ballistic missile technology have made the character of war today extraordinarily different. 

And we’ll see such capabilities employed by both state and non-state actors that are looking for ways to harness them in order to avoid our strengths and go after our weaknesses.

Clearly, the current fight against violent extremism is one example of a trans-regional threat.  

But North Korea further highlights the point I’m trying to make about the trans-regional nature of conflict today. You know, there was a time in the Korean peninsula, and many of you might have been there early in your career, where when we thought about a conflict on the peninsula, we thought about largely a land and a sea war on the peninsula that could actually be isolated to the peninsula. And then the North Koreans developed ballistic missiles, and suddenly other regional actors now would be involved. So it’s no longer a conflict just on the peninsula, but it’s also a conflict that involves regional actors so it’s really a theater crisis as well as just on the peninsula. 

But you know, as the North Koreans have developed intercontinental ballistic missiles and cyber capabilities and pressed to develop space capabilities, now you have a conflict on the Korean peninsula that truly is trans-regional, and my estimation, it involves at least one sub-unified commander and three combatant commanders instantaneously. And just think about if we have one or more similar conflicts ongoing simultaneously, how complex that would be.

It’s clear that adapting to the evolving character of war in the 21st century is going to require significant changes to our planning, our organization, and our command and control constructs … and we’re already—to be honest with you, we’re already behind. We’re already behind in adapting to the changing character of war today, in so many ways. And I suspect I’m not the first one to talk to you today and emphasize that you’re serving during a particularly dynamic period.

And I know the oft-used expression, and I’d be surprised if we haven’t used it here at school this year, it would be as Henry Kissinger just said, that this is the most volatile and complex security environment since World War II. 

And I would have to tell you, certainly I would agree with that, and in my career, I can’t remember a time when the pace of change is even close to what we’re seeing today… and I believe that makes the need for change and the ability to anticipate change all the more important.

And those of you graduating today have to lead that change or we’re going to find ourselves—and I don’t mean in the distant future, I mean the not-too-distant future—we’re going to find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage. That will be the cost of not recognizing what needs to change, and not affecting change in your organizations. Not adapting to the change of the character of war, and not thinking out to the future in an innovative way, and the difference between the two in my mind is adaptation is something that you do with what you have today and you do it better, and innovation, you look for disruptive ways of doing things in the future, a completely different way of doing business. And I would argue again, our ability to do those two things simultaneously today is the difference between us having a competitive advantage in the future, and not having a competitive advantage. And my horizon is not 10, 15 or 20 years from now, it’s actually three to five years from now. That’s, in my estimation, how urgently I believe we need to make some fundamental changes to how we’re doing business. 

I’d like to shift gears for a minute and just close by talking about something very important, an important aspect of our business and something that actually hasn’t changed like the character of war, and that is the fundamental nature of war.

For all the talk of change and advancements in technology, war remains—and I know you spent no shortage of time thinking about it and talking about it this year—a violent clash of wills in an environment that is characterized by fog, friction, and chaos.

And because the fundamental nature of war hasn’t changed, neither have the primary factors that lead to success on the battlefield.

Aside from an ability—the ability to adapt over the past 15 years, I think that any tactical successes we have had in place like Iraq and Afghanistan and other places has been because of the endurance, the courage, and commitment of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coastguardsmen, and civil servants, and that’s both from our partner nations as well the United States, and as well as our interagency partners.

It’s been their willingness to go out day after day to do what had to be done that made the difference. And as you all know … that will to fight … that will to put yourself at risk …the willingness to put the needs of your buddy ahead of your own, it can’t be quantified … it comes from intangibles.

You know, a marine that fought in World War I coined the phrase for those intangibles “such things as regiments hand down forever”.

And given the relative inexperience and the level of training of the Americans who fought in World War I … it was primarily those intangibles that carried the day post-Verdun when the United States entered the war.

My point is that we do need to adapt to change, and there is an imperative and I talked about that. But at the end of the day, we’re not going to be defined by MRAPs, 5th generation fighters, DDG 1000s or cyber capabilities.

Those things—distinguish us to the outsider, they reflect what we look like in formation in the 21st century, but what we wear, what we shoot, what we drive and what we fly…that’s not who we are … and all of those things that I mentioned will change again in the future in ways we can’t even imagine as we sit here today.

The foundation for what we’ve been able to do in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and the many ongoing operations in the last 15 years is actually no different than why we were able to survive and succeed in World War I despite the leadership’s inability to recognize what needed to change, despite the leadership’s inability to adapt during a war, there was still success.

We’re able to do what we do today for the same reason we were able to do it during World War I, and that is because we’re fortunate enough to lead individuals that have the will and the courage to endure and prevail … because they trust you and they trust themselves.

We’re able to do what has to be done because of individuals—and I’m now talking about the leaders and the led—who have embodied our core values, and again, such things as regiments hand down forever.

So as you leave the National Defense University today with your diploma in hand, at least for those that will have diploma in hand [laughter]. In addition—and I’ll know in a minute who you are—in addition to being prepared to lead, and to anticipate, and to adapt to change … in addition to cultivating an environment within which innovation can flourish, I’d ask you also to remember to lead your organization in a manner that fosters those intangible qualities which make the difference; which made a difference in the past and will make a difference in the future along with the challenges we have to deal with. 

Be smart enough to know what has to change, and let those young Wayne Sinclairs flourish inside your organization, but also recognize what aspects of our profession shouldn’t change, those aspects of our profession which will allow us to endure, to deal with the enduring nature of war.

Thanks again for the honor of joining you here this morning. It really has been an honor and I’m encouraged, and I would say this in all sincerity, there are times particularly in my current assignment when I can become a bit despondent with all the challenges we face. And there are no shortage of challenges.

But the thing—and it sounds trite—but it is absolutely sincere, the thing that gives me confidence that we will actually overcome those challenges is the quality of the force and this class and the students we send to the National Defense University every year are reflective of that quality and you are, in fact, the reason I have confidence that we will adapt, that we will adapt, that we will make the changes necessary, that we will innovate for the future, and we will lead the young men and women that we’re fortunate enough to lead in a manner that instills in them those same qualities that have allowed us to be successful over the past 100 years of war.

God bless you all, and all the best.