The nation’s top military officer said on Monday that the Pentagon will revamp combat commands for the “fight of the future” because current “old plans” take too long to execute.
After two months as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford provided the first detailed look at his agenda as the chief military adviser to the president.
At the “top of my inbox,” he said, is reorganizing combat commands such as in the Pacific, which is a check on China, and the Middle East, which is leading the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The reason: He said a war with North Korea, for example, would not be confined to the Korean Peninsula because weapons such as ballistic missiles and cyberattacks would propel the fighting into other nations.
“Our current planning, our organization construct, and our command and control is not really optimized for that fight,” he told a defense conference hosted by the Center for a New American Security, which is led by Michele Flournoy, a possible secretary of defense in a Hillary Clinton administration.
Gen. Dunford elaborated: “If you believe what I believe and you do look at the nature of the fight today even against violent extremism and then look at the nature of what the fight might be against peer competitors in the future, I don’t think we’ll be able to be as responsive. I don’t think we will generate the tempo. I don’t think we’ll be able to frame decisions and act in a timely manner as much as we should unless we make some fundamental changes to our organizational construct — the way we plan, the way we develop strategy.”
He defended the continued existence of major combatant commands, such as Central Command and European Commands. Some have suggested that special task forces can do the planning and war-fighting — such as is being done in Iraq now — led by a three-star general and overseen by Central Command based in Tampa, Florida.
His statement came as the Senate Armed Services Committee and Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, are on the verge of rewriting the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, the landmark law that established the current chain of command.
“Sen. McCain is running pretty hard,” Gen. Dunford said, as his talk on Monday signals he will run alongside the senator.
The four-star general also said his own advisers, a group of 4,000 personnel called the Joint Staff, also need to reorganize and shed some functions he believes are no longer needed. He said his staff has “begun to do things I think we can probably walk away from. A bigger staff is not necessarily always a better staff.”
He also said the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, who meet regularly in a secure room known as the “tank,” need not take positions on all matters. He mentioned pay raises, as one example, saying the service secretaries through the secretary of defense can handle that annual policy.
Gen. Dunford answered questions from the audience and from the CNAS’ Ms. Flournoy. She was undersecretary of defense for policy in President Obama’s first term and is mentioned as a possible defense secretary.
Gen. Dunford said he has come to believe that future wars will be more far-flung.
He specifically mentioned Russia when he said, “If we’re involved in a conflict with Russia, it’s not going to unfold like the old plans that we developed to get after the physics of war. Our old plans need to be born with the view that it will be transregional. It will be multidomain. It will be multifunctional.”
He referred to attacks from the cyberworld and ballistic missiles as two of the “multifunctional” aspects of a future war that will afflict other regions.
“My assumption today is that it will be difficult for any conflict to be isolated to a region,” he added.
He referred to the “four actors” of Russia, Iran, North Korea and China as potential foes, as well as violent extremists group, meaning the Islamic State terror army.
“This isn’t a future challenge. This is now,” he said.
Goldwater-Nichols was mostly the brainchild of the Senate Armed Services Committee as a reaction to failures overseas, such as Vietnam and the botched Desert One raid to free American hostages in Iran. It set up clear lines of command from the president to the defense secretary to combatant commanders and created a four-star post to oversee commandos, which became U.S. Special Operations Command.
At a hearing last month, Mr. McCain said the law had worked but needs modernizing.
He said, “To a large degree, the organization of the Department of Defense still reflects those major decisions and changes made back in 1986. On the whole, those reforms have served us well. But much has happened in the past 30 years. We need a defense organization that can meet our present and future challenges.”