Monday, May 30, 2011

What makes a good CJCS?

If all goes according to plan, GEN Martin Dempsey will be was announced this morning as the president's nominee to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The commentary and analysis surrounding his surprising and contentious selection (and suggestions of a nefarious whisper campaign against Hoss Cartwright, the current Vice Chairman) provide a window into the priorities of various constituencies when it comes to the military and its senior leadership. The CJCS debate is an important one not for the third-hand speculation about personal character and management styles, but for the way it distills many of the major national security debates into concentrate: what should our military look like in the future? Against what threats should we be oriented? What doctrinal concepts should dominate the bulk of training time and force transformation efforts? And beyond that, what do this one man's biography and personal priorities tell us about what's important to the president?

But the conversation is often limited by unfamiliarity with the structure of senior military leadership and the way each power base -- the Joint Chiefs, the Combatant Commanders, and the Service Chiefs -- have different equities and priorities. I had a number of brief Twitter exchanges on this subject late last week and realized that a lot of people really just don't understand what each guy's job is and how it differs from the others. I figured a post was in order to lay out what each of the very most senior U.S. military officers is responsible for, and thus what ought to be most important when selecting them.

First, let's talk for a second about Goldwater-Nichols and the organization of the U.S. Armed Forces. The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 made a number of very significant changes to the way the DOD does business, changes that were fundamental and foundational and still widely misunderstood by the broader public. Here's the most important one: since 1986, the department has been organized in a way that is meant to facilitate jointness and the most effective use of all military tools in an integrated, rational way.* One set of organizations -- the military services -- is responsible for generating and sustaining combat power, while the other set -- the combatant commanders -- is responsible for using that combat power to win wars and meet national objectives. The individual services and their chiefs have no operational responsibility or authority -- they are merely the force provider to the combatant command "customer," who is responsible for requesting and employing appropriate forces to accomplish warfighting missions. Remember this, because it's really important.

The Department of Defense, as you know, is headed by a civilian Secretary of Defense. His or her job is to be "the principal assistant to the President on all matters relating to the Department of Defense." It's as simple as that. He's tasked with a number of statutory responsibilities, many of which he executes "with the advice and assistance of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff." Here's what it all comes down to: the SECDEF is responsible to help out the president as needed; to report up to Congress on what the DOD is doing and planning; and to report down to the service secretaries (more on them in a minute) and the Chairman on what's expected of them, i.e. the way DOD and national plans influence their job responsibilities. The SECDEF is also the only individual other than the president invested with command authority over the armed forces.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is identified by law as "the principal military adviser to the President, the National Security Council [now National Security Staff], the Homeland Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense." Interestingly, early versions of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation included in their title "to Strengthen the Position of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff" alongside "to Provide for More Efficient and Effective Operation of the Armed Forces." But President Reagan's 1986 letter to Congress on the subject of defense reorganization expressly stated that "the strengthening of other offices or components of the defense establishment should never be, nor appear to be, at the expense of the authority of the Secretary of Defense." While the Chairman was now invested with the responsibility to represent the interests of the entire uniformed military in providing advice to senior political leaders, he is not the SECDEF's military equivalent or peer.

Just like the Secretary, the Chairman has responsibilities to those below him as well as to his superiors: it's his job to take the warfighting requirements articulated by the combatant commanders and pass them to his higher -- that is, to the SECDEF. He serves as the synthesizer and integrator of joint warfighting functions, which is really just a jargony way of saying he's the guy who looks at the range of possible mission requirements, lines them up against the combined capabilities of the joint force, and sees if there are any gaps in what the U.S. military can do. He's a bit like a service chief for the joint force, which will make more sense in just a second.

So now we've got the service chiefs, whose fundamental responsibility is support the individual service secretaries in their mission to organize, train, and equip forces in order to provide capabilities to joint force/combatant commanders. That means, according to the law, recruiting, organizing, supplying, equipping (including R&D), training, servicing, mobilizing, demobilizing, administering, maintaining, construction of facilities and equipment... everything that goes into providing trained and ready forces. It includes everything from doctrine writing and personnel policy to capabilities development and force management. In short, service chiefs are responsible for taking whatever actions are necessary to produce readiness: to develop forces that know how to fight and are properly organized and equipped to do so.

That's where the combatant commanders come in: they're responsible for the accomplishment of missions assigned to them by either the president or the SECDEF and transmitted via the CJCS. They take the forces generated and provided for them by the military services and employ them in order to accomplish national objectives. A CCDR has authority for all U.S. military activities and operations in his AOR, whether functional (as in the case of JFCOM, STRATCOM, TRANSCOM, or SOCOM) or geographic, and he develops war plans and contingency plans that specify the way he intends to use the forces at his disposal to win wars and deal with emergent threats to American security interests.

I hope you'll forgive me the drawn-out explanation, but I think it's absolutely essential to understand what it is that the president needs from each of his senior military leaders. Now that we have a feel for all that, how do these appointments shake out?

Dempsey's ascent to Chairman is a disappointment to a great many people, but not because he's poorly suited for the job -- rather because he was viewed as a perfect fit for the Army Chief of Staff job. He's diversely experienced in both operational and institutional roles, having headed the U.S. advisory and assistance organization in Saudi Arabia (what's called PM-SANG, or Program Manager for the Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program); commanded the 1st Armored Division in Iraq; led the training and equipping command in Baghdad (Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, or MNSTC-I); served as the interim commander of U.S. Central Command; and spearheaded the Army's efforts at intellectual and doctrinal transformation as the commanding general of TRADOC (Army Training and Doctrine Command). It's hard to think of a job for which GEN Dempsey wouldn't be a good fit. He's shown an eagerness to learn and adapt, and also to aggressively engage with both soldiers and interested outside communities in order to communicate his goals. And that's a big part of the reason Dempsey seems like such a big loss to the Army: as a big-think guy who has clearly spent a great deal of time considering the meaning of the soldiering profession, he seemed perfectly suited to help the Army reset after a decade of war and position itself to meet national needs in the future.

The CJCS needs to be a straight-shooter when advising the president and SECDEF, while also serving as an honest broker for all of the military services. Some have suggested that an Army general might not be the right man for the job in light of the need to re-balance capabilities after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, that a green-suiter might be too focused on healing and resetting the Army with big budgets and deformed concepts to help the joint force get ready for future threats. I think this is bogus. In 1958, President Eisenhower insisted that the individual "service responsibilities and activities must always be only the branches, not the central trunk of the national security tree." Shouldn't we trust that one of the most forward-thinking four-stars of our era would agree, especially when it's a part of his legal mandate?

I'm mystified by suggestions that Petraeus or Cartwright would have been better choices. Some will certainly disagree with me on this one, but I think Petraeus (health concerns and interest in the CIA job notwithstanding) would have been nearly the worst possible candidate for either CJCS or CSA. He has demonstrated a mission-focus that's admirable and desirable in a combatant commander, the sort of "damn the rules, let's just get this done" attitude that you want a wartime leader to have when lives are on the line. But that same attitude means he's shown a willingness to push his own preferences and priorities in a way that borders on the inappropriate, and one wonders if someone so strong-willed and committed to a particular operational orthodoxy is best-suited to serve as the lead advisor to the president and the voice of the entire uniformed military. When it comes to senior military leadership, lanes are important; GEN Petraeus would probably assert that he has more important things to worry about.

The tension between the priorities of service chiefs and combatant/joint force commanders is often palpable, as it was when GEN Casey elaborated a classic service chief's concern about the war in Iraq: that operational demands could be breaking the Army. "The forces are stretched. I don't think there's any question of that."** The only problem is that he articulated these concerns in 2006... when he was the operational commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Sometimes even the man in the arena seems not to be sure to what he ought to be paying attention. Which brings us to the Odierno-as-CSA pick: I think it's an interesting choice, but the timing is all wrong. As the president said, "after years on the front lines, Ray understands what the Army must do to prevail in today's wars, to prepare for the future, and to preserve the readiness of soldiers and families." GEN Odierno knows what capabilities the Army must generate to be useful to a wartime commander, but I'm afraid his understanding of this is tailored to a specific context: short-duration, decisive maneuver warfare plus manpower-intensive counterinsurgency and stability operations in irregular war. I have less confidence that he's prepared to be the reshaping visionary I feel certain GEN Dempsey would have become. Odierno would have been the perfect CSA two or three years ago, when his direct experience as a battlefield commander could have informed pre-deployment unit preparation, but I'm not sure he's the right guy for the future.

Who would I have picked, as if it matters? I think ADM Stavridis, currently at the helm of EUCOM, is an incredibly intelligent and forward-thinking officer. Galrahn has noted that some Navy folks are pleased he was  overlooked, as now they've got him around to be CNO. He's served as a CCDR in both the SOUTHCOM and EUCOM AORs, and so he has some perspective on the sort of non-traditional missions being executed by a command that is not primarily warfighting-focused as well as on the multinational coordination and preparation so essential to our operations in Afghanistan and Libya. But as I've said above, I think GEN Dempsey will do an outstanding job, and Stavridis' time may come yet.

In any event, I hope this little digression into roles and responsibilities will help to inform the discussion about the senior leadership shakeup.

* The idea here is that the commander of a joint force would be able to select among the wide range of capabilities offered by forces from the various services rather than being constrained by functional boundaries, or worse, having the services develop duplicative and overlapping capabilities in order to ensure that they could complete those missions without going outside their own organization.

** The great paradox of the service chief's job: there is nothing that is more destructive to readiness than actual war. If your priority is to have fully-manned, well-trained, appropriately-rested, maximally lethal combat units on the shelf for employment by combatant commanders, then having a significant portion of your force dedicated to one particular fight will clearly get in the way of that. If your whole job is to make sure a race-car is in tip-top driving shape, the last thing you want anybody to do with it is to actually race.


  1. Great post. I really enjoyed it.

    -Deus Ex

  2. Agree with Deus Ex. Interesting post to read....

  3. Here I was rather pleased with the Dempsey-Odierno appointments....

    Now I have to rethink it in light of the excellent points made.

  4. Not saying they're bad picks -- I'm just trying to explain why they might be better for other jobs. I would've loved to see GEN Chiarelli (current VCSA) as the Chief and maybe Odierno as a CCDR.

  5. "For a commander in chief who took office with no military experience and little exposure to or understanding of the military's culture, some said the decision to elevate combat commanders reflects Obama's increasing confidence in dealing with military brass."Knowing your limitations is a good sign of leadership. Well done, Mr. President. When you want military advice get it from the pros, not the Harvard consultants and east coast liberals.


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