New military chief is 'strategist,' not cyber expert

President Obama’s pick to become the nation’s next top military officer, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., bucks a recent trend of cyber-focused appointments.

“He’s not a cyber expert,” said Peter Metzger, a former CIA intelligence officer and Marine who served with Dunford on four occasions. “But he doesn’t need to be.”
 
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Cyber military specialists believe the Obama administration is seeking an operational expert and relationship builder, not a technological savant, to carry out Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recently unveiled cyber vision.
 
“They went with a strategist,” said Chris Finan, a former military intelligence officer and adviser to the Obama administration on cybersecurity policy. “An operational artisan.”
 
Dunford made a name for himself as head of the coalition forces in Afghanistan during the drawdown of troops in 2013 and 2014. He also led a Marine unit during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

If confirmed by the Senate, Dunford would replace Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who has served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff since 2011.

As chairman, Dunford would likely oversee one of the largest military transformations in recent history. Traditional warfare is gravitating to cyberspace, as rogue nations and terrorist groups rapidly develop destructive hacking skills.

The Pentagon is also in the midst of building out the half-staffed U.S. Cyber Command. The cyber division is expected to reach 6,200 personnel across 133 teams by 2018.

The president acknowledged the shift Tuesday when formally nominating Dunford. 

“We have to keep investing in new capabilities to meet growing threats, including cyberattacks,” the commander in chief said.

Obama’s last major military nomination, Carter, was tapped in part because of his lead role in initiating in 2013 the dramatic reorganization of U.S. Cyber Command.

Since his February confirmation, Carter has increased the Pentagon’s focus on developing offensive cyber capabilities and boosted outreach to Silicon Valley in the hopes of drawing in top cyber talent.

Carter laid out his plans in an updated Pentagon cyber strategy released two weeks ago.

“You’ve got a really strong cyber team in the Pentagon,” said Finan, a Truman Project fellow. “So they can afford to put a strategist in this role.”

It makes sense to concentrate cyber expertise in top Pentagon slots, Finan explained.

“In cyber in particular, I think there’s a tendency to conflate means and ends,” he said. It’s important to “push within the Pentagon to make cyber-related investments, so that war fighters like Dunford are the ones who can remain in control and use these new capabilities.”

Metzger believes the chairman’s role is to synthesize advice from across the military and government, not to specialize in any one area.

“The U.S. military is so multifaceted that what you need is a really good decision maker and a really good listener —  and that’s Joe Dunford,” said Metzger, who heads the global cybersecurity practice at headhunting firm CTPartners.

Metzger described Dunford as “very low key, very humble, very decisive,” and someone who “takes advice measuredly.”

Dunford earned the nickname “Fighting Joe” while leading his unit during 22 grueling months of the 2003 Iraq invasion.

“We don’t need a cyber person in charge of the military, we need a combat leader,” Metzger added.

Dunford also worked to build relationships with tribes in Iraq’s Anbar Province in the mid-2000s, a skill that might come in handy as the military reaches out to an often suspect Silicon Valley.

“It strikes me that there’s a parallel there,” said Finan, a Bay Area entrepreneur.

Carter is working to open a Pentagon office in the so-called “Cradle of Innovation.” The Air Force said it will follow suit with its own outpost.

“If you really want to connect with Silicon Valley, you don’t just come out and tell us about a strategy you’ve created,” Finan said. “You come out and start by listening and taking input.”