General Martin Dempsey, the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The nation’s highest-ranking military officer, he is also the principal military adviser to the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council. Prior to becoming Chairman, General Dempsey served as the Army’s 37th Chief of Staff. Carnegie President Jessica T. Mathews moderated.

A Tough Portfolio

Mathews began by noting that upon taking office Dempsey inherited a tough portfolio replete not only with the usual international crises but also with three larger problems: how to wind down the war in Afghanistan; how to peacefully manage the rise of the Asia-Pacific region; and how to reconcile the coming defense budget cuts with the United States’ strategic needs.

A Challenging Strategic Environment

Dempsey argued that the United States is in an extremely challenging and dangerous strategic environment:

  • The Security Paradox: Dempsey observed that the strategic environment is, in many ways, a security paradox. On the one hand, he noted that the United States is an undisputed global power, and that the world’s overall levels of violence are at a historically low point. On the other hand, there has been a proliferation of weapons capabilities that make the world more dangerous.
  • An Adapting Enemy: Dempsey argued that the United States’ enemies are decentralized and no longer mass together; instead, they act as a flexible network. He noted that this has been visible in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and will increasingly characterize future battles.

New Defense Strategy

Dempsey argued that the United States needs a new defense strategy with three main elements:

  • Rebalancing Toward the Pacific: Dempsey agreed with Mathews that the Asia-Pacific would be a major challenge for the United States, and noted that the U.S. military is accordingly rebalancing toward the region. However, the rebalancing does not indicate that the United States ever left the region; instead, Dempsey argued, it is an issue of intellectual bandwidth and how much U.S. military thinkers had thought about the region and the challenges it presents. He also added that the rebalancing is not meant to be a containment strategy oriented at China, and that the United States seeks to work with China.
  • Building Partnerships: Given the security paradox and an adapting enemy, Dempsey argued that the United States, too, needs to adjust its strategy. Although the world has grown more dangerous, he stated that the U.S. military did not need to become bigger—just different. In particular, the United States needs to build on existing partnerships and take advantage of emerging ones in order to become a network. Part of this task centers around making the U.S. military more joint, but part of it is international as well. Although the United States does not currently have a single overarching “doctrine,” like the Powell Doctrine in the early 1990s, Dempsey suggested that it might be moving toward a doctrine based on a global networked approach to warfare defined by advanced technology, lighter manpower, and robust international partnerships. Dempsey conceded that it is not easy to build partnerships, and that the United States needs to work hard to resolve outstanding challenges, such as the issues associated with technology transfers, intelligence sharing, and foreign military sales.
  • Integrating New Capabilities: Dempsey posited that in the last ten to fifteen years, there have been massive advances in military technology. As just one example, ten years ago, the term “ISR” (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) was practically unknown, whereas today it is the fulcrum of U.S. defense efforts. In addition to ISR, the U.S. military has to focus on integrating new capabilities associated with areas like cyber warfare and special operations forces if it wants to maintain its martial edge. The United States is already moving forward on this through the creation of the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), which aims to allow the United States to overcome anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities—intended to keep the United States out of a given theater and diminish its freedom of action once it arrived—in all domains.

Dempsey agreed with Mathews that budget cuts could be a significant challenge, but noted that even if they were not a factor, the United States would still have to adapt to a changing world by moving toward the new strategy. He concluded by arguing that while the military has an enduring role in the protection of U.S. interests, it is also a tool that should never be wielded alone, and should always work in conjunction with civilians spread across the U.S. government in order to offer a “whole-of-government” solution to the United States’ challenges.