Rebalancing act: DOD's leadership weighs priorities

Although Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently directed Defense Department officials to reevaluate the military's most important goals in light of reduced resources, the department remains obligated to a number of things, and negotiating them will require tactical leadership.

Ashton Carter

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reiterated the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.

Although Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently directed Defense Department officials to reevaluate military priorities, the department remains obligated to a number of things, and negotiating them will require tactical leadership.

Speaking on a recent multileg trip to Asia, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reiterated the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, a shift that served as a cornerstone of last year's defense strategic guidance. At his swearing-in ceremony March 22, the new commander of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, emphasized Afghanistan as priority. Meanwhile, Hagel has said the new strategic review will include the Asia pivot, among other defense issues.

So how will military leaders determine the way forward amid the haze of an ongoing war, sweeping budget cuts and a changing threat landscape?

To juggle today's competing defense priorities will require strategic leadership in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – or "VUCA" – according to one former top Army official. The acronym "was coined in the late '90s, but it's just as relevant now," said Gen. George Casey, former Army chief of staff, speaking March 23 at a FedBid Fuel event in Washington. "In a VUCA environment people become flummoxed by complexity and the environment became a reason not to act. You have to act. It takes courage, but nothing comes without risk."

Assessing today's risks will undoubtedly factor into the department's strategic review, due by May 31. DOD leaders also will need to identify what is most critical to national security.

"These are historic times and challenging times, and much more will be required of us in the days ahead, for the world that we live in remains complex and extremely volatile. And a great deal of the instability and associated challenges reside in the CENTCOM area of responsibility," said Austin. "The U.S. will continue to play an important role as a key partner to our friends and our allies. We will provide them with the necessary support, and we will stand ready and willing to hold accountable those who would threaten regional stability and security through their actions or through the actions of proxies. And our intent will remain to effectively and pragmatically employ all the elements of national power in response to challenges and in our pursuit of shared interests."

Austin's pledge to U.S. interest and allies came on the same day that Carter addressed an international meeting in Jakarta, where he stressed that the U.S. will press forward with its shift to the Asia-Pacific – a move he said will be both critical and heavily felt in that region.

"The rebalance will continue and in fact gain momentum for two reasons," Carter said. "First, U.S. interests here are enduring and so also will be its political and economic presence. This presence is accompanied by values … that America has long stood for. So our interest in the region will be both believed and reciprocated."

The American values Carter referred to will be crucial to leadership that guides the military forward, according to Casey, who said vision, courage and character are keys in effective 21st-century leadership. Vision is necessary to choose leaders who look to the future, while courage will be needed to identify opportunities and character will be essential to taking on challenges and bouncing back in difficult situations, Casey said.

Those attributes are likely to be vital as Hagel and the rest of the Pentagon leadership work out just how much of and where its precious resources will go – whether to a war that is drawing down, a growing presence in Asia, resetting a military worn by more than a decade of war, or a wary workforce threatened by furlough and downsizing.

"The government is wrestling with significant and fundamental challenges because of the budget environment and the world around us, and we're not going to solve it by doing the same thing at lower levels," Casey said. "It's going to take leaders to [enact] significant and fundamental change if we're going to go forward."

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