Breakfast with the Army’s new chief: Dempsey wants some fresh directions

Breakfast with the Army’s new chief: Dempsey wants some fresh directions

By Lt. Gen. David Barno, USA (Ret.)
Best Defense chief Army correspondent

The Army’s new chief got a chance to share impressions from his first three weeks on the job last week at the Crystal City Gateway Marriott with about 250 Association of the U.S. Army corporate members, supporters and various folks in uniform. This was the first big public event for General Marty Dempsey after a whirlwind three weeks visiting Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, talking to up and coming leaders at Fort Leavenworth and honoring exceptional ROTC cadets. It was…well, interesting.

Scores of industry reps had gathered to sift through the new chief’s words for clues about their products’ futures. Reporters strained to catch the first hint of a new Army direction. Congressional staffers listened for his grasp of the political and budget realities.

Soldiers in the crowd wondered if they were in the right uniform.

Dempsey wore the Army "Class B" Service uniform with white shirt and tie with a handful of his ribbons. For Army trend-spotters, this was a surprising change. Most Soldiers in attendance were kitted out in the Army’s unique "ACU" camouflage combat uniform, the all-occasion attire worn in recent years at everything from official ceremonies to Pentagon briefings to think tank events in town.

But with the new chief — maybe not so much.

The different uniform sported by Dempsey is only one outward mark of what is likely to be a major change in outlook from the Army’s last chief, George Casey, who retired four weeks ago. Lots of other clues could be found in Dempsey’s relaxed style and conversational presentation, and in the more pointed audience questions that followed.

Dempsey is keenly aware of the Army he will build over his four-year tenure, ultimately capped by his submission of the FY2020 Army budget. His decisions beginning now will set out the mile markers for the Army of 2020, and position it for the decade to follow. He talked pointedly about the task of building the kind of Army that the nation needs — which is not necessarily the same kind of force that the Army wants.

One option: a "reformed" Army in 2020 that is simply a smaller scale version of today. Alternatively: an Army "transformed" to a smaller force, but with a mix of different capabilities than today’s service. Dempsey’s framing of the alternatives in this way may provide a key clue about his thinking. 

The stories of recent Army draw downs in the post-Vietnam 1970s and post-Cold War 1990s are not happy ones. Common to both was a meat axe approach driven by Congress and the White House that simply slashed the existing force by chopping out whole combat divisions, eliminating hundreds of thousands of troops. Headquarters, staffs and the bureaucracy tended to hunker down and weather the cutbacks while passing on the big reductions in end strength to the combat forces in the field.

While Dempsey can see cuts coming — he talked specifically about the Army potentially losing 27K after the 2014 transition in Afghanistan — he obviously is thinking hard about what a "transformed" Army of different capabilities would look like. The key may be for him to find a way to use a more selective scalpel in the coming years rather than be forced toward the well-worn meat cleaver.

What this 2020 Army might look like is still largely unknown: Standing advisory force structure? Fewer (but bigger) Brigade Combat Teams? Some smaller, more tailorable "niche" formations in line with combatant commanders’ needs? An altered mix of active and reserve, with much different responsibilities between each? These parts of the crystal ball still look murky.

Subtly woven throughout Dempsey’s comments was his notable recognition that the force he leads is comprised in large measure of very young men and women — and that these "digital natives" are of a different generation than their senior leaders. Dempsey challenged his graying AUSA audience to identify the music accompanying his intro five-minute Army video – nobody could. Any twenty-something Soldier wouldn’t have had a problem.

Dempsey has tapped "The Squad" as one of his focus areas in part because squads in the Army are the lowest tactical unit, but also because squads are comprised of the most junior Soldiers. Designing a weapon or vehicle or smart comms device for these nineteen or twenty year olds is a much different proposition than designing gear for a higher headquarters populated by older generations. So looking at design parameters and requirements from the "bottom up" makes huge sense.

And as Dempsey rightly noted, squads are one of the few echelons in the Army where troops still are forced to meet the enemy in a "fair fight" — a situation the new chief intends to change.

In all, Thursday morning was a breath of fresh air and some new thinking about the Army for the Crystal City breakfast crowd — but, far more importantly, for the Army itself.

My take: this chief is going to lead the Army in some very new directions — and plenty of folks are not gonna like it.

But for all those young Soldiers who form up every day down at the squad level, you may have just gotten a chief who is serious about understanding the world through your eyes. And if he is going to keep your talents in this new Army of 2020, that might be one of his most vital perspectives. Stand by for some changes.