Could mission specialization solve DOD's woes?

The news coming out of the Defense Department rarely seems good these days. In the face of profound budget struggles and two ongoing wars in Southwest Asia, the entire department is feeling the pressure to find new ways to operate.

But in an organization in which a $553 billion budget is barely enough to get by, where does one military service, agency, division, team or individual begin when it’s time to do more with less?

Possible answers — and there are many — are further complicated by a rapidly evolving landscape of war, politics and technology.

Violent extremism and mitigating factors such as globalization, increased interdependency and the explosion of technological advancements all make solutions much tougher to come by, said Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, commander of the Navy’s 3rd Fleet, at the AFCEA West conference in San Diego in January.

However, Hunt floated an idea for addressing the complex challenges his service, like the rest of DOD, faces: specialization.

“We need to focus on what only the Navy can do,” Hunt said. “We have to play to our strength.” He offered a number of examples that involved securing the maritime domain and building up the Navy’s Fleet Cyber Command and its cyber warfare capabilities.

The idea of specialization isn’t new. European officials have considered pooling specialized missions together for broader European Union and NATO defense, and last month, Gen. David Richards, chief of the British defense staff, said during a U.S. briefing that mission specialization could be a solution to budget problems in Europe.

“I don’t see great appetite for that among most of our nations’ political leaders, but it could be that we, the military, have to be very wise on this one and generous-hearted and force the pace” of specialization, Richards said in January at an Atlantic Council briefing in Washington, as quoted in a report on DOD Buzz.

Mission specialization among the various international partners would allow for focused investment of precious defense funding. In essence, the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.

Specialization in the U.S. military would probably differ from that of the European Union and NATO, but could it be done? Furthermore, would it solve any of the multifaceted problems DOD faces?

According to some experts, the answer to the second question is probably not.

As John Pike, director of, points out, the overlap between the Navy and Army and between the Navy and Air Force is minimal and small potatoes in the grand scheme of DOD operations.

Furthermore, the overlap that does exist allows for healthy competition among the services, said Michael O’Hanlon, director of research and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Having the Marines and the Army in Iraq on the same mission led to greater experimentation, like the Sunni Awakening in 2006,” a key U.S. strategy in which tribal leaders began cooperating with the United States in the fight against al-Qaida, O’Hanlon said.

As for the United States partnering with international allies under a specialization strategy, it’s not a realistic approach, he added.

“Defense specialization may work within the EU, but it’s not a luxury the U.S. has since we never know which partners will be willing to help us in a given contingency,” he said. “We don’t choose the wars we end up in.”

Although narrowing the U.S. military’s operations could reduce what needs to be bought, it ultimately wouldn’t be enough to save much money or protect the country, said Maren Leed, a senior fellow and director of the New Defense Approaches Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Fundamentally, what costs the U.S. is a very expensive strategy, and until we change strategies, we’re going to have a hard time achieving substantive savings,” Leed said. “We’re going to have a mismatch that we can’t economize our way out of.”

Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese, deputy commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said Marines do specialize in some of their missions, but he still believes we need a holistic U.S. military.

“We have identified gaps in the nation’s arsenal of capabilities not easily filled by others,” Spiese said at AFCEA West. However, “we need a flexible, responsible force that is an enabler of joint and interagency capabilities deployed around the world.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


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