Since being tapped to become US defense secretary, Ash Carter spent four months developing a strategy for his tenure and focusing on who would fill the nation's top military jobs.
Picking the right talent is key as America faces varied and persistent threats, changing technology trends and constrained resources. Carter's Stanford University address last month underscored his drive to change a DoD that is too ponderous, inefficient, ill-organized and often unstrategic in thinking and buying. Organizational, cultural, intellectual and programmatic changes are long overdue.
Greater agility and innovation are vital to fight terrorists and transnational groups, and make the force ready for peer competitors such as China, Iran or Russia. All are diligently working to undermine historic US war-fighting advantages.
Key lawmakers also want the US military, while the best in the world, to change. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, is proposing the most far-reaching legislation in decades to bring wholesale reform to DoD.
For his part, Carter over the next year will pick DoD's top officers, giving him influence over who will lead US forces long after his tenure ends.
Those he has already tapped have drawn praise — Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford as Joint Chiefs chairman, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva as vice chairman, Gen. Mark Milley as Army chief of staff, and Adm. John Richardson as chief of naval operations. More will have to be filled, but his picks have common characteristics: smart, unflappable, strategic and innovative, attributes that could make them the most consequential leaders in decades.
They will have months to prepare for their new jobs and must map their priorities as a team to forge a force that is more agile, efficient and better-suited for the threats the nation faces.
Dunford must help chart a new course and harness this talented band, and like his subordinates, advise his leaders on ongoing operations while keeping an eye on the strategic future. His combat experience is vital but he must foster more strategic thinking across the force, a shortage of which impedes long-term planning and tactical execution.
Selva — with Deputy Secretary Bob Work — must oversee the definition of the next generation of capabilities and requirements, while tweaking the modernization portfolio to end poorly conceived programs and control the cost of needed ones.
Together, they must revamp Goldwater-Nichols, the legislation that forged today's joint force, but which also contributes to ponderous and wasteful behaviors. Indeed, today's muddled thinking about jointness is undermining readiness and contributing to inefficiencies, higher costs and staff bloat.
Milley and Richardson must posture their services for the future, with necessary soul searching to craft cultural, organizational and capability changes.
As the Army shrinks and new technologies make it harder for its forces to operate in large formations and with long logistical tails, Milley must draw on thoughtful and innovative leaders schooled in Iraq and Afghanistan to preserve skills and capabilities likely to be needed again, while readying for future adversaries. Scalable units that can react quickly to any mission are key, as are upgrades to firepower, mobility and communications. Retaining and grooming tomorrow's leaders must be a top priority.
Richardson must continue to improve the war-fighting skills and capabilities of a force that for decades has assumed global supremacy that is no longer assured. US adversaries are investing heavily in weapons to stymie the Navy's edge. He must refine modernization plans, institute more realistic and relevant training, and improve leadership skills across the force. Officers and enlisted need more authority to increase effectiveness and retention.
The good news is there is unprecedented consensus among administration, military and political leaders that absent rapid and tectonic change, America is at serious risk of losing its military lead. The challenge now is getting their organizations to follow them in making the necessary changes — now.