Gen. Joseph Dunford—chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—delivered a talk Monday night about the U.S. military in a time of geopolitical strain.
As the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman and the nation's highest-ranking and senior-most military officer, Dunford said his responsibility is to ensure the U.S. military is capable of defending the national interest and enable it to carry out its missions efficiently and sustainably.
“There is no plan for U.S. military forces to be involved in the actual mission of denying people entry into the United States," said Dunford. “There is no plan for soldiers to come in contact with immigrants or to reinforce the Department of Homeland Security as they conduct their mission.”
In light of the pending arrival of a caravan of Central American immigrants at the U.S. border, Dunford said the Department of Homeland Security, and specifically Customs and Border Protection, is commissioned to deal with the caravan upon its entry. On the other hand, the military is responsible to provide logistical support, such as reinforcing the points of entry, dispatching helicopters and trucks and offering medical support.
Dunford added that the mission is entirely legal, with the soldiers currently at the border having no ambiguity of their responsibilities and equipped with the capabilities to perform the task.
In this regard, Dunford’s predecessor—former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey (Ret.)—tweeted on Nov. 1, calling the mission of sending military forces to cope with the entry of the caravan a “wasteful deployment of over-stretched Soldiers and Marines.”
Dunford responded that Dempsey does “have the luxury” of making this statement as he has retired, although he would wish that the latter didn’t make such a public critique of the mission. He added that he is not in a position to make a subjective evaluation of any mission as such.
“It’s not my job to assess the appropriateness of the mission. It’s my job to accept the legality of the mission and again, the capability of our forces to perform that task,” he said.
In contrast to the post-World War II era, American people nowadays are becoming less familiar with the military and their duties, Dunford also said. He said he attempts to inform the general public of their jobs.
“In a very meaningful and real way, we work for the American people and we are conscious of that,” Dunford said. “And we think the American people should understand us, understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.”
Dunford’s duty is to understand the various military challenges the United States confronts, prioritize and allocate resources, assess the risk and be prepared to respond, the general said.
The military focus of the United States has shifted since 2015 from the so-called “four plus one”—the prioritization of the four states that pose the greatest military challenge: China, Russia, Korea and Iran—and violent extremism to “two plus three,” which prioritizes the importance of China and Russia, Dunford noted.
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Aside from the challenges, he added that another key aspect of the military strategic plan is always to get ready for unexpected situations.
Both Russia and China have studied the U.S. military operation since the 1990s and are alarmed at its ability to send as many forces, material and equipment as possible in a short period time around the world, Dunford added. The two countries are seeking ways to disrupt the United States’ ability to project power and to operate freely in a given region, a situation that the military tries to avoid.
Dunford said that although current confrontation between the United States and the two powers is not as hostile as during the Cold War, competition from Russia and China constitutes a substantial military challenge to the United States in all five domains—land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.
He acknowledged that some diplomats and political scientists may advocate for a less aggressive approach to engage with a rising power so that it will not turn antagonistic toward the United States. But he added that is not the guideline for his duty.
“Diplomatically we should continue to do that, but from a military perspective, I can’t deal with what China’s intent may be—I have to deal with what their capabilities are,” Dunford said.
He added that the United States also has to deter China effectively to meet its commitment to treaty allies in the Pacific Ocean region.
At the same time, the military allies of the United States, such as those in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), have also significantly contributed to the alliance, Dunford said. There has been a concrete capability development through changing organizational construct, increasing cyber capabilities and improving transportation assets.
Another part of Dunford’s responsibility as principal military advisor to the president is to be a “military diplomat” to contact his counterparts in foreign countries such as Russia and China.
Dunford said communication is essential, as it helps to increase transparency, minimize the risk of miscalculation and facilitate the management of crisis.
The talk was part of the 2018 Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture Series of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. It was originally scheduled for April this year but was cancelled due to "unforeseen circumstances."
Appointed by Obama in 2015 to be the Chairman and reappointed by Trump in 2017, Dunford served two presidents with different visions and governing styles. Despite their differences, Dunford said his service as a military leader is consistent.
“The national security decision-making process must support the individual that’s making the decision,” he said.
The U.S. military needs to prioritize its resource allocation to ensure a long-run sustainable development, Dunford said, referring to the military operations in countries such as Afghanistan and Yemen.
Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the United States has led the war with supplementary support from local forces, but since June 2013, the Afghan forces have taken the lead in security responsibility, he said. At present, the U.S. military is in charge of providing aviation and intelligence support for the Afghan army.
The United States will only be ready to completely withdraw its forces when there is sufficient local, social, religious and military pressure for the Taliban to enter a peace agreement, what Dunford called an “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led reconciliation.”
“My job is not to talk to the president about whether we should stay in Afghanistan or not,” he said. “It’s to make sure that our presence in Afghanistan from a military perspective is sustainable over time.”