By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb., June 26, 2012 – Likening the global security environment to strong winds such as those that come with severe weather here in the central plains, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke today about challenges buffeting the nation.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey and his wife, Deanie, spoke with 300 service members, Defense Department civilians and family members this afternoon at this base in Omaha — an American Indian name, the chairman noted, that means “those who go against the wind.”
“It’s a pretty challenging time, and we only get through it because of perseverance,” Dempsey said, noting that the past decade has seen the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global terrorism threat and emerging security and economic challenges.
The chairman’s town hall meeting included a cross-section of Offutt Air Force Base, home of the 55th Wing, U.S. Strategic Command and the Air Force Weather Agency.
Stratcom is responsible for the U.S. legacy nuclear command and control mission, space operations, global strike, Defense Department information operations, global missile defense, and global command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“Deanie and I want to compliment you on what you do for your country with a rather incredible portfolio,” the chairman said.
Dempsey talked about his focus on three major defense transitions. The first transition the chairman described involves resetting the force for different kinds of security challenges.
“We spent 10 years focused like a laser beam on counterinsurgency,” Dempsey noted. “We’ve got to still do some of that, … as well as confronting global terrorism for the foreseeable future.”
But most of the force will be resetting itself, the chairman said, “rekindling skills that maybe have been sidelined,” to get ready for the challenges expected in the second half of this decade.
The second major transition will be from a bigger budget to a smaller budget, Dempsey said.
“The question we will answer with your help is how much smaller will that budget become and still allow us to preserve the resources necessary to live up to the responsibility we have … to prevent the United States of America from being coerced in any domain. We are a global power,” the chairman said.
“I think we can figure that out with your help,” he added.
The third transition, of a military at war to a more peaceful time, may be the most challenging of all, Dempsey said.
The Defense Department must do it right, he added. “[We must] make sure that we don’t abandon someone who has served their country in time of war and toss them over the transom,” he said.
The challenge will come from trying to merge the processes the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, as well as trying to reach out to the civilian sector and academia to help service members who, in increasing numbers, will become veterans.
“Over the last 10 years, what has kept us together is a bond of trust, probably unique in any profession at any time,” Dempsey said. Seeing these transitions through, he told the audience, will help to sustain that trust, even through uncertainties of budget or security.
The first question Dempsey took was about the nature of his service to President Barack Obama as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“One of my responsibilities … as part of the Joint Chiefs [is to] take a look at the individual issues that consume your time — so Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Egypt, wherever it happens to be,” he explained.
“Our job is to make sure we see the whole thing in context. … We try not to look at a particular event — for example, a ballistic missile test — but rather to provide the context in which that event exists,” he added.
Such a test could be described in the context of a North Korea interested in becoming increasingly nuclear and having a new leader, in a region dominated by a China that had changed over 10 years and one in which the United States is assuming a larger presence.
“Our advice becomes how to address that range of issues,” Dempsey said, “but in context, so that we can shape the future regionally and globally, not narrowly.”
To a question about health care costs, the chairman said it’s a topic he wrestles with intellectually and emotionally, along with issues of personnel costs, compensation and retirement.
“It’s a big pile of money — in fact it’s the biggest pile of money that we have in the budget, and … that manpower account is placing a greater demand on the budget overall than it ever has, and it’s not sustainable,” he explained.
“I’m not saying that to be Chicken Little,” Dempsey added. “I’m telling you the facts: that our manpower costs, at the size force that we have today, will quickly overwhelm the budget.”
The Defense Department has to figure out how to make its manpower costs more affordable, he said.
“If we fail to do that, and we are precluded [by Congress] from shedding unneeded infrastructure, … then the only
Dempsey predicted that the department probably won’t be able to balance the manpower account in the fiscal 2013 budget, which means next year the department will try again to make that happen.
“The commitment I’ll make to you is that we will do so in as equitable, fair, transparent, credible way we can,” he said, “but we have to touch it.”