Top U.S. military official outlines tempered approach to war


The U.S. military must use measured and precise strikes, not overwhelming force, in the wars it is likely to face in the future, the nation’s top uniformed officer said Wednesday in outlining a revised approach to American security.

The view outlined by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, differs both from the doctrine of overwhelming force advanced by Colin L. Powell, a onetime Joint Chiefs chairman, and the “shock and awe” approach of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

New warfare: An article in the March 4 Section A about the U.S. military’s new approach to warfare incorrectly stated that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff serves as the president’s chief military advisor under the Constitution. The position of chairman and its role was created by U.S. law, not the Constitution. —

“There is no single, defining American way of war,” Mullen argued. “It changes over time, and it should change over time, adapting appropriately to the most relevant threats to our national security.”

Mullen’s views, presented in a speech at Kansas State University, mirror the latest U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan, a showcase effort in which troops in Marja are trying not only to seize control of territory but to obtain influence over the local population in a bid to break the hold of insurgents.

His comments are significant because the Joint Chiefs chairman under the Constitution serves as the president’s chief military advisor.

Mullen held out Marja as a model of the kind of warfare he was describing. There, the military announced in advance plans to retake the city and emphasized careful use of force.

“We did not prep the battlefield with carpet bombing or missile strikes,” he said. “We simply walked in, on time. Because, frankly, the battlefield isn’t necessarily a field anymore. It’s in the minds of the people.”

The ideas outlined by Mullen are not universally accepted within the military. For instance, to minimize the risk of civilian casualties, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, placed restrictions on the use of bombs and other air power.

Some officers and analysts think that those self-imposed restrictions have allowed the Taliban to escape the most effective and potent U.S. weapons, potentially endangering American and allied troops.

In addition, the Marja offensive showed that even deliberate, measured force can produce civilian casualties.

In another shift in thinking, Mullen said in his speech that policymakers now and in the future should consider the U.S. military not as a last-resort solution in a crisis, but as part of early American responses to conflicts and disasters.

“Military forces are some of the most flexible and adaptable tools available to policymakers,” Mullen said. “Before a shot is even fired, we can bolster a diplomatic argument, support a friend or deter an enemy.”

Mullen emphasized that military power must be used alongside other government tools. Similarly, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking at the same venue in 2007, called for increased spending on the State Department.

“U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military,” Mullen said, “too dependent upon the generals and admirals who lead our major overseas commands and not enough on the State Department.”

Overall, the speech represents a refinement of military doctrine, reflecting the wrenching policy and strategy review last year over Afghanistan as well as the debates in 2006 concerning strategy in Iraq.

Policy and strategy, Mullen said, must “constantly struggle with one another.” Rather than setting a strategy and stepping aside, political leaders must remain involved. The day the U.S. stops adjusting is the day the country loses, he said.