DoD can’t compete with near-peer adversaries at a level ‘below war’

The United States may have superiority in most domains — sea, land, air, space — but it lacks the kind of whole-of-government integration currently allowing near-peer adversaries to excel at a level of “adversarial competition” that falls short of the definition of war. That’s what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford told lawmakers at his Sept. 26 re-nomination hearing.

“We need to adapt the U.S. military — really, the entire U.S. government — to be able to compete at that level below war, where the Russians have so successfully integrated information operations, cyber, political influence, economic coercion and information operations,” Dunford said.

He said the U.S. needs to improve its capabilities to compete in that space, especially cyber. But while the Defense Department is beginning to work on that, it will require stronger integration with the civilian side of the government, as well as stronger public-private partnerships in order to be competitive.

But improving capabilities isn’t going to be easy in the current environment, where operational demands are exceeding supply and readiness is suffering from a lack of budgetary predictability or sustainability.

Dunford said that in the past, the military has used a bottoms-up approach to force readiness. Each commander provided their own requirements, and DoD did its best to meet those requirements equally across the force.

But for the first time, Dunford said DoD will be implementing a top-down approach, where DoD will determine what forces need to build readiness, and will not allocate them while they’re doing so.

“We realize that what we’ve been doing in the past is unsustainable moving forward. The demand does exceed the supply, and we need to make an adjustment to the demand, as well as the supply,” Dunford said. “What we have to do is get to the point where we have a balance between the time that units are at home station training, developing their capabilities, and the time they’re deployed.”

The main issue with readiness, as several defense leaders have testified in the past, is Congress’ reliance on continuing resolutions, as opposed to full appropriations bills to fund the government.

“We still don’t have sustained, sufficient and predictable funding,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). “And, as you mention, I’m not sure we will for the foreseeable future, unless Congress finally steps up to do its job. As you know, we’ll start fiscal year 2018 on a continuing resolution, with no insight into what the final funding levels will be for the year.”

It’s an argument lawmakers have heard before. Some, like McCain, can repeat it word for word. But the predictions DoD has been making for years are starting to become reality, and lawmakers aren’t sure yet how to deal with that.

“So everything you have testified to us about diminished readiness resulting from the budget sequesters is coming true,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “It wasn’t, you know, Chicken Little saying the sky is falling. What we’ve heard from military leaders since the sequester went into effect, and in the budget caps in March of 2013 — we’re seeing it.”

Some of the services are currently experiencing high-profile consequences from trying to operate at too high of a tempo without maintaining readiness. The recent collisions of Navy ships in the Pacific, and a GAO report that found declining maintenance and readiness due to increased deployment lengths, less training and deferred maintenance, have prompted soul-searching within the service regarding readiness.

Dunford said he recently visited the USS Barry, which had been at sea for 70 percent of the previous 12 months, which he called unsustainable.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked whether an incident earlier this month, when more than a dozen Marines sustained injuries during a training exercise in California, could be ascribed to the same conditions.

“I can’t talk to that specific incident, but I am confident that a combination of fiscal challenges and high operational tempo have created conditions that actually have led to some of these incidents. Of that, I’m confident,” Dunford said.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is being forced to cut some of its training programs due to lack of funding.

McCain asked what effect this was having on the average service member.

“I think it has to do with the confidence,” Dunford said. “And I would give you an example of a pilot. If you look at a pilot specifically, in the past, pilots might have had 30 hours a month to fly. Now they may be down as low as 15 hours a month. On a day-to-day basis, you may not be able to see the difference between Pilot A and Pilot B. But if there is an in-flight emergency, I can guarantee you that the pilot that has 30 hours will immediately feel much more comfortable and confident in their ability to deal with an anomalous situation, be able to control their physiological response. And you and I may never find out about that incident. On the contrary, if a pilot has 15 hours a month, we may very well find out about it, because it’s a class-A mishap.”

But Dunford said even the metrics by which training is judged have themselves changed in response to the current circumstances.

“And I would argue that, while we may have trained to standard in the past when we had sufficient time and resources, now, we’re training to time, because that ship is going to go to sea, that pilot is going to go to war, that infantryman is going to go to war, whether or not they’ve had an opportunity to retrain in the basic tasks or not,” Dunford said.

Copyright © 2023 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories

On DoD

WEDNESDAYS, 11 A.M. & 2 P.M.

Each week, Defense Reporter Jared Serbu speaks with the managers of the federal government's largest department. Subscribe on PodcastOne or Apple Podcasts.