Last week at the Pentagon Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced he would recommend that President Obama nominate Lt. Gen. Robert Neller as the next commandant of the Marine Corps. The recommendation of Neller, currently commander of Marine Forces Command, was apparently a surprise, given that many informed observers were expecting either Gen. John Kelly of Southern Command or John Paxton, currently the assistant commandant, to be the likely successor to Gen. Joseph Dunford—who is slated to replace Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Surprise aside, if confirmed, Neller would be the latest in an entirely new slate of service chiefs who will influence the direction of the military over the remainder of the decade and beyond.
As defense analyst Nora Bensahel and retired Lt. Gen. David Barno—both now at American University—noted in a column for War on the Rocks, Dunford’s ascension to JCS chairman and the need for a new commandant of the Marine Corps take place in the same year that will see a new JCS vice chairman, Army chief of staff, and chief of naval operations. Additionally, a year from now the Department of Defense will be nominating a new chief of staff of the Air Force and a new leader of the National Guard Bureau. “This will be the first time in 32 years that all of the chiefs will have departed within a 12-month period,” they write, “and only the fourth time since the Department of Defense was founded in 1947.”
Barno and Bensahel argue that this transition has implications for a number of important issues:
The demands facing this new team will be markedly different from those that faced the past four sets of chiefs, dating back to 2001. By necessity, the first three sets of those chiefs focused on fighting large, long, and complex land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current chiefs have been transitional leaders in many ways, dealing with the muddled ends of these major wars while also beginning to wrestle with today’s unexpected new challenges from the rise of the so-called Islamic State to a resurgent Russia. By contrast, the incoming chiefs will start their terms in a new strategic era that has moved beyond the 9/11 wars. They will need a fresh approach that is much more focused on the future, while continuing to deal with the ever-changing crises of today.
In their column Barno and Bensahel identify “three main challenges” for the new chiefs: maintaining readiness amidst a number of foreign crises and budget constraints, adapting the military’s force structure, and addressing the civil-military divide.
Leaving aside the last one—which deals with larger issues about how political leaders and society as whole perceive the military—the chiefs do have a number of opportunities to influence military policy for decades to come.
Readiness, both in times of crisis or relative calm, is always a concern for military leaders. Unfortunately, as discussed here previously, the military has poor metrics for measuring readiness. The military’s input-based system determines readiness based on having adequate resources to prepare for certain “mission essential tasks.” As Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments explained in his study “Rethinking Readiness,” what the military services report to Congress in regards to readiness is that they had funding to prepare for those tasks, not how well they did. Under current law the military is only required to report on the input—for example, a training exercise was conducted—not the output from that training exercise. Harrison uses the example of the Air Force, which gives the number of flying hours pilots undertake in training to demonstrate readiness, rather than how those flying hours translate into proficiency in air-to-air combat or accuracy in strike missions. In some cases, flying additional hours has diminishing returns. But according to the current readiness system, failing to fly those hours is an indicator of reduced readiness.
Harrison argues that a culture change is needed in the way the military views readiness. The new leadership could certainly help facilitate such a change on its own. But even if they were so inclined, the chiefs are not omnipotent. They would face obstacles from within their own organizations, given the powerful and deeply ingrained cultures of the military services—what the late RAND Corporation defense analyst Carl Builder referred to as their “personalities.” It is more likely that congressional action will be necessary to effect the type of changes Harrison recommends.
That Congress must get involved, however, does not negate the fact that the chiefs would have tremendous influence over such a policy. The new leaders can either encourage their services to embrace a new way of doing business or they can create obstacles of their own should they wish to stonewall such a policy. Whether in times of budget constraints or when the Pentagon is flush with cash, the allocation of taxpayer dollars matters. Increasing defense budgets without understanding what the money is buying can paper over dangerous deficiencies. If the new chiefs wish to provide a foundation for a better military force, they should begin thinking about a new standard for readiness immediately.
Questions about the new chiefs’ role in force posture are more complex but no less significant. Barno and Bensahel write,
The decisions of the new chiefs about force structure … will determine what kind of military the United States will field: how many and what types of ships, the number of tank battalions or infantry brigades, and the size and number of fighter, bomber and transport squadrons, for example. These choices are ultimately all about tradeoffs, with each service inevitably arguing for a greater share of the defense budget pie. These arguments are informed by how each service views the nature of future war and levels of risk.
The new chiefs, according to the authors, “will have to reach consensus on the most fundamental questions” about the type of wars the U.S. military may have to fight in the future and what type of capabilities will be needed if war does occur.
Barno and Bensahel’s assertion raises fundamental questions of its own, though: Can the services reach consensus? More importantly, should they? Going back to Carl Builder’s idea that the military services have different “personalities,” they will therefore have different perspectives on future security challenges. The conceit behind attempts to encourage greater unity among the services—starting with the National Security Act of 1947 and culminating in the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986—was that these differing perspectives were harmful. But that type of pluralism can be beneficial. Competition can be a spur to creative thinking, while demands for consensus can lead to collusion. The authors are correct that the new service chiefs must find tradeoffs in arguing over their shares of the “defense budget pie,” but they can also provide alternative perspectives for shaping force structure decisions in light of an uncertain future—also providing some of the “creative destruction” that makes room for innovation.