Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Overprioritizing “Jointness” in the Joint Warfighting Concept

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

In a break from Bad Ideas tradition, this piece starts with an acknowledgement that developing a new Joint Warfighting Concept (JWC) was — and remains — a good idea for the United States. However, the JWC possesses a design flaw that represents a bad idea that the Department of Defense (DoD) should not repeat, especially as the Biden administration further develops defense policy and strategy across a range of issues.

At great jeopardy to garnering votes in this year’s contest for “Worst Idea,” I will begin with some definitions. Readers of the “Bad Idea” series are likely familiar with Carl von Clausewitz’s statement that war “is a mere continuation of policy by other means.” Equally familiar is Merriam-Webster’s definition of fight: “to use weapons or physical force to try to hurt someone, to defeat an enemy, etc; to struggle in battle or physical combat;” or “to be involved in (a battle, struggle, etc.).”

What may surprise readers is that the DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines neither war nor fight. It also excludes synonyms like fighting, warfighting, combat, and conflict. Luckily, the DoD Dictionary does define “joint” as follows: “Connotes activities, operations, organizations, etc., in which elements of two or more Military Departments participate. (JP 1)”

In 2019, the Secretary of Defense tasked the Chairman of the Joint Staff with developing a new JWC to meet the strategic challenges posed by China and others. The Joint Staff rapidly broke the task down into four lines of effort: joint all domain command and control; global and joint fires; contested logistics; and information advantage. The Air Force, Navy, and Army, respectively, were given the lead for the first three. The Joint Staff itself led on information advantage. This shows how “joint” the process to develop the JWC was: services maintaining distinct siloes of excellence with advice provided from other services via a “prisoner exchange.” As the definition above highlights, since more than one military department was involved, it is a joint effort. How reassuring.

Next, we will examine the war in the JWC. Taking Clausewitz’s definition, war is conducted to pursue a political objective. This suggests a need to involve those who develop or enforce policy in the process of determining wartime strategy. Yes, at the very least, civilians — and probably presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed civilians — should be involved in the process from the beginning. It is not clear whether the previous administration’s senate-confirmed civilian leadership was deeply involved in shaping the objectives for the JWC, but it is highly unlikely that the Biden administration was able to provide review, oversight, or shaping such as considering desired end-states or acceptable ways to pursue them, before the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs signed off on the JWC. This is because there were only two Senate-confirmed positions filled by March 2021 when Chairman Milley signed out the JWC: the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense. Even when all the political positions are filled and the system is running optimally, both leaders have exceptionally demanding jobs. Secretary Austin is reported to have approved the JWC shortly after, when DoD had grown its senate-confirmed ranks to no more than six.

With a “joint” process, much in the way an Army-Navy softball game is joint by doctrinal definition, and with those responsible for defining and prosecuting war almost certainly at arms-length, what about the actual warfighters? Arguably, fighting is at least as important to Joint Warfighting as the other two elements. In the U.S. defense system, neither the military services nor their chiefs direct combat or combat forces. It is a responsibility assigned to Combatant Commanders to plan for and — usually through subordinate task-force commanders — to conduct combat operations as directed by the President and Secretary of Defense. It is not clear that the JWC sought views from many within the combatant commands who would be responsible for turning the concept into workable plans.

This analysis could be read the wrong way, so let me be clear. Developing a new JWC is a good idea. It has spurred important thinking about how the U.S. military may undertake its future responsibilities and what capabilities it will need to do so — from each service’s internal obligations and the dependencies between the services. The bad idea is to enable one constituency of the department to develop a concept that would not just benefit from, but should require input and active participation throughout the process from other stakeholders.

Determining the right alignment of these three communities (and of course, there are many other constituencies in an organization as large as the DoD), the relative weight they should have, and how involved each should be in the process are the real art behind establishing — and driving — policies and priorities in a defense bureaucracy that is adept at adopting new keywords to meet old objectives.

Perhaps the next iteration might be the Warfighting Joint Concept to better sequence the establishments of political objectives, operational requirements, and the means to achieve them.

(Photo Credit: DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

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