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Dunford: speed of military decision-making must exceed speed of war

Military decision-making needs to exceed the speed of events, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote recently in Joint Forces Quarterly.


Since Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford became the chairman in September 2015, he has emphasized innovations and changes that speed the military's ability to respond to rapidly changing situations.

While America's joint force is the best in the world, he said, it must continue to innovate to stay ahead of potential foes and to adapt to constantly changing strategies.

Also read: Mattis threatens 'overwhelming' response if North Korea ever uses nukes

"As I reflect back on four decades of service in uniform, it is clear that the pace of change has accelerated significantly," Dunford said.

He noted that when he entered the Marine Corps in the 1970s, he used much the same equipment that his father used during the Korean War. "I used the same cold-weather gear my dad had in Korea 27 years earlier," he said. "The radios I used as a platoon commander were the same uncovered PRC-25s from Vietnam. The jeeps we drove would have been familiar to veterans of World War II, and to be honest, so would the tactics." Marine units, he added, fought much the same way their fathers did at Peleliu, Okinawa or the Chosin Reservoir.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Steven Martinez, left, a corpsman, and Staff Sgt. Joseph Quintanilla, a platoon sergeant, both with 3rd Marine Regiment, brace as a CH-53E Super Stallion with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 366 takes off after inserting the company into a landing zone aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, July 26, 2015. | U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt.Owen Kimbrel

Accelerated Pace of Change

Today, "there are very few things that have not changed dramatically in the joint force since I was a lieutenant," Dunford said.

He spoke of visiting a Marine platoon in Farah province, Afghanistan. "This platoon commander and his 60 Marines were 40 miles from the adjacent platoons on their left and right," he said. "His Marines were wearing state-of-the-art protective equipment and driving vehicles unrecognizable to Marines or soldiers discharged just five years earlier. They were supported by the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, which provided precision fires at a range of 60 kilometers."

The platoon, Dunford recalled, received and transmitted voice, data and imagery via satellite in real time, something only possible at division headquarters just five years before his visit.

These changes are mirrored across the services and combatant commands, the chairman said, giving commanders amazing capabilities, but also posing challenges to commanders on how to best use these new capabilities.

"Leaders at lower and lower levels utilize enabling capabilities once reserved for the highest echelons of command," Dunford said in the article. "Tactics, techniques and procedures are adapted from one deployment cycle to the next."

This accelerated pace of change is inextricably linked to the speed of war today, the general said. "Proliferation of advanced technologies that transcend geographic boundaries and span multiple domains makes the character of conflict extraordinarily dynamic," the chairman said. "Information operations, space and cyber capabilities and ballistic missile technology have accelerated the speed of war, making conflict today faster and more complex than at any point in history."

Shortened Decision-Space Adds New Risks

The American military must stay ahead of this pace because the United States will not have time to marshal the immense strength at its command as it did in World War I and II and during Korea, Dunford said. "Today, the ability to recover from early missteps is greatly reduced," he said. "The speed of war has changed, and the nature of these changes makes the global security environment even more unpredictable, dangerous and unforgiving. Decision space has collapsed and so our processes must adapt to keep pace with the speed of war."

The situation on the Korean Peninsula is a case in point, the chairman said. In the past, he said, officials believed any war on the peninsula could be contained to the area. However, with the development of ballistic missile technology, the North Korean nuclear program and new cyber capabilities that is no longer possible, Dunford said. A war that once would have been limited would now spiral, almost immediately, with regional and global implications, he said.

"Deterring, and if necessary, defeating, a threat from North Korea requires the joint force to be capable of nearly instant integration across regions, domains and functions," Dunford said. "Keeping pace with the speed of war means changing the way we approach challenges, build strategy, make decisions and develop leaders."

This means seamlessly integrating capabilities such as information operations, space and cyber into battle plans, the chairman said. "These essential aspects of today's dynamic environment cannot be laminated onto the plans we have already developed," he said. "They must be mainstreamed in all we do, and built into our thinking from the ground up."

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks with Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman, and senior enlisted leaders from across the Defense Department during the Defense Senior Enlisted Leaders Council at the Pentagon, Dec. 1, 2016. | DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro

Integrated Strategies Improve Responsiveness

Dunford said the joint force must also develop integrated strategies that address transregional, multidomain and multifunctional threats. "By viewing challenges holistically, we can identify gaps and seams early and develop strategies to mitigate risk before the onset of a crisis," he said. "We have adapted the next version of the National Military Strategy to guide these initiatives."

The military must make the most of its decision space, so military leaders can present options at the speed of war, Dunford said. "This begins with developing a common understanding of the threat, providing a clear understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the joint force, and then establishing a framework that enables senior leaders to make decisions in a timely manner," the chairman said.

Leadership is essential, said the chairman, noting the joint force depends on leaders who anticipate change, recognize opportunity and adapt to meet new challenges.

"That is why we continue to prioritize leader development by adapting doctrine, integrating exercise plans, revising training guidance and retooling the learning continuum," Dunford said. "These efforts are designed to change the face of military learning and develop leaders capable of thriving at the speed of war."

Adaptation and innovation are the imperatives for the Joint Force, the chairman said. "The character of war in the 21st century has changed, and if we fail to keep pace with the speed of war, we will lose the ability to compete," he said.

"The joint force is full of the most talented men and women in the world, and it is our responsibility as leaders to unleash their initiative to adapt and innovate to meet tomorrow's challenges," Dunford said. "We will get no credit tomorrow for what we did yesterday."

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