Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford said today that this is the most dynamic and complex security environment he has seen. He checked off a few examples just in the last year as proof: Venezuela, the Middle East, the India-Pakistan border, the Sea of Azov, bilateral trade tensions, Korea, across Asia and across Africa.
"You are going to lead change in that context, and the situation is unlikely to become less complicated on your watch," Dunford said. "You are also going to lead in an era with an unprecedented rate of change in our profession and in the character of war."
History is rife with leaders who failed to grasp change, he said. Leaders before World War I failed to see what the changes in weapon lethality would mean. More than 10 million service members died for that failure. In World War II, western armies failed to see the potential of the air/ground force. "There are many more examples of brilliant people with big ideas that were ignored," the chairman said. "Most of the changes that took place occurred in the wake of failure."
All this is not just something from the past, Dunford said. He told the graduates that he once read a paper talking about the danger posed by homemade bombs to ground vehicles. The paper's author even pointed to a promising solution to the problem when he wrote it in 1996, "and we didn’t accept the value of his thinking until 2006," he said. "Not until we had paid a very high price in casualties and impacts on our operational effectiveness."
Strategy and tactics have changed and will continue to evolve, the chairman said. The old paradigm of regional conflicts limited to land, sea and air domains is broken, Dunford said, and any conflict today would quickly encompass all domains and across all regions. Soon, "we will be confronted by further challenges driven by developments in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, hypersonics [and] space-based capabilities, not to mention the developments we can't even imagine yet," he said.
All this drives the need for leading change. "There will be no substitute for leadership that encourages critical thinking," Dunford said. "There will be no substitute for leaders that recognize the implications of new ideas, new approaches and new technologies. There will be no substitute for leaders that take action to effect change."
There is also no substitute for people. He told the graduates he had just returned from paying tribute to the veterans who landed at Normandy and changed the face of World War II. No matter what the technologies were at the time, the chairman said, the war still required young Allied soldiers to cross those beaches and engage the enemy.
The same is true today, Dunford said. "Because the fundamental nature of war hasn't changed, neither have the primary factors that lead to success on the modern battlefield," he said. "Aside from an ability to adapt over the past 18 years, any tactical successes we've had in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have been because of the endurance, courage and commitment of individual soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and civil servants from the United States and our international partners.
"At the end of the day, we are not going to be defined by hypersonics, artificial intelligence, fifth-generation aircraft, space or cyber capabilities," Dunford said. "We will need that to be successful ... but the foundation of our success will continue to be men and women who embody our core values - men and women with the will and courage to endure and prevail, and leaders with the ability to inspire excellence and an unrelenting desire to win."