Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

JCS chairman on the future of the U.S. military: Fewer mass formations, more partnering, more sharing of intel and tech

A bit to my surprise, I am becoming a fan of the relatively new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. This guy has his head screwed on right. I was particularly struck by a talk he gave recently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. It was remarkably ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A bit to my surprise, I am becoming a fan of the relatively new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. This guy has his head screwed on right.

I was particularly struck by a talk he gave recently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. It was remarkably coherent and quite concrete, with little of the mush and weasel phrases that often characterize strategic discussions in Washington.

He began by throwing overboard the Powell doctrine: "We found that model didn't fit real well toward the end of the '90s, as you recall, because the challenges that faced us -- first and foremost, they weren't existential necessarily. So you couldn't galvanize the entire nation behind a particular challenge."

A bit to my surprise, I am becoming a fan of the relatively new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. This guy has his head screwed on right.

I was particularly struck by a talk he gave recently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. It was remarkably coherent and quite concrete, with little of the mush and weasel phrases that often characterize strategic discussions in Washington.

He began by throwing overboard the Powell doctrine: "We found that model didn’t fit real well toward the end of the ’90s, as you recall, because the challenges that faced us — first and foremost, they weren’t existential necessarily. So you couldn’t galvanize the entire nation behind a particular challenge."

Following on that thought, he indicated that conventional mass forces were not the way to go in future conflicts, especially those against non-state actors. We need to allow ourselves, he said, "to confront these networked, decentralized foes with something other than huge formations of soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines."

He would put a particular emphasis on working with partners. In particular, he said, U.S. intelligence organizations need to get with that program. In intelligence and related areas such as technology transfer, he said, we continue to follow "Cold War processes that have not yet adapted themselves to what we really need to be doing today. And in order to deliver the strategy that we’ve all agreed is the right strategy for the country, we’ve got to get after those processes."

A man after my own heart, he also gave a big shoutout to Thucydides. "Athenian fear of a rising Sparta that made war inevitable. Well, I think that one of my jobs as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and as an adviser to our senior leaders is to help avoid a "Thucydides Trap." We don’t want the fear of that emerging China to make war inevitable.  So Thucydides — we’re going to avoid ‘Thucydides’ Trap.’"

That’s a pretty good blueprint, I think.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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