JUST IN: Dunford Cautions Against Overgrowing the Military
Photo: Defense Dept.
To maintain its competitive edge over advanced adversaries, the U.S. military must avoid adding force structure at the expense of acquiring high-tech capabilities, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said May 29.
The Navy and Air Force in particular have ambitious plans to grow their forces. The Navy aims to reach a 355-ship fleet by 2034, up from 289 battle forces ships that it currently has in its inventory. A recent Air Force study concluded that the service needs 386 squadrons by 2030 to carry out its missions, about 25 percent more than it has today. Analysts and other observers have questioned the affordability of those goals.
Meanwhile, the national defense strategy calls for investing in next-generation capabilities to prevent peer competitors such as China and Russia from further closing the gap with the U.S. military.
During a Q&A session at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford was asked about tradeoffs between capacity and capability, and if he had any advice for his successors. Dunford is scheduled to retire when his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff comes to an end around October.
“We've looked at the trajectory of capability development that our peer competitors are on,” Dunford said. “We've made judgments in conjunction with the intelligence community about where they will be in the mid-‘20s. We've looked at where we are today and where we would need to be to maintain an acceptable competitive advantage, … and we have done the math to justify 3 to 5 percent real [budget] growth over inflation to meet both the capability and capacity requirements.”
If the Defense Department doesn’t receive that level of funding increases, it will have to make tough choices, he noted.
“When you have to make a choice between capacity and capability, I would go with capability,” he said. “I would make sure every unit that we have actually has the level of readiness to meet its requirements. And I wouldn't grow the force in a way that exceeds what we predict is going to be sustainable.”
“Quality over quantity would be the most important thing I would recommend,” he added.
The Pentagon and the intelligence community conducted a classified study that looked at 14 capability areas where the United States will be competing with advanced adversaries. Key technology areas where investments are needed include space, cyber and electronic warfare, Dunford noted.
As for the current threat environment, the chairman was asked about growing tensions with Iran, which some observers fear could lead to war. The United States recently deployed additional ships, bombers, missile defense systems and troops to the Middle East, and high-level officials have warned Tehran against attacking U.S. interests and personnel.
Dunford said the deployments were prompted by multiple threat streams based on intelligence, and they were intended to deter Iranian attacks and provide greater U.S. capability to respond to hostile activities if deterrence failed.
“What was qualitatively different about the threat stream we had seen [in recent months] was it was multiple threat streams that were all perhaps coming together,” he said.
The perceived threats extended from Yemen to the Persian Gulf and Iraq, he added.
“We saw something that looked more like a campaign than an individual threat, and it was the geographic span and the perception that that activity would be try to be synchronized in time that caused us to look at that threat differently,” he said.
Some observers have accused the Trump administration of hyping the intelligence to justify a harder line against Iran.
“People can question the veracity of the intelligence,” Dunford said. “All I would say is … there have been ships that have been hit with mines. There have been [unmanned aerial vehicle] strikes. There have been rocket strikes in the proximity of the United States embassy in Iraq. … So I view this purely through a military lens.”
Dunford said the recent U.S. military deployments were designed to dissuade Iranian attacks and protect personnel in the region, and not part of any preparation to provoke or initiate a war.
“This is not intended to be a provocation,” he said. “This is not intended to reinforce our offensive capability in the region. This is designed to protect our people.”
Dunford, who previously commanded all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, suggested he would recommend appropriate restraint when it comes to the Iran or any other potential adversary.
“I know the consequences of going to war, both from an economic and more importantly from a human perspective. And so I can assure you that any military advice that I would provide would be carefully measured,” he said.