EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff


Photo: Defense Dept.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the 19th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is set to receive the Dwight D. Eisenhower Award from the National Defense Industrial Association May 10 at a dinner in Arlington, Virginia. The Eisenhower Award is presented annually to “an American citizen who has made an outstanding contribution toward increasing public awareness of our national defense needs,” according to NDIA. Prior to the event, Gen. Dunford participated in a joint interview with NDIA CEO retired Gen. Hawk Carlisle and National Defense magazine Managing Editor Jon Harper to offer his perspective on some of the most critical national security challenges facing the United States.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve said that the United States still has the greatest military in the history of the world. But how do you see it going in the future based on the challenges of a rising China and Russia and great power competition?

A: I'm confident that today, the United States can deter a nuclear war. I'm confident today that we can protect the homeland and I'm confident today that we have a competitive advantage over any potential adversary.

But both Russia and China in the context of great power competition have studied us very carefully and … they've invested in weapons that undermine our ability to project power and operate really across all domains.

Our competitive advantage has eroded [but] the investments we started to make in ‘17, ‘18, ‘19, and what we're proposing in ‘20 put us on a trajectory to sustain that competitive advantage, making investments across all those domains [to include land, sea, air, space and cyberspace]. And so [the budgets for] ‘20, ‘21, ‘22, they're really important.

Q: Are there maybe two or three types of technology that you think the department should be investing in in the coming years to prepare for a potential conflict with advanced adversaries like Russia or China?

A: There's probably three technologies that are most important to us: [The first is] artificial intelligence. Quantum computing is another one that comes to mind when you think about the implications from secure communications to penetrating adversaries’ communications — that’ll be very critical. And then directed energy weapons systems.

But beyond the types of technologies, it would be important to talk about domains as well. Clearly space and cyberspace, in terms of domains, are where we need to make investments. But then also in a functional area — electronic warfare — and being in a position to achieve superiority in the electromagnetic spectrum is absolutely critical.

Q: The Budget Control Act caps are slated to go back into effect in fiscal year 2020. How confident are you that Congress will reach a deal and pass a budget on time for fiscal year 2020, rather than passing a continuing resolution?

A: To be honest with you, I don't know. And it's still early to tell. I've been on the Hill a lot over the last couple of months... There's optimists and there's pessimists and it's hard to see [how that will play out].

As we think about what would happen at BCA levels of funding, No. 1, the path we've been on to restore readiness and the path we've been on to address the delayed modernization of the force would be disrupted in my judgment.

It would be hard for me to imagine at … BCA [funding] levels, our ability to execute the current strategy.

Were we not to have a budget deal that would allow us some 3 to 5 percent real growth in the future, then I do think that … eroding competitive advantage would continue and we wouldn't be able to say that by 2025, 2026, we'll still be able to project power when and where necessary to advance our interests.

Q: The Defense Department is trying to tap into technology development that’s going on in the commercial sector in places like Silicon Valley through a number of initiatives. How do you think it's going with respect to how the department is building bridges with the commercial sector?

A: It's impossible for me to imagine … us maintaining a competitive advantage in the future unless we have a very unique and close relationship with industry and unless we're able to tap into … cutting-edge technologies and innovation.

Some of the bridge building that began with Secretary [Ash] Carter, which was then DIUx and now DIU, and then what the Army is doing with Futures Command and so forth is all positive and all designed to make sure that there's a close partnership. But we have a different challenge today in the sense that most corporations are multinational corporations, global corporations.

When companies involved in high tech are doing business with China and so forth they're helping the Chinese military … because of what [President] Xi Jinping calls civil-military fusion. And so while I'm kind of sanguine about the bridges that are being built right now, I'm less sanguine about our unique ability to tap into cutting-edge technologies. … We need to have a very open debate about the implications of that long term. … It will have a huge impact on the global order if China is able to get the jump on us in those three areas [of AI, quantum computing and directed energy].

That debate would be very important as we think about what relationships these companies have with us and their willingness to work with us, not just in the areas that are politically convenient, but in all areas. For example, some companies have now viewed some elements of the Pentagon as areas they're not interested in working in because they view it as not consistent with their ethos. … [But] we're the good guys and I think they need to understand that working with us is inherently supporting the values for which we stand, and working with China is inherently supporting the Chinese military given the degree of control the Chinese Communist Party has over people doing business in China.

Q: Do you think new export controls are needed for some of the technologies, such as AI, that commercial companies sell abroad?

A: I do. But there also needs to be intellectual honesty about what's going on here. We have companies, for example, that won't work with us with artificial intelligence if it involves weapons systems. We had a program [called Project Maven] that was trying to leverage artificial intelligence to make our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities more effective. Some companies [such as Google] viewed that as inconsistent with their core values, but those same companies are doing artificial intelligence work in China. And I think we're rationalizing that by saying, ‘Well, this is in the commercial sector in China.’ And my point is that the commercial sector and the security sector in China is a distinction without a difference because of the Chinese form of government. … We just should be intellectually honest that there is no such thing as a solely private sector venture in China in my view.

When Maven came up, I took that personal, I take it personal because of how somebody could view the Department of Defense's values as being inconsistent with their values and then do business with the Chinese Communist Party.

But I want to make sure that I never publicly give anybody else [in the tech sector] a free pass. I don't want them all going, ‘Hey, let Google take the heat.’ Because it isn't [just] about Google, it's about … us having a framework for dealing with China that addresses the commercial industries' interests, but at the same time doesn't provide China with a competitive advantage in the security space.

Q: As you get closer to retirement in October, is there any message you'd like to pass to the folks that have dedicated themselves to the defense of this nation?

A: Because of the nature of the budget discussions and so forth, we often talk about competitive advantage in terms of technology, in terms of military capability. But … the one thing I'd want to pass on to our men and women is that the real competitive advantage we have is the quality of our people.

The real message that I'd want to pass is that I very much appreciate the fact that we are who we are because of the men and women that we recruit and retain. And we can't necessarily offer them some of the incentives that the private sector can. I think what we've offered them is this sense of purpose … [and] being part of something bigger than themselves. And I really do believe, as I said earlier, that we are the good guys.

Topics: Defense Department

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