For at least two decades, the Department of Defense has explicitly defined its mission on its website as providing “the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.” But earlier this year, it quietly changed that statement, perhaps suggesting a more ominous approach to national security.
The Pentagon's official website now defines its mission this way: “The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide a lethal Joint Force to defend the security of our country and sustain American influence abroad.”
The new mission statement — featured at the bottom of every page on the site — removes the words “to deter war” while adding that it is the Pentagon's job to “sustain American influence” overseas. But strangely, the about page still carries the old mission statement, though it says it has not been updated since Jan. 27, 2017.
This seems a significant change for the department under President Donald Trump, although the Pentagon appears to have made it quietly and with little fuss. The Pentagon's official website, currently at defense.gov and previously at defenselink.mil, has maintained its mission to “provide the military forces needed to deter war” under Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton, according to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.
The change happened sometime between Jan. 2 and Jan. 3 of this year.
So what is going on here?
I emailed Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White about this, asking her why the mission changed and who would have approved it. I also asked what the reasoning was behind the decision to remove “deter war” and add “sustain American influence abroad.” She did not respond to my questions by press time.
The Defense Department's website on Dec. 12, 1998.The Wayback Machine
The Defense Department's website on Jan. 1, 2018.The Wayback Machine
Still, this seemingly-new mission isn't outlined in the summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy like it is on DoD's website. The document does, however, use some of the old and new language together (emphasis added):
“The Department of Defense’s enduring mission is to provide combat-credible military forces needed to deter war and protect the security of our nation. Should deterrence fail, the Joint Force is prepared to win. Reinforcing America’s traditional tools of diplomacy, the Department provides military options to ensure the President and our diplomats negotiate from a position of strength,” reads the introduction.
It says later: “A more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order. Collectively, our force posture, alliance and partnership architecture, and Department modernization will provide the capabilities and agility required to prevail in conflict and preserve peace through strength.”
Although at least seven previous defense secretaries served under the website's old mission statement, it appears that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has in this instance made a lasting mark on his office. Besides overseeing this seemingly subtle word change, Mattis wrote an all-hands memorandum in Oct. 2017 stating, “we are a Department of war” — a choice of words harkening back to the DoD's name prior to 1949.