Some Thoughts for America’s Next Top General

A personal memo to the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joe Dunford.

<> on May 5, 2015 in Washington, DC.
<> on May 5, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Joe, congratulations on your nomination to become the 19th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As you plow through the millions of emails, letters, and phone calls of support that are stacking up at the moment, I know you are already thinking about your agenda for the fall, assuming your confirmation goes well — which of course it will. The support and goodwill on The Hill is palpable, notable, sincere, and a potential source of real strength for you, by the way.

Your selection reflects deep credit on your beloved U.S. Marine Corps; rewards the hard work you have put into a brilliant career; and will require the ongoing deep support and love of your family. During our time together in NATO, I was so impressed to see your intellect, character, and creativity on display first hand as our NATO/ISAF commander in Afghanistan. The same traits you brought to that incredibly challenging assignment will serve you well in this new post.

I know leaving the Corps and the position of commandant — one you revere — is a very hard task for you. You will always have the touchstone of your Marine roots, but the nation has bigger responsibilities in store for you, and no one will be better at leaving service parochialism at the door. Your broad and meaningful joint graduate education — both at The Fletcher School at Tufts (full disclosure: where I am dean) and at Georgetown University — will stand you in good stead in that regard.

You’ll get a ton of advice going forward, most of which will be worth about what you pay for it. But having spent many years focused on these key areas, I would like to offer a few challenges and ideas to think about as you build a transition team and focus on both first steps and long term issues (all following Senate confirmation, of course).

Dodging the 2016 political venom. An election year can be a lost year in Washington, as petty politics reinforces the useless gridlock that plagues our capital. You are fortunate to have as defense secretary Ash Carter, not a particularly political or polarizing figure. He is, essentially, an enlightened bipartisan technocrat (in the best sense of that term) who has extraordinarily broad bureaucratic skills in the Washington arena. Joe, the innate ability you have to “disagree without becoming disagreeable” will help; but there will be times when nothing you say will be acceptable either to one side or the other in heated debate. Have a thick skin, and recognize the mud will splash pretty equally from both sides of the aisle over time.

People and money. While as chairman you will be principally advising the president and the national security team on military operations, we both know that a significant part of your job will be taken up with the issues surrounding personnel and budget. At the top of the list is always taking care of the force — something you have done throughout your time in uniform. Of particular note as you come into office this fall will be the debates over retirement and pay. Frankly, it is time to modernize the retirement system — while appropriately grandfathering those already in the service — and you will be a leading voice in making this fair but functional. On the budget side, you’ll need to keep hammering for a solution to the mindless sequestration cuts. Neither will be fun debates to have, but both will require your leadership form the uniformed side.

Countering violent extremism. The radical Islamic agenda will naturally be front and center for you. The best approach is to use hard power in the short term, but find ways to play the long game within an interagency approach. While your focus must be on the front-end combat requirements, you can play a powerful voice supporting partners like State, Treasury, USAID, and the intelligence community as they get at the longer-term issues — which are economic, cultural, political, and diplomatic. Again, your voice will be important to make sure we use both hard and soft power intelligently.

Standing firm with Russia. There are certainly zones of cooperation with Russia (counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and piracy) but they are increasingly few and far between. While we don’t want to stumble back into a new Cold War, we need to face down the bullying approach of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine specifically — and more generally around the Russia’s periphery. NATO is key, and your intimate and personal knowledge of the various commanders from your time hosting them in Kabul will be a significant asset. Spend quality time with the incoming chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Gen. Petr Pavel of the Czech Republic, and meet with the leading European chiefs of defense (Britain, France, Germany, and Italy) as soon as you can.

Balancing Asia. China will rise, and they will threaten the South China Sea with what new Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris has called, “the great wall of sand” — the building of artificial islands to claim sovereignty. China will not only irritate and threaten their neighbors in Southeast Asia, they will press up against Japan in the Northeast. The U.S. role will be to provide balance, build our relationships with treaty allies and partners alike, and ensure North Korea does not go completely off the rails. Your physical presence early and often will be helpful and necessary. And nobody knows this region better than Admiral Harris, who takes up his post just before you — lean on his advice.

Preparing for cyber conflict. The dogs of war are ready to slip free online. Expect on your watch over the next four years to see a major incident that impacts the national electrical grid, a significant cyberstrike on a U.S. combat system, and increasingly vicious hacks on the U.S. financial network. You will need to think through the role of CYBERCOM and whether or not we should begin to move toward a Cyber Force, much as we thought about creating an Air Force after World War II. Perhaps the time is right to at least build a cyber force along the model of US Special Operations Command. One big event will demand that we do so; why not get ahead of the curve?

Beware the black swans. Three big possibilities are a pandemic, a nuclear detonation, or a huge humanitarian disaster. You can bet on at least one in your four years as chairman, perhaps two. A pandemic in the class of the 1918 Spanish Influenza would be a global disaster and is not unlikely. A loose nuclear weapon, while unlikely, is a potential global catastrophe and ongoing proliferation increases the chances. And another significant tsunami or a huge earthquake (say on the west coast of the United States) is not impossible. These low probability, high impact events cannot be discounted.

To prepare for them, you need a small, innovative, “red cell” on the Joint Staff that can help predict these outlier events, then provide first-order recommendations for responses that can be tasked to the various combatant commands. This Disaster Innovation Cell could be a crucial resource on your close-in team. But part of the process should also focus on providing military support to civilian authorities via interagency coordination.

Joe, good luck in an incredibly challenging but meaningful assignment. Godspeed and open water to you.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

 Twitter: @stavridisj

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