The Department of Defense needs Mark Esper — and a few policy changes

The Department of Defense needs Mark Esper — and a few policy changes
© Getty Images

Just over halfway through the Trump administration’s first term, the military is getting its third secretary of Defense in Mark EsperMark EsperTrump has named more ex-lobbyists to Cabinet in 3 years than Obama, Bush did in full terms: report House rejects GOP motion on replacing Pentagon funding used on border wall Overnight Defense: GOP wary of action on Iran | Pence says US 'locked and loaded' to defend allies | Iran's leader rules out talks with US MORE. Although the U.S. military is the finest fighting force in the world, even the best need consistent leadership. Fortunately, the Department of Defense (DOD) is receiving a great leader in Esper. He is superbly qualified, by experience and temperament — a family man, combat veteran infantry officer, West Point graduate, defense industry and policy expert, and an intellectual with high-level Pentagon civilian leadership experience.  

Esper understands the importance of civilian leadership and how to bring sustainable change in policy, strategy and modernization for the military. However, he does face significant challenges to defend, deter and defeat, if necessary, enemies of the United States — and some of those challenges are at home.

The U.S. focus on counterterrorism not only shifted resources away from modernization of military force planning, structure and technology, it enabled other nation states to challenge, if not close, the competitive edge of the U.S. military. The overemphasis of strategy and resources on Afghanistan and Iraq, President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq (precipitated by an unnecessary invasion of Iraq), and a botched Libya plan enabled America’s adversaries to recognize the changes in the world order. In addition, America’s adversaries took advantage of the divisive state of U.S. politics. Bottom line, America was being outflanked by its competitors.

ADVERTISEMENT

Chinese alternatives to American values of democracy, rule of law, human rights and a free-market economy are creating a new economic cold war that will face off the United States and its partners and allies against those of China. Through strategic diplomacy, China has extended its influence into Africa and Latin America, while using the People’s Liberation Army as a capitalist tool to strengthen Chinese influence. China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative presents even deeper regional influence across the Middle East and into Europe. 

Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinFeehery: Impeachment fever bad for Democratic governing vision Taliban travels to Moscow after Trump declares talks dead Russians tune out Vladimir Putin MORE, meanwhile, aims to return Russia to its legacy where governments must consider Russian perspectives or actions in any region. Russian influence continues to gain in Eastern Europe, where Putin sees NATO as his biggest threat to regional influence. Putin has inserted Russian diplomacy and military power in the Middle East, through Syria and Iran, in order to have a seat at the table. And, surprisingly, Russia returned to the table with the Taliban to counter U.S. influence in this region as well. Most concerning is that Russia and China increasingly are allying themselves diplomatically.

The Middle East could be spiraling toward regional war. Iran, with Russian support, presents the single greatest threat to any region’s stability because of its revolutionary rhetoric, desire for nuclear weapons, hatred of Israel and the historic Shia-Sunni divide. The violence and destruction caused by ISIS, the United States’s haphazard withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, an unprecedented number of refugees, and belligerent rhetoric and actions, particularly involving the Strait of Hormuz, have created a powder keg.

So, what should the new secretary of Defense do?

First, American society needs robust dialogue on what it expects its all-volunteer force (AVF) to do and how big the military should be to protect the United States. The AVF is more professional and experienced in its purpose, but it is not completely positive. A large AVF is costly to taxpayers. Its personnel costs possibly crowded out necessary long-term defense spending on weapons, infrastructure and technology advances. It struggles to compete in a highly competitive labor market, and has created a warrior caste among Americans.

ADVERTISEMENT

The United States should not take the position that it’s in a state of perpetual conflict, which has been expressed by military and political leaders. This perspective results in overuse of the military as an instrument of government power and stresses the AVF to points of concern for American society.

Second, the U.S. must get out of Afghanistan now. We should have left after destroying most of al Qaeda following 9/11. No one can predict with any certainty of intelligence that another terrorist attack will emanate from Afghanistan; there are plenty of ungoverned spaces and financiers in the world that can make that happen. We should instead put more resources and effort into developing an alliance with India and reinforcing the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Third, modernization and acquisition changes to policy and process must occur faster, while taking acceptable risk in current readiness. DOD must hedge its bets and focus on threats to the survival of the U.S. Constitution and its values, and not every emerging character of conflict in the world. Right now, the U.S. military is doing too much at one time. The United States must invest in high-end technological capabilities such as cyber offense and defense, advanced aircraft, hypersonic weapons, directed energy and 5G telephony to counter future threats. DOD must shed its propensity to make incremental changes if it is going to transform for the future.

Fourth, the U.S. must reinforce European states and NATO to confront emerging threats. The biggest threat emanates mainly from Russian aggression, evidenced by its actions in Crimea and Ukraine, disinformation operations through digital media, and its increased foreign military activity in places such as the Black Sea. NATO, however, faces other threats such as uncontrolled migration, cyber threats and attacks, and Chinese strategic competition. 

Fifth, the Indo-Pacific region must remain a strategic priority in order to maintain U.S. regional balance of power because of China’s assertive posture and overall global trade. American isolationist policies are hampering the development and maintenance of U.S. alliances and partnerships in response to China’s rise. U.S. presence and interaction with India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and other Southeast Asia countries will hedge against China’s economic and military rise and reconstruct the regional order.  

As secretary of Defense, Esper clearly will face a difficult set of circumstances for the next few years. He is a great choice — the right leader for the job. His partnership, however, with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump fires back at Graham over Iran criticism Overnight Defense: GOP wary of action on Iran | Pence says US 'locked and loaded' to defend allies | Iran's leader rules out talks with US Republicans wary of US action on Iran MORE, his West Point classmate, must remain a priority. If Pompeo keeps the State Department engaged and in the lead, he will give Esper the best chance to transform and rightsize a more technologically proficient, high-intensity fighting force that is utilized more appropriately in protecting the United States.

The department cannot continue to have temporary leadership when it has the blood and treasure of American fathers and mothers deployed in combat zones. A Senate-confirmed secretary must be present to make the critical decisions presented to our armed forces daily. Congress should  step up now and immediately confirm Esper.

Daniel S. Morgan is a retired U.S. Army colonel and senior management consultant. He served under Mark Esper in Italy as part of NATO Rapid Reaction Force. He recently served as the senior fellow and is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a co-author of “Chasing the White Rabbit: A Discovery of Leadership in the 21st Century.”