How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
When I joined the Army in 1974, the United States military claimed to be committed to joint operations, but it was not. In Vietnam, the Air Force, Army, and Navy all fought completely different air wars, and Army and Marine generals sometimes disagreed on basic strategy on the ground. Almost a decade later in Grenada, tactical coordination between the Army and Marine Corps had improved only marginally. Incompatible communication systems caused numerous problems between ground forces and naval aviators, and led to a friendly fire incident that wounded 17 soldiers. By the 1991 Gulf War, inter-service cooperation had progressed, but not enough; the Army excluded the Marines from much of their ground operations planning and all of the services disagreed on how to use their respective air assets. More than 40 years after the creation of the Department of Defense, the U.S. armed forces still struggled to shoot, move, communicate, plan, or cooperate as a fully joint force.
Today, things are much different. After over a decade of continuous operation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces have made enormous strides towards true jointness, particularly in counterinsurgency. In Afghanistan today, air and ground operations, intelligence collection and fusion, as well as logistics and communications all bring together the talents of more than one service. Our special operations are completely joint and routinely integrate our general purpose forces. Visit any Regional Command, Forward Operating Base, or Afghan Army training center and you’ll find soldiers and sailors working hand in hand with airmen and Marines, as well as with Afghans and other international partners.
Despite these advances, the efforts to create a fully joint force are not yet complete, and if we are not careful, the gains of the last decade could be lost. In many ways, it is easier to work together in times of war because life-or-death stakes keep everyone focused on the same goal. But as wars end and defense budgets shrink, there is a temptation among the services to re-draw battle lines. We should resist this. Instead, we should leverage the services’ distinctive cultures and competencies to make the Joint Force even more networked and interoperable. This will be the best way to prepare for the full range of missions that the armed forces must perform today and will likely have to perform in the future.
As President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed over half of a century ago, "separate ground, sea and air warfare is gone forever. If ever again we should be involved in war, we will fight it in all elements, with all services, as one single concentrated effort." His statement was true then, and it remains so today. Although the United States is no longer locked in an existential struggle with a single rival superpower, the threats to the country and its interests now extend well beyond the actions -- and boundaries -- of states.
THE FUTURE OPERATING ENVIRONMENT
The 21st century operating environment brings new challenges and requires new thinking. Globalization has made the world more peaceful and more dangerous at the same time. On the one hand, the number of armed conflicts in the world has steadily trended downward. On the other hand, the diffusion of power in an era of hyper-connectivity is allowing destructive technologies to proliferate more quickly giving more nations, groups, and individuals capabilities once restricted to just a few states. Responding appropriately to this security paradox requires the United States to see the threats clearly and to place them in their proper context.
First, nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons remain the most dangerous technologies on the planet, and the risk of their proliferation is increasing. The new normal of combustible violence across the Middle East only adds to these risks. Second, cyberintrusions are increasing at an exponential rate, rendering our military networks and the homeland’s critical infrastructure more vulnerable by the day. Third, anti-access and area denial capabilities -- such as advanced cruise, anti-ship, and ballistic missiles -- are also proliferating, giving adversaries new ways to hinder freedom of action in the terrestrial global commons, in space, and in cyberspace.
Finally, the widespread diffusion of telecommunications technologies and digital media is changing the relationship between the governed and their governments. Much of this is positive. People now have new tools for communicating, organizing, and watching events unfold around the world in real time. Yet, these technologies also make military secrecy more challenging and provide extremists and terrorists new tools for destabilizing governments.
In this new, more complex environment, the Joint Force will have to operate differently. To guide those efforts, in January 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued new strategic guidance that outlined U.S. President Barack Obama’s priorities for 21st-century defense. One element of that guidance -- the rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region -- has received the most attention, but Priorities for 21st Century Defense represented much more than a geographic shift. It also set forth ten primary missions that the Joint Force must be able to accomplish to protect the nation and its interests -- missions that require the Joint Force to operate across geographical boundaries, service affiliations, and the domains of air, land, sea, undersea, space and cyberspace. Some of these missions, such as counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, are familiar to us. Others have been under-resourced over the last decade and require renewed attention. Still others, such as fully integrating cyber across the force, will require significant re-calibration.
In February 2012, my initial Strategic Direction to the Joint Force set the course for adapting to the future operating environment. Of course, we can only realistically change about twenty percent of the force over the next seven years. The other eighty percent is already programmed or in existence. For this reason, most of the required changes will be in the realm of ideas -- on developing shared concepts, policies, doctrine, and education that make the force more interoperable and effective at a lower cost. This will involve hard choices. As the United States transitions from a decade of protracted counterinsurgency operations, Washington should remember that the size of the armed forces is not the most telling metric of their strength. Expanded cooperation will yield greater capability. We are reducing our numbers, and we may do less in the coming years, but we will never do it less well.
The most important change needed for the Joint Force of 2020 is an approach we’ve called “globally-integrated operations,” which is, simply put, the ability of a globally postured Joint Force to assemble quickly and apply decisive force anywhere in the world with a wide array of partners. This is no small task. There may be times when a large centralized force is needed, but more often than not, the Joint Force will operate as a de-centralized network that can aggregate on demand and dial capabilities up or down depending on the mission and the operating environment. This approach calls for achieving superiority in multiple domains simultaneously. Most important, conducting globally-integrated operations means seizing the initiative and being responsive across the various domains. Technological change will continue to accelerate the tempo of combat operations; we cannot afford to be slowed by the organizational stovepipes of the past.
Globally-integrated operations is especially relevant for ensuring “operational access” -- that is, the ability to project military force into an area with sufficient freedom of action to accomplish the broader military mission -- in the face of the anti-access and area denial capabilities of our adversaries. To advance our efforts on this front, we released the Joint Operational Access Concept in 2012. Its first principal is that achieving operational access is an all-service fight, for each service has critical capabilities that protect, augment, and empower those of the others. One can easily imagine a situation in which the Air Force would help destroy anti-ship technologies; the Navy would take out air defenses; Army, Marine, and Special Forces on the ground would neutralize land-based threats to air and naval forces; and all the services (indeed, the entire Interagency) would defend against attacks from cyberspace. Preparing for that fight requires the Joint Force to do more than just cooperate or coordinate. The tempo of modern operations is too high and the opportunities for seizing the initiative too fleeting. We must integrate and unify our various capabilities without regard for their points of origin or organizational affiliations.
Some good work has already been done. The Navy’s and Air Force’s “Air-Sea Battle” concept proposes steps to increase cooperation across the force -- an important first step. The job now is to make those efforts fully joint while keeping sight of the fact that operational access is just one of a broader set of missions that the armed forces must be able to perform. It is also important to remember that achieving operational access is not an end in itself; it only provides the freedom of action to achieve other military missions and strategic objectives. Focusing our efforts too narrowly would be a mistake. As we balance risk against fiscal realities, we must also measure the cost of new acquisitions against their benefits across multiple missions. Strategy requires us to balance ends, ways, and means. The challenge for Joint Force 2020 will be to create more diverse and responsive capabilities with fewer resources. The key to meeting that challenge will be better integration, unity of effort, and a fully joint force.
TOWARDS A FULLY-JOINT FORCE
When President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 creating the organization that would soon become the Department of Defense, he did so to strengthen the country, improve its fiscal health, unify the services, and transition them to the postwar world. Eisenhower unified the services still further, brought down defense budgets, and improved the institutions that Truman had bequeathed him. Thanks in part to the leadership of these two presidents, over the ensuing half century, the United States avoided becoming a garrison state and won the Cold War.
In my own time in uniform, I have seen the services continue to shed their lingering suspicions of each other while preserving the institutional cultures that give each its pride and strength. From Vietnam to Grenada, to Panama, the Gulf War, and Kosovo, the Joint Force has steadily broken down the barriers to cooperation without sacrificing the diversity that characterizes the separate armed services and the nation.
Our junior military leaders -- the future of the force -- understand the benefits of these changes far better than my peers and I did at their age. Over a decade of combat operations has given them life-or-death incentives for true inter-service cooperation. As a result, they operate fluidly within the joint environment and with other government agencies.
The challenge now is to expand the “jointness” achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan to the full range of operations and capabilities needed for the future security environment. As we transition from wartime budgets to fewer resources, and from relatively static counterinsurgency operations to increasingly dynamic global operations, we must continue to unify our efforts, prepare a force that preserves options, and concentrate on our duty to protect the nation and its interests. I have no doubt that we can adapt to the challenges that await us. In truth, we have no choice. We cannot afford to get this transition wrong.