Washington, DC – The new National Defense Strategy has paved the way for the most extensive revision of the joint force since the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a recent interview.
The changes will ensure that planning, force management and decision-making are made “at the speed of relevance,” Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford said.
The chairman is a key part of these revisions, being named by Defense Secretary James N. Mattis as the global integrator for the joint force. The secretary’s memorandum detailing the chairman to the job calls on him to be “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.
That the speed of war has accelerated is a given. Actions in one part of the world are felt almost instantaneously around the globe. The cyber world is now a realm of combat and permeates all other realms. A video of a riot in Peshawar, Pakistan, may spark a response anywhere from Nigeria or the Philippines to Moscow or Beijing.
Changing Nature, Character of War
The inclusion of space and cyber realms as domains of warfare means the battlefield has expanded from orbit to the digital world, and has changed the character of war. As reflected in the recently signed Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, the old paradigm of “at war” or “at peace” has shifted, defense officials have said. Russian and Chinese military thinkers have “gone to school” on the United States and devised strategies to achieve their objectives short of open conflict, officials said.
The Russians and Chinese are playing a long game to threaten the international, rules-based order that has been so successful at maintaining peace since World War II, defense officials said. And they are doing this with actions below the threshold of armed conflict. They use information operations, troop movements, proxy fighters, propaganda, diplomacy, economic pressures and threats to coerce countries.
The speed of war has accelerated, and the US military is changing to get ahead of this development. Time is a precious commodity to defense and national leaders. They need the best intelligence and information and they need it quickly.
When Dunford first took office he spoke about buying more time for leaders to study options and make decisions.
He believes he has found the way to buy this time and global integration is key.
“When I think global integration, I think about it in terms of integrated plans — global plans instead of regional plans,” Dunford said. “I think in terms of decision-making by the secretary of defense — decisions about prioritization, allocation of resources primarily in a conflict.”
Joint Force Integration
Given the realities of conflict today, Dunford is committed to improving integration of the joint force ensuring senior leaders are able to make decisions at, what he calls, “the speed of relevance.”
To ensure the US military’s competitive advantage, Dunford has laid out four pillars of global integration: planning, decision-making, force management and force design. The effects of the changes across these four pillars will be felt throughout the joint force.
“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.
The department has always done global integration, but the changes to the speed of war and the changed character of war means that integration “needs to be done in a much more aggressive way,” Dunford said.
All this builds from the National Defense Strategy, which identifies great power competition with Russia and China as the main threats, with Iran, North Korea and violent extremism viewed as other threats to America, its allies and partner nations.
Military officials took those priorities and changed the force allocation process. “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.
Accelerated Decision-Making, Flexibility
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.
“Again, it’s speeding up decisions,” he continued. “It’s speeding up response by making sure that your global posture is aligned against your strategic priorities.”
And it is not just for today’s battles. An important part of integration is about the future. As the global integrator looks at the global posture, he is looking at the plans for today, but he also must assess what will be needed tomorrow, Dunford said.
When the chairman talks about shaping the force of the future, he talks about integrating strategy, concepts and assessments to develop a force that can fight and win against any adversary.
The process begins by examining the capabilities available today and the kinds of investments the services make in the joint force. “We then have to compare our trajectory against our adversaries and provide a rigorous assessment that looks across the joint force to determine the capabilities and capacities that each service will need 5, 10, 20 years down the road,” he said.
This is a departure from past practices. When the United States had overwhelming military advantage and a much larger force size, it was reasonable to allow the services to develop capabilities and then figure how to integrate them later.
“With peer competitors in an era of great power competition, you’ve got to be much more deliberate in capability development and specifically benchmark that against the best intelligence you have about the path of capability development of your adversary, informed by what you want to do in the strategic environment you expect to do it in, against the adversary you expect to see,” Dunford said.
Any conflict risks becoming trans-regional and all domain — land, sea, air, space and cyber — a departure from the past when potential conflicts could be considered limited to only a regional problem.
Regional conflicts may still be possible, but in all likelihood any conflict would quickly expand. The expansion of cyber capabilities and the dangers of missile proliferation change the calculus. Add to that nations working on nuclear technologies and the threat morphs quickly from a regional problem to a global threat — any conflict has the potential of being trans-regional, immediately.
As global integrator, the chairman will have to interact not only with the US commander for a regional area, such as the commander of US Forces Korea, but also the US combatant commander. He further will have to interact with US Northern Command for missile defense of the United States, US Cyber Command to counter any cyberattack and US Strategic Command for deterrence against nuclear threats.
This means the department must speed up the decision cycle. “Part of it is identifying those decisions that have to be made by the secretary and properly frame those,” Dunford said. “Left of conflict, you have to have a common understanding with your combatant commanders. You have to develop the ability to implicitly communicate. You do that in exercises, particularly in exercises where the secretary participates. And you rehearse similar scenarios.”
Joint Staff, Combatant Command Process Changes
This means significant process changes in the Joint Staff and the combatant commands, the chairman said.
There are still regional plans, he said, but they are built and informed by global campaign plans, which provide a framework for planning an all-domain, trans-regional approach to the challenges outlined in the National Defense Strategy.
Korea is just one example, Dunford said. “If we have a plan for Korea, we also have a supporting plan for all the other combatant commanders,” the chairman said, noting that these plans will outline the specific tasks commanders must accomplish, and the resources they would have.
This will enable the military to “quickly transition from where we are today to actually making Korea the main effort, and we can quickly transition the rest of the globe because there is going to be an immediate reprioritization and reallocation of resources to support the fight,” he said.
Global Exercises Remain Important
Transregional exercises involving multiple combatant commands are important for this process. Combined, joint exercises provide opportunities for senior leaders to train at the strategic level in the same way units train at the tactical level — providing the “reps and sets” required to improve competencies, develop implicit communication and identify risk, the chairman said.
“You can’t anticipate what is going to happen in a war, but you can try as best you can to replicate what you believe will happen in war and basically identify how you will frame those decisions,” Dunford said.
“So to make decisions faster, what is required?” he asked. “One is intelligence and information, and the other is a process that frames the elements of key decisions and quickly gives those to the secretary so he can see all the decisions he has to make in context.”
Military leaders must have a shared vision of the battlefield, the threats and the capabilities available. This type of integration among military commands will allow the secretary to make decisions at the speed of relevance, the chairman said.
The joint force began using exercises specifically to test the principles of global integration more than a year ago, officials said. Planners tailored scenarios to be intentionally transregional and all-domain, with the principals — the secretary, the chairman and the combatant commanders — all participating. “By going through these reps we are seeing the kinds of decisions the secretary would have to make in war,” Dunford said. “By developing global plans, we’re framing the problem globally that is unlikely to be isolated to a given region.”
Lessons from these exercises are driving changes throughout planning, decision-making and force management processes, the chairman said. One key lesson is that in today’s environment, where demand outpaces supply, decisions at the global level rely on leaders having absolute fidelity on resources and capabilities including levels of personnel and equipment readiness. Yet, until recently, the joint force still relied on largely analog — and slow — processes to identify trade-offs and opportunity costs. Innovation was required to provide senior leaders with the fidelity necessary to employ the force at the speed required of today’s fight.
“That’s why we’ve started working with Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental,” the chairman said. The public-private partnership to accelerate commercial innovation for national defense has allowed the Joint Staff to leverage artificial intelligence and advanced analytics.
“We now have the ability to track the major force elements that are distributed around the world to identify where they are, what they are capable of, what their level of readiness is,” he said. While the military has always done this type of analysis, the difference is that in the past this process would have taken weeks — today it takes seconds.
On the Joint Staff, the continental staff structure — the J-1, J-2, J-3 etc. — will remain in place. Below those there are now cross-functional teams set up last year where the integration of staff functions takes place. “It depends of the problem set who is on the cross-functional teams,” Dunford said. “We figure out who all the stakeholders are and they get representation on the team.”
The appointment as global integrator doesn’t change any authorities for the Joint Staff, but it does change responsibilities, officials said. For the chairman it really comes down to acting on the secretary’s strategy.
“We say to [the secretary], ‘Here is our understanding of your strategy. Here’s the capabilities and capacities we have in the inventory. Here’s our recommendations for posturing those forces against your priorities, and here is our appreciation of risk associated with the posture we have just developed,’” Dunford said.
All this builds on the lessons learned since the 1980s and the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, he said.
Senior leaders have to be engaged on the front end of a problem and throughout the process, the chairman said. “We can’t have processes that are absent senior leader direction and engagement, and then expect it to meet strategic requirements and priorities on the backside,” he said. “The secretary’s engagement early on and making sure we are benchmarking what we are doing and the processes against his strategy is really critical.”