Gen. Joseph Dunford's nomination to succeed Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff leaves the Marine Corps in need of a new top officer for the second time in less than a year. But it also represents history in the making for the Corps: If confirmed by the Senate, Dunford will become only the second Marine general in history to hold the prestigious position.
While it's no secret that Dunford's proven leadership and military expertise make him a good fit for the post, his Marine Corps background and dynamic portfolio of operational experience make him the right man for the right time, said a number of active-duty and retired generals with an understanding of the process.
Retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, who became the first Marine to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 2005, told Marine Corps Times that Dunford's operational experience as a commander of ground troops in wartime would give him wisdom and perspective in guiding decisions about when and how to wield military power. Prior to becoming commandant, Dunford commanded all U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan as the head of International Security Assistance Force. He also led a regimental combat team during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"For me, my major combat experience was as a rifle platoon leader in Vietnam; that helped me understand the impact on troops in the battlefield that decisions in Washington was going to have," Pace said. "For General Dunford, with recent experience in this current war, it's going to serve him extremely well."
The role of chairman of the Joint Chiefs requires a unique set of skills, including clear communication and diplomacy. While the position is considered the highest-ranking position in the Armed Forces, the chairman does not directly command any combatant forces. Rather, he serves in an advisory role to the president and defense secretary, and coordinates with the chiefs of each military service.
The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which established the duties and authority of the position as they exist today, took pains to discourage inter-service rivalry with measures that included requiring that the vice chairman hailed from a different service as the chairman, and ensuring that equal numbers of troops from each branch are assigned to the Joint Staff.
Goldwater-Nichols also formally made the Corps' commandant a member of the Joint Chiefs, paving the way for a Marine chairman.
"I think the service flavor has really taken a backseat to the quality of an individual," Pace said. "For someone like General Dunford, the quality is exactly what we want."
Dunford, Pace said, is known for being a "straight shooter" who communicates clearly, operates with integrity and will bring intellect and a calm demeanor to the post. All these things, he said, are increasingly important in a global environment marked by uncertainty and constantly emerging threats.
"There's always somebody, 24-7, doing something stupid somewhere on the planet," Pace said. "The chairman needs to know what that is and recommend what to do about it. [Dunford] will bring a global perspective to that and an understanding of the environment that will allow him to be very balanced."
Gen. John Kelly, head of U.S. Southern Command, told Marine Corps Times that Dunford — whom he described as his best friend — proved his quality and competence to the White House and others outside the Marine community particularly during his time as ISAF commander, during which most U.S. and coalition troops departed Afghanistan in a phased drawdown.
"He's got combat time as a no-kidding combat leader, and he's a soldier-statesman as well," said Kelly, who has known Dunford for much of his Marine Corps career. "He did excellently in Afghanistan with some very difficult guys, including Afghanistan's former president [Hamid Karzai]."
The president has to be comfortable with his chairman, Kelly said, and President Obama and Dunford had been able to establish a rapport over the course of the Marine general's tenure at ISAF.
"The important thing to think about is, you pick the right guy at the right time," Kelly said. "I wasn't exposed to the deliberations in the White House, but clearly the president thinks that what [Dunford] brings to the table is exactly what he needs right now."
Kelly has been rumored as a top choice to replace Dunford as commandant of the Marine Corps, but he declined to elaborate on future plans.
"We're two guys from neighborhoods in Boston," Kelly joked about himself and Dunford. "We're pretty amazed that we made first lieutenant."
Dunford's experience and familiarity with key Marine Corps capabilities will only make him a stronger leader for the Joint Staff, said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Jan Huly. As deputy commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations in the mid-2000s, Huly served over Dunford, then a colonel.
From Marine special operations to small-unit crisis response and amphibious operations, Dunford is conversant with the Corps' niche capabilities in these areas, he said.
"We're going to see a lot of issues in General Dunford's tenure that just won't go away as we figure out how to deal with these smaller crises," Huly said, noting that Dunford will be able to offer specific knowledge about using the Corps' quick reaction and response tools. "But, that doesn't mean the capabilities of the Army, Navy and Air Force can be ignored either."
The key, Huly said, is in understanding how the different service branches' capabilities and strengths best complement each other, and the proper deployment of each. And Dunford's broad range of operational and headquarters experience, from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to Pentagon planning units, will help him to do that, he said.
"General Dunford has Marine expeditionary force experience; he's had battalions and regiments under his command," Huly said. "And he has a strong appreciation for the capabilities the other services bring. He won't be hesitant when it comes to figuring out flexibility and capability."
Leadership insights from Dunford's long Marine Corps career and short tenure as commandant will also inform his prospective new role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, board chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association.
Dunford's Marine Corps background may actually aid his transition to the new joint post, Punaro suggested.
"Because they're such a small service and frequently operate in a joint environment, Marines have a greater grasp of all the services and joint operational environments," he said. "I think Joe Dunford, he understands military operations at all services and all levels. That's what you need when you're sitting there."
A Bronze Star recipient from the Vietnam War and a former congressional staffer who helped to write the Goldwater-Nichols Act, Punaro said he saw in Dunford the best-qualified officer to lead the Joint Staff.
"If you've watched him over the years, he is very thoughtful and measured, and he is very unflappable," Punaro said. "And that is a trait that will be sorely tested as chairman of the Joint Chiefs."
That stability and presence, Punaro said, can help Dunford as he oversees what may be a first in U.S. military history: the turnover of five members of the Joint Staff in a single year. In addition to the installment of a new chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Marine Corps, Navy and Army are all due to receive new top officers in 2015 as Dunford moves up and Adm. Jonathan Greenert and Gen. Ray Odierno retire. Dunford is also expected to hold the post past the 2016 election and into the next presidential administration.
"He's someone who's going to provide very objective and timely advice to leadership. He'll bring the same deep operational experience and deep strategic understanding [to the next administration]," Punaro said. "As a Marine, on all these key issues, he is the most ready and I would argue, in some of these areas, the nation is now the least ready."