WASHINGTON – Flanked by two aides, Gen. Martin Dempsey strides resolutely down the center of the wide hallway toward his office at the Pentagon. Returning from a meeting with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, he stops briefly to introduce himself before turning to walk into his office.
In his office, there are more than a half-dozen video-capable conference devices and just as many telephones on his desk. The exact same configuration exists at his home.
With life-and-death conflicts raging 24 hours a day around the world, the Afghan war, deep budget cuts, nuclear weapons in unstable regions and the frantic pace of global change, Dempsey — chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — is losing sleep at night.
But it’s not because of the incomplete aforementioned list of unsettling issues. What keeps him up is “our ability to maintain our swagger” in the face of unprecedented challenges to the U.S. military force, Dempsey said in an exclusive interview with WTOP.
Without cracking a smile, he invoked the recently crowned, three-time NBA champion Miami Heat to make his point.
“Even the Miami Heat, if they don’t walk out there with a swagger, they’re going to have less confidence than they need to have,” he said.
Faced with historic and extraordinary political rancor and upheaval in Washington, bickering over a budget and leaks by former and current government officials, the effectiveness of the U.S. military in some quarters of the world is being questioned.
On the world stage, aggressive Russian and Chinese cyber espionage, belligerent North Korean missile threats, a civil conflict in Syria that’s beginning to resemble a proxy war, al-Qaida’s expansion in Africa, Iran’s iron will to develop a nuclear weapon and the NSA leaks scandal are just a few of the growing burdensome developments weighing on U.S. military personnel.
Dempsey says in order for the military to maintain its confidence, he and the rest of the leadership have to stay in “close contact to let them know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
It’s important to explain issues “such as the future of Afghanistan, our relationship with partners in the Mideast, rebalancing to the Pacific and how we’re going to address this budget,” he said.
He says talking directly with service members about those difficult topics is critical to show that military leaders are working out the challenges the military is up against.
“Many of us believe one should never waste a crisis because we can do things in a crisis that will make us a better force,” Dempsey said.
According to Dempsey, the top threats the U.S. faces are nuclear weapons and ballistic missile proliferation and the impending arrival of a destructive cyberattack, all which he says can emanate from a nation-state or non-state actor.
Also on that list is something he calls the “psychological threat” of fiscal uncertainty.
“We can figure out how to absorb the budget changes. It’s really an historic fiscal correction and believe me, those of us who serve understand that and are committed to doing it, but we can’t do it one year at a time,” he said.
Dempsey says it’s imperative to have the “kind of budget certainty over time and the help and cooperation and collaboration with our elected leaders to absorb the cuts in a way that allows us to keep the force in balance.”
The kind of certainty he and other military leaders are hoping for rests in a slow political process beset of late by partisan divides and rancorous finger-pointing.