Analysis

U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman's Israel Visit Reflects Heightened Interest in Middle East

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford highlights Iranian threat; future of warfare envisioned by U.S. Army head looks a lot like today's IDF views on war

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, left, and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot inspect an honor guard at a welcoming ceremony in Tel Aviv, May 9, 2017.
Sebastian Scheine/AP

Visiting Israel this week, where he met with top military and other government figures, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford could have been reading from Israeli talking points. Speaking to American reporters, Dunford described Iran’s “malign activities” in Iraq and in Syria as the “major concern” in the region. He singled out as the main danger posed by Tehran as its “threat network” that included the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds force and the state’s support for Hezbollah.

Dunford expressed understanding for Israeli concern about what he called the “big threat” to the country, a Lebanese Hezbollah “presence in southern Syria, which would give Israel two fronts to deal with.”

This was Dunford’s third visit to Israel since taking office in October 2015, and to a large extent he whistled a different tune this time. Around the time the Iran nuclear deal was reached, in July 2015, U.S. officials took care, in accordance with Obama administration directives, not to publicly insult Tehran. They also generally downplayed Iran’s role in encouraging terror and its particularly brutal means of warfare in Syria. The Trump administration, however, has called Iran one of the two main regional threats, alongside the competing Sunni extremist axis, led by the Islamic State group.

The close security coordination with Israel has persisted into the Trump administration, where high-ranking military figures seem to be evincing greater interest in activity in the Middle East. After its punitive strike on the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons and similarly assertive signals in Afghanistan and the Far East, this week Washington promised to deliver heavier weapons to Kurdish militants in Syria. The United States also seems to have kicked up the activities of its special operations forces by a few notches, mainly as part of the war on Islamic State. (In the Iraqi part of this campaign, around the city of Mosul, Iran is actually an ally of the United States, which supports and arms local Shiite militias.)

But like everything else connected to this new, capricious administration, it seems wise to avoid taking this new tack for granted. Trump ascribes great importance to his scheduled visit to Israel on May 22, according to unauthorized remarks by members of his circle, seeing it as a chance to move forward on the peace process. That would put the U.S. president on a collision course with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that would inflict collateral damage on bilateral military relations.

An Israeli soldier, left, helps roll up the Israeli and American flags after an honor guard ceremony for Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Tel Aviv, May 9, 2017.
REUTERS/Nir Elias

‘Disciplined disobedience’

U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley gave an edifying lecture in Washington on the eve of Dunford’s visit to Israel. Milley laid out the generals’ insights into the future of warfare, which are intriguingly close to Israeli views on war and far from long-held American attitudes.

Israeli officers often expressed shock not only about the massive numbers of troops and weapons the Americans deployed around the world, but also over the U.S. insistence on providing their soldiers with as many of the comforts of home as possible. In his address to the Army and Navy Club this month, Milley warned that this will not be possible in the future. He added that the U.S. military overall will have to adopt a new, task-oriented command doctrine (similar to the Israeli approach) that gives greater freedom to commanders in the field and even expects them to disobey the original orders they were given, in certain circumstances, in order to accomplish the broader purpose of the orders.

“We’re the military, so you’re supposed to say, ‘Obey your orders,’” said Milley. “That’s kind of fundamental to being in the military.” However, he expects commanders in the field to know when to disobey a specific order.

“I think we’re over-centralized, overly bureaucratic, and overly risk-averse,” Milley said. He noted that while that system may work in peacetime, it’s “the opposite of what we are going to need in any type of warfare — but in particular, the warfare I envision.”

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and his wife Ellyn Dunford lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, May 9, 2017.
AP /Ariel Schalit

Milley said the army must prepare for warfare in “extremely austere” conditions, in which it will only be able to provide for soldier’s most basic needs. Moreover, he said, soldiers need to prepare for fighting in which they will be surrounded constantly by the enemy and will have to constantly move to stay alive.

“In short, learning to be comfortable with being seriously miserable every single minute of every single day will have to become a way of life for an Army on the battlefield that I see coming,” Milley said. He noted that leaders on the battlefield will have to be ready to be cut off from their commanders for long periods of time, and will have to fulfil the mission even when conditions in the field change and they will have no way of reporting back.

“We are going to have to empower [and] decentralize leadership to make decisions and achieve battlefield effects,” Milley said. This situation will necessitate a cadre of commanders who instil confidence and know when to disobey commands and to come up with a new plan to achieve their set goal.

He preached this independent decision making as “disciplined disobedience.” He said these ideas have already been integrated into American military doctrine, but it is hard to instill them because of the army’s tendency to “micromanage and over-specify everything a subordinate has to do.” He added: “That is not an effective way ... to fight. Not an effective way to conduct operations. You will lose battles and wars if you approach warfare like that.”

Milley said the army needs to change the way it trains officers for future warfare. While it’s impossible to predict how warfare will develop in the future, there are some clear trends, among them the enormous influence of technology, the proliferation of precision-guided munitions, the increased use of drones and robots and, most of all, the move to fighting in “highly dense, complex urban areas.” He said the U.S. Army will also have to adapt to this because it is still designed mainly for warfare in open spaces.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and his wife Ellyn Dunford visit the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, May 9, 2017.
AP/Ariel Schalit

The reality that the American general describes is not much different than the dilemmas engaging the Israeli army in preparing for future warfare. The impact of urbanization is raised in almost every conversation with senior officials in the ground forces. They often compare lessons drawn in the past year from Mosul and Aleppo to the battlefields the Israeli army can expect in the Gaza Strip or in south Lebanon.

Rearming for a new age of anxiety

The rise in the number of flash points across the globe, the persistent turmoil in the Arab world and the rise of belligerent leaders increase the risk of more wars or limited armed conflicts erupting in different regions. Observers in recent decades have spoken of a decrease in conventional wars, between organized armies of industrialized countries and a transition to limited, local confrontations with terrorist and guerilla organizations.

However, that is no longer necessarily the picture that military leaders worldwide see. The behavior of China and North Korea, respectively, raises the blood pressure of their East Asian neighbors. The Russian brutality demonstrated in Syria disturbs not only Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states but also West European leaders. Most of these states are not only interested in acquiring anti-aircraft or anti-ballistic systems but also in buying weapons that just a decade ago seemed superfluous, such as new tanks, artillery batteries and a variety of arms. U.S. officers who spoke recently with their Israeli counterparts said that a confrontation with North Korea was a matter of “when,” not “if.”

The bad news for people around the world is, as usual, pretty good news for weapons manufacturers, including ones in Israel. Israeli companies that refurbish armored vehicles and their weaponry have reported a wave of rush orders in recent months, mainly from Europe and East Asia. Some states that have drawn down their tank fleet to one or two divisions are also reconsidering their decisions. Chinese belligerence, Russian provocations and Islamic terror are not the only reasons. The unpredictable and adventuresome new occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is presumably an additional contributing factor.