NATIONAL HARBOR: The most senior officer in the US military read poetry, sang (a little), and commented on issues from inside attacks in Afghanistan to leadership philosophy in remarks here today.
Gen. Martin Dempsey is a career Army man, but as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he overseas all the services, and he made sure to laud his blue-suited brethren in his speech to the annual conference of the Air Force Association — and to sing a line from the Air Force Hymn. He even had muted praise for the Air Force-Navy doctrine of “AirSea Battle,” often seen as an anti-Army budget grab, but which Dempsey called a necessary component of “the larger issue, which is joint operational access.”
“The Air Force has been among the adaptable parts of our national instrument of military power” since 9/11, Dempsey declared, perhaps “most prominent[ly]” out of all the services. The challenge now is to keep adapting both in Afghanistan and beyond.
“The military I grew up in was one trained [to] mass and then had to learn over time how to disaggregate” for counterinsurgency operations, Dempsey said. “The 21st century will be a period where we will be asked to apply our instrument decentralized, distributed, and disaggregated — but never lose our ability to aggregate” against larger-scale threats.
That flexibility will require what Dempsey and other Army officers like to call “mission command,” a term which has largely replaced the traditional “command and control” — with its top-down implications — in Army doctrine. He quoted with approval a Herman Melville poem about the Civil War Battle of Chattanooga, when General Ulysses Grant’s troops ignored his orders to regroup after seizing the first line of Confederate trenches and kept charging up Missionary Ridge, ultimately carrying the whole position. Instead of a strict centralized plan, said Dempsey, “you provide your subordinates the objectives and then you trust them to apply the means to achieve those objectives — with the full understanding they will change those means over time.”
“The changes that have been made in Afghanistan are just that — they’re tactical changes in response to a changing threat,” Dempsey went on, immediately segeuing to this year’s rash of “insider attacks” by Afghan personnel on their Western would-be allies. Restricting US-Afghan cooperation in the field to forestall insider attacks is as necessary an adaptation as uparmoring Humvees against roadside bombs, another threat once seen as insurmountable but which the US military has largely learned to overcome. Not changing how we work with the Afghans, he said, would be the equivalent of saying in 2004 that “we’ve got IEDS [improvised explosive devices], but let’s just keep driving down the road.”
But those “tactical changes,” he said, do not mean the coalition has abandoned its strategic objective of shepherding the Afghan forces to self-sufficiency (eventually). That goal remains “achievable,” he said. “But we don’t get from here to there in a straight line. You never do.”