2015 National Military Strategy: an Assessment

2015 National Military Strategy Assessment

Independence Day 2015

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in collaboration with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Unified Combatant Commanders has released the latest installment of the National Military Strategy.  This document outlines the strategy of the military to counter current threats in terms of ends, ways and means.  It also talks about how the military thinks it should employ the Armed Forces and is a document required by congress.  It’s anxiously awaited by some in DC I am sure, but what should the elected and appointed leaders in Congress and the White house really take away from this latest homework assignment?

Some will say its countering violent extremist organizations– VEOs (the latest acronym describing the deadly-violent, mostly-Islamist radicals waging war-without-morals across the globe).  Others will point to the effects of globalization.  More still will describe the evils of Russia, Iran, China and North Korea.  Topping the list of importance to some is technological advancement or economic volatility.  Some will point to the “integrated approach” that has clarified the current “D’s” of war…now Deter, Deny, Defeat or Disrupt, Degrade, Defeat.  (I prefer oldies like MOOSEMUSS to Triple Ds…wait what?).  Bean counters will hone in on the slim section on page 13 about actually resourcing the needed capabilities.

I will take a different slant about what is important in the document based on a recent interview of Past-President Jimmy Carter at an Aspen event.  When asked by Walter Isaacson how he rates the current administration’s efforts on the world stage, President Carter replied “minimal.”

While he lauded some of President Obama’s domestic work, Carter further explained the minimal statement by saying, “…but on the world stage, just to be as objective about it as I can, I can’t think of many nations in the world where we have a better relationship now than we did when he took over.”  Carter continued, “If you look at Russia, if you look at England, if you look at China, if you look at Egypt and so forth — I’m not saying it’s his [POTUS] fault — but we have not improved our relationship with individual countries and I would say that the United States influence and prestige and respect in the world is probably lower now than it was six or seven years ago.”

Carter felt the trend of America over the last few administrations was towards losing “its unquestioned domination of world politics and cultural influence.”

Carter also praised the work of current the Secretary Of State (and I guess by extension the State Department) but then added, “I can’t think of many nations in the world where we have a better relationship now than we did when he took over.”  So I guess that’s not much evidence for said praising.

SO where does that leave the Department of Defense and in particular the Armed Services?  It leaves them, as usual, holding together the real critical long-term relationships with foreign nations sans the ever-changing politics of the White House and State Department.  It leaves the Armed Services the task of identifying threats and building sound plans to counter the threats big and small.

BUT there is a catch.  If you read the 1-page Foreword to the 2015 National Military Strategy closely you can see that it’s a pretty important catch because it’s how the document starts.  The Armed Services don’t control foreign policy; they can only do their part in improving foreign relations.

The Chairman has not seen the “global security environment” so unpredictable (i.e. chaotic, messy, jacked-up) during his 40 years of service.  That’s not a good starting point for a strategy and echoes President Carter’s assessment of the last 6 years of this administration and the last few decades of American foreign affairs.

Since 2011 the Chairman also points out the disorder in the world has increased at the same time the U.S. military advantage over current threats have decreased.  Again our Generals and Admirals (GOFOs) are pointing to the inability of the U.S. to help guide the world in a positive direction using current methods.  But maybe more importantly, I think they may be speaking to the budget cuts that the Administration and both parties in Congress have been forcing on the Armed Services as the world security situation goes to hell in a hand-basket.  It’s hard to start finding a peace dividend before you gain any peace.  We are a wealthy country (despite our unsustainable debt policy) and can likely afford both guns and butter.  If you only buy butter you can’t protect, someone with guns will steal it.

The GOFOs then describe our enemy as everyone who hates us from nation-state down to handfuls of individual fundamentalists that are being super-empowered by technology.  They believe the attacks will happen more quickly [frequently and with surprise] and will “last longer.”  This should be interpreted as a shout-out to the few civilian leaders in DC that want the National Security apparatus to be more nimble to begin operations.  It’s also a warning to those in DC who think you can still win a war as fast as we did in WWII.  It doesn’t work that way anymore—be patient with money and losses once the bullets start flying.  You can’t firebomb entire cities to get a terrorist leader or rogue nation-state to capitulate.  If we hit Russia like we struck Germany in WWII over the Ukraine, America would be calling the UK for bail money so we could get the President out of UN Prison.  This is certainly a nod to the current state of the activity against ISIS in Iraq and Syria—the President doesn’t have a strategy and the Congress can’t figure out how to declare war.

The Chairman points out that the military must be able to adapt to new threats and maintain the ability to fight the older ones.  That means money and personnel.  You have to train frequently and have enough people to maintain a “trained and ready-to-deploy force” that is GREEN on the skills needed to fight the enemy that just presented itself—remember attacks will come faster so no more multi-year preparation periods.

The Generals and Admirals oddly had to talk about getting, not just Jointness and Multi-National military operations right, but also getting the Economic, Diplomatic and Informational (Intelligence) integration right…this means it usually isn’t synched.  That’s you NSC—Get into policy and out of tactical planning—“In Command and Out of Control.” (Sir Lambo)  Think strategically and be integrators not micro-managers (read McChrystal’s Team of Teams).  If the military is to be successful in its mission someone in the government must be in charge of ensuring all the tools are in the toolbox and that they are not broken or rusted.  Then ensure that the tools are used in the right sequence and frequency.  Having multiple cabinets members think they are in charge of war is not useful.  Remember attacks will come fast and frequent and often by surprise.

They go on to point out that the military must stay globally engaged to shape the security situation and preserve our current good relationships.  That means we must not yank our forces out of a country unless we are willing to let that country slip out of our alliance and probably into chaos (think Japan, Germany, South Korea).  The nations of the world that once thought of us as trusted friends and steadfast allies who will stand beside them frequently use the word abandoned to describe current U.S. relations.  The Military can turn this around and must.  The military is uniquely suited to regain trust because military leaders are professionals that exhibit “competence and character” and are people of consequence.  If Military leaders make promises they are kept because they know that lies destroy morale and warriors won’t fight for a liar.  Our allies trust the military—use it to fix this decline.  Tell the military exactly who needs to remain in the fold and who needs to be brought in so we don’t waste resources on nations that are not critical to our foreign policy and security.  And maybe listen to the Military when they tell you what nations are actually going to be critical—they look into the future a lot in DOD.

The Chairman again mentions in the Foreword that campaigns of the future will be prolonged and the problems we face don’t have quick solutions.  Because America can no longer predict the problems we will face and key resources are being removed from the Armed Services, the military may need to change its “global posture.”  This won’t be a cost saving measure America.  This means we need more flexibility and to stop cutting valuable resources.

On a positive note the GOFOs note that even though the future is bleak America has the best citizens in the world and those men and women in uniform deserve to have great leaders and the best equipment.  Translation, we need to continue and improve military leader development (it would help if the other Departments and Agencies did so as well) and we can’t short change our people on gear.

SO in summary: The NSC needs to get strategic, give clear direction and get out of the way while fully supporting those who execute the policy.  Congress must pay for a capable and well-led force, but don’t get suckered into buying gizmos the DOD doesn’t need or want.  Congress must also figure out how to declare war quickly and the White House must know how to ask correctly.  The American people must be patient with the only part of the government that is results-based (DOD).  Wars will be long, will be messy and will not end neatly.  The warrior-diplomats of the Armed Services can turn things around overseas.

Please take some time to read the Foreword to the National Military Strategy before you get mired in the details of the document.  If we don’t reflect upon the insights and advice of these professional warriors that have collectively over 300 years in the business of warfare then maybe we deserve the chaos that will come.  I may be wrong but I am pretty good at reading between the lines.

Jason Howk is a retired military Officer that served over 20 years as an enlisted Infantryman, Engineer Officer and South Asia Foreign Area Officer.  He is a published author, Middle East and South Asia scholar and served as a direct assistant to 3 senior Generals in combat zones.  His experiences in Joint, Interagency, Multi-National, Non-Governmental, Intelligence, and Diplomatic organizations have shaped this opinion which in no way represents the official DOD position.

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