Exclusive Interview: Gen Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff


Breaking Defense contributor James Kitfield spoke with Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during Dunford’s swing through Japan, Singapore, Australia, Wake Island, and Hawaii. Dunford testifies before Congress this week on the administration’s defense budget request. Most important, the chairman tells us he will make the case that the Budget Control Act’s caps “have to be lifted, because with them in place I cannot balance the demands of ongoing operations around the world with the need to grow capabilities in a way that maintains our competitive advantage.” This is particularly relevant as Congress hammers out the 2018 budget request over the next few weeks and thousands of diplomats, military officers, spies and members of the defense industry descend on the Paris Air Show next week. Read on! The Editor.

BD: You’ve just spent nearly a week reassuring Asian allies rattled by China’s aggression in the South China Sea and North Korea’s headlong rush to acquire nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. NATO allies are equally nervous about Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe. In the Middle East allies are concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout a region beset by conflict. Meanwhile, U.S. forces are actively fighting Islamist extremists in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and just in the last week there have been terrorist attacks in London, Kabul and Melbourne. How do you assess what feels like a particularly dangerous period in geopolitics?

Dunford: When I prepared to take this job I came across a recent speech given by [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger, who argued that this was the most complex and volatile period since World War II. Just in my first week on the job in 2015, I was confronted by Russia’s increased deployments of military forces to Syria, civilian casualties resulting from U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and a humanitarian disaster as a result of Hurricane Joaquin. Today we’re confronting simultaneous challenges posed by China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran, as well as a natural disaster in Sri Lanka. So as I prepare for posture hearings in Congress, that’s a reminder that this is the world as it is, not the world as we want it to be. In my testimony I’ll make the case that we thus need adequate and stable resourcing to make sure the U.S. military is capable of responding across a wide range of contingencies, from a major regional conflict with a near-peer competitor to combating violent extremists, and everything in between.

BD: Can the Pentagon obtain “adequate and stable resourcing” under the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act and sequester?

Dunford: No, we cannot. The budget caps have to be lifted, because with them in place I cannot balance the demands of ongoing operations around the world with the need to grow capabilities in a way that maintains our competitive advantage. With sequestration, constant budget instability, and Continuing Resolutions that reach deep into each fiscal year, we are unable to maintain our current pace of operations and also build tomorrow’s military force with deliberation and foresight. As you know the budget caps were designed as a poison pill that no one would want to take. Well, we’re seven years into this impasse and, one way or another, we’ve swallowed it every year.

BD: What’s the long-term impact?

Dunford: Over the last 10 years our competitive advantage in terms of projecting power when and where we need it has steadily eroded. I’m confident today that we still have a competitive advantage over any single adversary. But I’m equally confident that those advantages are eroding.

To varying degrees Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are all developing capabilities designed to prevent us from operating freely and meeting our alliance commitments. Remember, we are still a nation that acts as a guarantor of the international order, and that carries with it big responsibilities and global interests. So my challenge is to maintain our military readiness today, while also investing in things like cyber security, electronic warfare and increased lethality so that we still have a competitive advantage when we project power in 2022 or 2024. Continuing budget instability and budget caps simply will not allow us to get there (emphasis added).

BD: What does that erosion in our competitive advantage look like from an operational standpoint?

Dunford: As Americans we should never send our men and women into a fair fight. Yet, as our decisive competitive advantage has steadily eroded over time, the costs come due in the greater time it takes to respond to a crisis, the shrinking capabilities gap between us and potential adversaries once we get there, and the higher number of casualties we will suffer as a result. I see a clear link between the erosion in our competitive advantage and the number of casualties we will have to endure to accomplish a given mission. In my view that is what this debate is really all about.

BD: One of the clearest messages that you and Secretary of Defense Mattis bought to the Shangra-La Dialogue in Singapore was that the “era of strategic patience is over” when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs, Why have we lost patience, and what was the response of our Asian allies?

Dunford: President Trump made that determination, but the reason behind it is we’ve reached a point where, sooner rather than later, North Korea is going to acquire the capability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile possibly armed with a nuclear warhead. And the recent United Nations Resolution condemning North Korea for those programs is further evidence of a shared sense of urgency about that threat, both regionally and globally.

BD: Why do you think that China will be willing to impose potentially crippling sanctions on North Korea this time, when it has resisted doing so in the past?

Dunford: One reason is that [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson has gone out of his way to make clear that the United States is not seeking regime change in North Korea, we simply want a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. That’s a goal that China shares. I also think North Korea’s provocative behavior has caught China’s attention, and is perceived as insulting to Beijing. So as evidenced by the two U.N. Resolutions this year condemning North Korea’s programs, I think China and the rest of the international community are approaching the North Korean threat much differently than in the past.”

BD: As the showdown with North Korea escalates, are you comfortable that you have sufficient forces in the Pacific region?

Dunford: I’m comfortable today. I won’t talk about future deployments, but we will continue to assess the situation and make recommendations to Secretary Mattis. You raise an important point though: this is a dynamic situation, and our force posture will have to reflect any changes that occur. As time goes on, I’m sure we will make further recommendations to ensure that we have the right security posture based on conditions.

BD: The Asian allies I spoke with in Singapore were deeply unsettled by some of President Trump’s controversial pronouncements and positions. As a candidate he suggested the possibility of withdrawing the United States’ protective nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea. He recently chastised Seoul for not footing the bill for deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea. The administration’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement rattled Asian allies, as did the administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. What did you say to try and reassure our Asian allies that the United States remains committed to the region?

Dunford: To be honest, President Trump’s name never came up in my bilateral and multilateral meetings with Asian counterparts. I think they just accepted that Secretary Mattis was communicating President Trump’s positions when he spoke of our “enduring commitment” to upholding a “rules-based international order” in the Asia-Pacific region. As for cancelling TPP, the president didn’t think that particular trade pact was in our best interests, but we remain committed to close trade relationships in the region, whether they take the form of bilateral or multilateral agreements. That is something the administration is still working out.

BD: Did you detect any nervousness on the part of Asian allies about the continued commitment of the United States?

Dunford: I know there’s been noise about the United States supposedly walking away from our rebalance to Asia. That narrative is real and it’s out there in the media. But when you look at the facts, we have a pretty compelling story to tell. We are devoting 60 percent of our joint forces to U.S. Pacific Command (emphasis added), and we’ve overseen a significant increase in the volume of multilateral military exercises in Asia. We’ve deployed the newest and most capable weapons in the U.S. arsenal to the Pacific, to include F-35 and F-22 fighter aircraft and Littoral Combat Ships.

So we’re matching our actions to the message that the United States remains committed to the Asia-Pacific. And when you go country by country, and look at our military-to-military engagements with nations like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and Australia, I will tell you that the state of those relationships is very healthy, and they are absolutely valued in the region.

BD: Part of the glue which holds those relationships together is a common fear of China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea, where it has dredged up seven artificial islands and claimed exclusive zones around them. How do you assess China’s strategic intensions in creating those islands, especially given that it has deployed weapons on them?

Dunford: Well, we made clear to our Asian allies our continued support for a rules-based international order that requires the United States to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation by operating wherever international law allows. It’s also indisputable that China has militarized those artificial islands after promising not to do so in 2015, which tells me that they are trying to push the U.S. military further out to sea in order to prevent us from having free access to the region to meet our military commitments to allies. That’s a classic anti-access, area denial (A2AD) strategy. If you combine that with China’s pursuit of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and rocket systems, it’s clear they are attempting to deny the United States the ability to operate freely in the region.


By James Kitfield

Breaking Defense contributor James Kitfield spoke with Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during Dunford’s swing through Japan, Singapore, Australia, Wake Island, and Hawaii. BD readers know that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis promised Sen. John McCain yesterday that America would get a new Afghan strategy by mid-July. In this second part of Kitfield’s interview, Dunford talks Turkey, Kurds, Daesh (ISIS) and whether the US will boost the number of troops stationed in Afghanistan. Read on! The Editor.

BD: Just while you were meeting with your Asian counterparts in Singapore and Sydney, Australia, there were terrorist attacks claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in London, Melbourne, and Kabul. What are we and our allies doing to try and contain the threat from ISIS’ foreign fighters returning to their home regions and launching attacks?

Dunford: One of the issues we talked about with our allies is that there are three pieces of connective tissue that unites these terrorist groups: the flow of foreign fighters, the flow of resources, and a common ideology. And we need to cut that connective tissue. A primary way we are doing that is through a broad intelligence and information sharing network that we have established with the members of the anti-ISIS coalition, who all share a common view of this threat of ISIS foreign fighters.

A critical part of that effort is Operation Gallant Phoenix, an intelligence sharing arrangement that started out with eight or so countries, and has since expanded to 19 nations who have committed to sharing this intelligence. We’re in the process of trying to expand that initiative to even more countries. Gallant Phoenix allows allied nations not only to share intelligence on the foreign fighter threat, but also to get that information back to their law enforcement and homeland security agencies so they have visibility on the movement of foreign fighters in order to deal with this challenge.

BD: Is the United States’ “annihilation” battle plan in Iraq and Syria that you’ve spoken of also designed to contain the foreign fighter threat?

Dunford: Yes. When Secretary Mattis looked at our anti-ISIS campaign, he concluded that in some instances we were essentially just pushing the enemy from one location to another. He asked me and the military chain-of-command to make a conscious effort not to allow ISIS fighters to just flee from one location to another, but rather to deliberately seek to ‘annihilate’ the enemy. That was the commander’s intent, and our commanders on the ground have tried to meet that goal of annihilating the enemy in order to mitigate the risk of these terrorists showing up someplace else.

BD: Has that worked in the battles to retake Mosul and Raqqa, the twin capitals of ISIS self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria?

Dunford: We’re certainly emphasizing it to a greater degree, and having some success. But I would never claim that means that all enemy fighters are being killed. One tactic they have adopted is to mix in with the civilian population, and that makes targeting them very difficult. We can’t just indiscriminately bomb people who are leaving these cities. Even with this annihilation battle plan, we have to be very careful about civilian casualties.

BD: How do you see ISF and coalition operations unfolding after Mosul is recaptured?

Dunford: Well, we will obviously take our cue from [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider] Abadi, who will decide on the sequence of operations after Mosul is recaptured. But there are some major areas where ISIS is still present that are under consideration. Iraqi Security Forces will still need to clear ISIS out of territory west of Mosul to the Syrian border, for instance, and there are also pockets of ISIS fighters southeast in Kirkuk Province and in the middle Euphrates River Valley. Of course it’s going to take the Iraqis some time to regenerate their forces after the battle for Mosul, so our plan is to continue keeping pressure on those ISIS forces until the main ISF forces are ready again.

BD: How have you handled Turkey’s objections to the U.S. decision to arm the SDF, which include Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists?

Dunford: I will tell you that the coalition is also enthusiastic about the growth of the SDF. [U.S. special envoy Brett] McGurk has led the effort to empower an Arab component of the SDF that will provide security and governance in Raqqa after the operation to recapture the city is finished, which answers some of Turkey’s concerns.

We’ve made other assurances to Turkey, including making sure the arming and equipping of the SDF is done in a way that is narrowly focused on its ability to recapture Raqqa. We’re also helped the Turkish military rebuild after the challenges they’ve faced in recent months, and we’re sharing intelligence with Ankara about the [Iraqi Kurdish terrorist group] PKK. Secretary Tillerson is also working very closely with his Turkish counterpart to make sure that the Geneva Process is front and center in our negotiations about Syria’s future, which also addresses Turkish issues. So we have done everything we could to address Turkish concerns, and I personally have made on the order of nine visits to Turkey to speak with my counterpart there. I think the Turks appreciate that.

BD: What is the status of the Astana Plan that Turkey signed last month with Russia and Iran, which calls for the creation of four “de-escalation zones” in Syria?

Dunford: Well, the United States was an observer at those talks, but we decided not to formally participate in a process which includes Iran as a guarantor. Secretary Tillerson has said publicly that we welcome any agreement that results in a cessation of hostilities, but we believe the Geneva Process – and not Astana – is the right vehicle for reaching a political solution in Syria. And while there was some indication of reduced violence in some areas after the Astana Plan was signed, we also saw the Syrian regime conduct major offensive operations in one of the “de-escalation zones” just in recent days. So it’s fair to say that negotiations for a ceasefire remain a work in progress.

BD: Speaking of Iran, have you seen any letup in its destabilizing activities in the region?

Dunford: No, I haven’t seen any change in Iran’s behavior. The Republican Guard’s Quds Force continues to exert a malign influence in Iraq and Syria through proxy forces and militias, and in Lebanon through Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran’s support for [Shiite rebels] in Yemen has also been unhelpful, and Tehran continues to pose a threat to close allies like Israel and Jordan. So mitigating the malign influence of Iran remains a major U.S. objective in the region.

In talking about Iran it’s also important to zero in on one of the most important issues for the United States, and that’s freedom of navigation in the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab-el-Mandeb. By harassing U.S. and international maritime activities in the Persian Gulf and supplying advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen on the Red Sea coast, Iran is posing a threat to two waterways that are absolutely crucial to global commerce. Since the 1970s and [President Jimmy Carter’s ‘Carter Doctrine’], the United States has been committed to keeping those vital waterways open.

BD: Will you recommend a troop increase for Afghanistan to President Trump, and why is Afghanistan still important after U.S. forces have spent more than 15 years fighting there?

Dunford: Because there are still roughly 17 extremists groups operating in and around Afghanistan. From personal experience, and from reading the intelligence and talking to my commanders on the ground, I have absolutely no doubt that, if given the space to reconstitute and grow stronger, those organizations will follow through on their intent to attack the United States and the West. They are already doing it inside Afghanistan. So we continue to need an effective counterterrorism platform and posture in that region, and the Afghan government has proven to be a good counterterrorism partner. The United States, our NATO allies and coalition partners, and the Afghans themselves are fighting together against a common enemy.

As for troop numbers, we’re analyzing what is necessary to enable the Afghan Security Forces to take the fight to the enemy. One of my greatest concerns is the number of casualties that they experienced in 2015 and 2016. They need additional medical personnel and medevac capability. They also need additional airpower, because that is the greatest asymmetric advantage they have over the Taliban. We need to help the Afghan Security Forces be able to deliver aviation at the right time and place. They also need more trainers and educators and help with maintenance. So those are the areas we are looking at to possibly prop up our support, based on the lessons of 2015 and 2016.

BD: It sounds like you are going to support General Nicholson’s request for more forces (in Afghanistan)?

Dunford: I haven’t taken a public position yet because I haven’t had a chance to talk with the president on the issue. So I’ll make my recommendation to him first. But it’s fair to say that based on what we’ve learned in the past two years, I believe we need to make some adjustments to our force posture.

You can find the original interview at Breaking Defense, below.


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