Challenges Facing the U.S. Military

Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Department of Defense
General Mark A. Welsh III

Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force

Admiral Paul F. Zukunft

Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard

Mark A. Milley

Chief of Staff, U.S. Army

Admiral John M. Richardson

Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy

General Robert B. Neller

Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps

David E. Sanger

National Security Correspondent, New York Times

General Mark A. Welsh III, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force; General Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the U.S. Army; Admiral John M. Richardson chief of staff of the U.S. Navy; General Robert B. Neller, chief of staff of the U.S. Marine Corps; and Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, join the New York Times' David E. Sanger to discuss challenges facing the U.S. military. The service chiefs address domain and region-specific challenges facing the United States today.

The Robert B. McKeon Endowed Series on Military Strategy and Leadership features prominent individuals from the military and intelligence communities.

HAASS: Well, good evening and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. And welcome in particular to the Robert B. McKeon Endowed Series on Military Strategy and Leadership. I’m Richard Haass. I’m president of the Council on Foreign Relations. I just want to explain that this series was made possible by a generous gift from a good friend of the Council, Bob McKeon. Bob was also a good friend—personal friend. And this is the fourth lecture that we’ve held since Bob’s death in 2012. And we’re very grateful to see his wife Claire here tonight—with us tonight, to celebrate this important part of Bob’s considerable legacy.

Tonight marks the 15th time that CFR has hosted the service chiefs. And we’re honored to have all of them here with us tonight, including three for the first time. One, Admiral Zukunft of the Coast Guard, for the second time. But also I’m going to single out Mark Welsh, the chief of staff for the Air Force, for the last time. And, General, I just want to say thank you not just for tonight, but for what you’ve done for this country over the many decades.

WELSH: Thank you, sir. (Applause.) Thank you.

HAASS: And David will properly introduce all five of these gentlemen. I also want to warn them that for the first time this event is on the record. And I should also say that all five have been read their Miranda rights. (Laughter.)

Now, there’s numerous areas where the work of the Council on Foreign Relations and the military overlap, from Laurie Garrett’s analysis of the military’s response to Ebola to the contribution of our Stanton nuclear fellows, and from the works, say, by Senior Fellow Max Boot on wars big and small, to all that we’re doing on cybersecurity. Our latest taskforce on North Korea will provide an assessment of policy toward the country against the backdrop of its enhanced nuclear and missile capabilities. And this taskforce will release its report in June, co-chaired by Sam Nunn, the former senator, and a gentleman known very well to these men, Admiral Mike Mullen, who was the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

I’d be remiss also if I didn’t mention that we just gave up one of our own here to work in tandem with two of these five men, and that’s former Senior Fellow Janine Davidson, who was recently sworn in as the 32nd undersecretary of the Navy. Finally, CFR’s fortunate enough to be one of the institutions with which the U.S. military partners. Every year the Council hosts a military fellowship program in which five military officers, mid-career, spend a year in residence at our headquarters here in New York. This program goes back more than half a century now, and has hosted some 140 military officers. And, to me, the most impressive statistic at all, half of whom have gone on to the rank of general or admiral.

And this program is but one example of how the U.S. military makes a sustained investment in its most valuable asset, and that’s America’s men and women in uniform. I also think it helps explain why the military is one of the most professional and one of the most respected institutions in American society. Indeed, it sets an example that the rest of us would be wise to follow. I know that everyone here joins me in thanking the chiefs for taking the time out of their schedules to be with us tonight, but more importantly I know everyone here joins me in thanking them for what they do for all of us, the other 364 days a year. So thank you, sir. (Applause.)

There’s no shortage of issues to discuss, from a Middle East that continues to unravel to new security concerns in Europe and Asia. There’s also new domains from cyberspace, to outer space, to the Arctic. New questions regarding financial and human resources. And, rumor has it, there’s a prospect of a new commander in chief and administration in a little more than eight months.

To ask these and other questions, it’s now my pleasure to introduce tonight’s presider, David Sanger. Field Marshal Sanger, as you know—(laughter)—is the national security correspondent for The New York Times, where he’s been for some three decades now. Twice he’s been a member of Times reporting teams that won the Pulitzer Prize. Gentlemen, you are in very capable hands. David, thank you very much.

SANGER: Well, thank you. (Applause.) Thank you, Richard.

Thank all of you for coming and doing this again. Pure evidence that recidivism lives out here, that you guys were willing to come back. Thank you to Richard, and all of you for coming out. And I think my parents are here, including my dad, who’s a veteran of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, and was lucky enough to meet the chiefs earlier. So thank you, Dad, for coming as well. (Applause.)

Let me very briefly introduce our group of service chiefs. Their longer biographies are in the material you have, but to my immediate left is General Mark Welsh, who as you heard was chief of staff of the Air Force and has been commander of tactical fighter squadrons, the chief of the defense space operations division. There’s basically no job in the Air Force, I think, at this point, that General Welsh has not had. We’re very lucky to have him with us today.

General Milley of the Army, who I think you heard before is now the 39th chief of staff of the Army. He’s been in many different groupings, including special forces over the last 35 years. And of course, also was in Afghanistan, served in the operation staff of the Joint Staff, military assistant to the secretary of defense I guess when it was Bob Gates, is that right?

MILLEY: Correct.

SANGER: Yeah, who’s often on this stage as well.

Admiral John Richardson, our newest arrival here. A submariner for, did you tell me, a quarter century, or? Yeah. In both attack subs and boomers. Has been the commander of naval submarine forces. And he’s truly an expert on our—on our nuclear submarine force, holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT.

General Neller from the Marine Corps, 37th commandant, has—

NELLER: No MIT degree here.

SANGER: What’s that?

NELLER: I said MIT degree here. (Laughter.)

SANGER: Oh, well, sorry about that. (Laughter.) But you were at the University of Virginia, so you can talk about Thomas Jefferson every time the MIT thing comes up, right? (Laughter.)

NELLER: It just doesn’t seem to match up.

SANGER: Yeah, OK. (Laughter.) General Neller has been division commander and assistant division commander for the First and Second Marine Divisions, president of Marine Corps University, a number of joint assignments. And we’re delighted to have him here.

And finally, Admiral Zukunft, who’s the 25th commandant—I’m sorry—25th commandant of the Coast Guard. He’s had that job now for about two years. And previous to that he was commander of the Coast Guard Pacific area. He is probably well-known to many of you who watched TV during the Deepwater Horizon spill, which was something that he was the on-scene coordinator for the federal government, directing the 47,000 responders to that.

So my plan for the evening is as follows: We’re going to talk a little bit about some issues that are on the news. And then we’re going to talk about what it is that the chiefs talk about when they get into the tank, which is the future of the force—what it is that they need to be able to do to prepare for both the threats five and 10 years out, or longer, and also begin to think about what kind of resources one would need, how you change the force in that direction. So I’m hoping to speak not only about what’s going on today, but where they see the military headed.

But let’s start with today. And, General Milley, let’s start with you. You know, when you think about the five big areas—

MILLEY: General Neller, is that what you—

SANGER: General Milley.

NELLER: He said Milley.

MILLEY: Oh, I could have sworn I heard Neller.

WELSH: Psych op.

SANGER: You can pass these off a little bit later on, yeah. (Laughter.) We had a phone conversation yesterday. And every time we got to a hard question General Milley said: And I think that’s for—and he named somebody who wasn’t on the call.

MILLEY: We do that in the tank all the time as well. (Laughter.)

SANGER: Yeah. So the secretary of defense has talked about the five big areas of effort for the military these days: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and, of course, the counterterrorism mission. And these are very different kinds of missions, because counterterrorism requires you to be focused in on small forces, very precision in applying a large amount of force in a small amount of area where you can, big intelligence issues. Whereas China, Russia are more our traditional kinds of threats.

I want to start off by asking you on the counterterrorism side: How do you assess, General Milley, the speed with which we reacted to the rise of ISIS two years ago? And how do you think we’re doing on it today?

MILLEY: Well, I became chief in August. And I’ve served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’ve been tracking both the intel and from persona knowledge, talking to commanders, et cetera. Went over there in September, did not think we were doing very well. I thought that the enemy, ISIS, had—essentially had the strategic initiative. They came on the scene in the spring of ’14. And we came up with a campaign plan. And that campaign plan, like any war plan, has to be adjusted based on the facts on the ground.

So last fall we adjusted that campaign plan, and then went forward and sought the permission of the senior leaders of the United States. They approved that. And you’re seeing today bits and pieces of it in the news. But today, right now, my assessment is significant progress has been made. And that’s quite a bit different than what I saw in the fall. So in terms of land, for example, the territory of the caliphate has been reduced significantly. Enemy combatants, both at the lower level but more importantly at the leadership level, have been significantly attrited. Their finances are under intense pressure. Their moral has gone down. And their ability to move inside their own territory and their interior lines has been significantly degraded.

The task from the president is to—from President Obama—is to destroy ISIS. So all of that progress I’m describing is important, it’s significant, but we have not yet destroyed ISIS. And that is yet to come. But I’m very confident that the strategic plan that we have is working. And I’m very confident of the outcome.

SANGER: When I walk through your building, on those days that they let me in, I hear people say, you know, we’re not going to accomplish the task of actually destroying them until we have a Sunni force on the ground that can take them on on the ground in a way that President Obama has clearly been unwilling to allow American forces to go do, given the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you agree with that? And how much closer do you think we are to organizing a Sunni force that can finish off that job?

MILLEY: I do agree with that. You know, I’ve fought a fair amount of time over there. And I don’t think the smartest strategic move is to put a lot of American soldiers on the ground. I think that would be counterproductive. Some, for sure, to train, advise, assist, enable, to provide some forward advisory effort to bring in fires from either naval or air platforms and to help the Iraqi Security Forces to build up their capabilities, and the Kurdish forces.

At the end of the day, we have got to work by, with, and through indigenous forces in order to destroy ISIS. And it’s correct that there’s going to have to be some Sunni ground force. We’re working with the Iraqi Security Forces and the various Kurdish forces to do that. But it’s their fight. It’s their country. And it’s an existential threat to them. And we’re there to help, assist, advise. There’s U.S. interests at stake. And I think it may be slower than if it were Americans to do it, but at the end of the day it will be sustainable. And that’s what’s significant.

SANGER: General Welsh, one of the notable elements of this war against ISIS, but before that against al-Qaida, and before that generally in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been the astounding use by the Air Force and also by the CIA, but mostly by the Air Force, of unmanned vehicles. You’ve seen those really change the way, the nature of the Air Force in your time. You’ve gotten to the point—and correct me if I’m wrong on this—you probably have more pilots in training for unmanned aircraft than you did for manned aircraft. And it looks like that is the trend that is continuing. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned in the course of this succession of wars about what it is that unmanned craft do well for us, what they don’t do well, what we’re always going to need piloted aircraft for? And particularly, talk a little bit about Syria and Iraq in this current struggle.

WELSH: Thanks, David. First, thank you for being here and taking your time do this. And thanks to the ambassador and to Mrs. McKeon for the opportunity for us to be here. It’s really a privilege, thank you.

We were—we keep repeating it’s not drone, it’s not an unmanned aircraft, it’s a remotely piloted aircraft, which we’re even getting tired of saying and everybody’s really tired of hearing it. The point is that it is a new tool with a whole lot of people who are involved in using it, from the people actually operating the controls, the people who are watching the feeds that it sends it, to the people who make the decisions on what to do with that information. It is a heavily manned enterprise. They’re just not all sitting on or riding an airplane.

So what we’ve done essentially has extended sensors. And we’ve put sensors orbiting over the battlespace. So we can use them to develop targets. We can use them to observe quality and pattern of life. We can use them to observe movement. We can use them to actually target. And so in that regard, it’s a natural evolution of warfare. It’s just a different type of technology being used for the same things we’ve been trying to do since the civil war with aircraft of some type. So there’s not a lot of mystery in how we’re using them. It’s just to be better at what we’ve always done.

Where we should use remotely piloted aircraft in the future, or even autonomous unmanned aircraft in the future, is in those areas where they provide benefit over having a manned platform. In the near term, that’s not in deciding how to deliver nuclear weapons, for example. It’s not moving your families around. It’s in those things where you need an aircraft that can operate for periods of time that the human body can’t sustain, or can put—go into a situation where you don’t need to put a human body at risk to provide—to do a task that the airplane can do by itself.

And that’s what we’ve done. We still have a very small percentage of our force is actually on unmanned aircraft. It’s less than 10 percent—significantly less than 10 percent.

SANGER: And what will that be 10 years from now, do you think?

WELSH: I don’t think it’ll be a whole lot more than that 10 years from now. Twenty to 30 years from now, I think it’ll start to shift. But it’s never going to be—in my lifetime, it will not be—which is about 30 years—(laughter)—it will not be a huge, huge shift, because we’re still figuring out how to use these things. We’re just past the Wright flier stage, if you want to make an analogy to manned aircraft. We are just past that step in the unmanned world.

And it’s going to be spectacular to watch where it goes, but it doesn’t necessarily go bigger. They may get smaller. They may be connected to manned platforms. You know, wingmen who can do different tasks for a pilot in an F-35, is an example. Unmanned wingmen is a concept that we’re testing now. It’s going to be very successful. There’s just lots of ways to use this technology to do the things we’ve always done in a better, more comprehensive way.

By the way, the biggest change in Iraq and Syria, and ISIS, and from an air perspective is, in August of ’14, when this began, we looked at them as a terrorist group and we targeted them as a terrorist group, and we tried to collect intelligence on them as a terrorist group. They are much more than that now. And they—as a result of that, the initial strategy that Mark referred to let them have a vote and kind of direct activity for probably the first six, eight months, in my view.

And then we started to realize that they looked an awful lot like something much more than a terrorist group. They had infrastructure. They had training infrastructure, recruiting infrastructure, financial infrastructure, governance infrastructure. They had what looked like fielded military forces. And they had this terrorist component. And from an Air Force perspective, you can attack all those different pieces simultaneously. And that’s been the change of the last six to eight months.

SANGER: And we’ve seen one other change in the past six to eight months. We’ve had the secretary of defense, the deputy secretary, some of you in testimony, talk about the use of cyber right alongside your air power, your ground power. And this is the first time I’ve ever seen the U.S. government acknowledge the use of offensive cyber capability, and make the point that it is just another weapon in the arsenal. So I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about how you integrate that. You obviously have people from Cyber Command who are working alongside you. And then, also a little bit about what the risks of that are. Are you normalizing cyberwarfare, even while we’re using it against an enemy like ISIS?

Who wants—

WELSH: John, you want to take that one?

MILLEY: That’s a great question for the Navy. (Laughter.)

RICHARDSON: Well, I think, you know, the point to be made is that—and, you know, we talk about this in the tank quite a bit—is that every one of these conflicts now is sort of transregional, right? There’s no such thing as a purely regional conflict anymore. Everything stems, you know, beyond—transregionally if not globally, cyber being a big part of this. And that everything is—happens in multiple domains at once.

And so, you know, this kind of expands on what General Welsh was saying in terms of, you know, appreciating this fight here for what it really is, the full dimensionality. Let’s develop a fully developed air campaign to get at all of those and then, you know, extend it ever beyond that so that we’re looking at every tool that we’ve got to really, you know, as the president wants us to do, is to crush this enemy. And so, you know, this cyber dimension is—

SANGER: But you do consider it a normal tool. And if you think—you know, there a lot of analogies that are made between nuclear and cyber, for example. But nuclear we decided years ago would be put aside not to be used as a normal weapon of war. We’ve made the same decision about chemical, biological, many others. But cyber it seems as if in the past eight or 10 years we’ve come to the conclusion now this can be used right alongside everything else.

RICHARDSON: Well, I think the point is that—we can decide it, but the fact is it’s a pretty hot war in cyber—in the cyber domain going on right now. And so, you know, we’re sustaining hundreds of thousands of attacks, you know, per day. The team has sort of stood up, organized, and—organized their defenses to become very capable in this. And so this is an area where the fight is on.

SANGER: I wanted to talk a little bit about another considerable adversary, one that you’re facing in the Pacific. Admiral Zukunft, and I know you spent a fair bit of your time in the Pacific as well. And it’s the concerns about a rising China, but particularly about the South China Sea. We’ve seen a lot of back and forth in the past year between the Navy and others, and the White House, about the degree to which we want to run freedom of navigation operations down into these areas that the Chinese have claimed their own. There’s a lot of concern that something could go wrong along the way, that somebody could get a little hot-headed. Tell us a little bit about what your concerns are there.

RICHARDSON: Well, I think that, first of all, South China Sea, an extremely important part of the world for the entire world. You know, about 30 percent of the world’s trade flows through that part of the ocean. And so, you know, advocating for the ruleset that enables that trade to proceed on a very open and level playing field, allowing all players to, you know, prosper and compete, if you will, without conflict—you know, continuing to advocate for that ruleset so that as, you know, the president and everybody else say, we can operate and fly and sail wherever international law allows. And so that, I think, is the first mission there, is to preserve our ability to do that, preserve our access through that part of the world.

And so—and, you know, it’s not just us. And it’s not just the military. This is a whole-of-government approach. I think we need to make sure that we engage not only the military element of power, but also the diplomatic and economic, which are extremely important in that world. And so it really is a whole-of-government approach. And it’s also a multinational approach. And so as you’ve seen the dynamic really change there, you’re seeing partnerships emerging with nations in that region that have, you know, really grown, particularly recently. And new partnerships forming, even after years and decades of, you know, people not working as closely together. And so it is a changing dynamic. It involves not only naval forces, by also the rest of the military and our whole of government and a regional solution.

With respect to our freedom of navigation operations, you know, I think that those are terrifically targeted operations, because they do exactly what we want them to do, which is advocate for that international ruleset. And they don’t extend beyond that. It’s just a pure advocacy for that system. And so we—you know, we design those very carefully. It’s a policy decision that is made and interwoven with those other elements of power. And so I think both, you know, aircraft, ships, you know, ready to execute those as they fit into the plan.

SANGER: Admiral Zukunft, there’s been a lot of discussion that is actually in some ways a better role for the Coast Guard, yours and others around the world. It is a little less threatening when you put Coast Guard ships in. It’s got more of a sense of freedom of navigation, safety for those at sea, and so forth. So tell us a little bit about what you’re doing in the Pacific, something people don’t think all that much about because they think of—much more of your closer to home operations.

ZUKUNFT: Well, first and foremost, I have an open and frank dialogue with my counterpart in China. And it’s important, as service chiefs—whether its Russia, whether it’s China—when we see acts of provocation, where we can pick up the phone and say: What is your intent? So at least in that regard, we have that capability. So in my interactions with China, the China Coast Guard, they used to call themselves the Five Dragons. There are five maritime non-PLA services. Four of the five merged to become China Coast Guard. Lo and behold, the racing stripe, the lettering, looks mighty familiar to us. Intellectual property rights perhaps at play there. (Laughter.)

But what we’re seeing is that China Coast Guard is on the frontline, provoking our United States Navy. We’re seeing Chinese fishing trawlers provoking the United States Navy carrying out sovereign acts, but just over the horizon is the PLA.

And so our biggest concern is about a miscalculation, but their coast guard has not been transparent in terms of what their intent is. We’re working with them right now to sign Conduct for Unplanned Encounters at Sea so they won’t take these actions against our Navy and other forces as well, but at least to have that open and frank dialogue for the very same reasons that are mentioned here.

Our sense is that China does not want to be a global hegemon, but they clearly want to be recognized as the regional leader in this area. So I do a lot of work—I was in Hanoi, Da Nang, Manila just before the end of the year, two ASEAN countries that have been the most assertive in protecting their sovereign rights and their EEZ, where we see encroachment—drilling off the coast of Vietnam, Second Thomas Shoal in the Philippines, which is well within the EEZ of the Philippines.

We’re working with the Japanese coast guard, that is doing capacity building to shore up, build up those navies, those coast guards to assert their sovereign rights, and trying to get ASEAN to work collectively. As we have seen, China has worked bilaterally with the ASEAN members. And as their economies are very codependent, it’s very easy for the ASEAN countries to be splintered off and to get everyone, you know, from a regional approach. What we find is coast guards become that soft diplomacy piece, and there may be an opportunity there to perhaps open a dialogue, because right now it has been opaque and it’s important that we have better transparency.

SANGER: I remember in 2010 being in Beijing—early 2011, with Secretary Gates, your old boss, General Milley. And he said to us at that time he believed the intent of the Chinese was to push both the Navy, Coast Guard, all of American forces out to the Second Island Chain, keep them out of their territory in the Pacific. Do we still think that’s their intent? Do you agree with that after your—

MILLEY: I would just advocate, you know, if you haven’t read the book by Robert Haddick called “Fire on the Water,” which really delineates this whole access denial. And so if you look at—if you want to study the United States, really it’s like going back to Mahan. And now, you know, the China coast guard is building 10,000-ton cruisers. This looks like Teddy Roosevelt—you know, big white ship, you know, from that era as well.

But study, you know, our vulnerabilities. And so, you know, for what it takes to put a carrier strike group together you can build an anti-ship cruise missile for $2 million. And if you can launch a swarm of those, you might argue you have access denial. Build quiet subs and put them in the straits. And it doesn’t even address mine warfare. So they’re looking at, rather than go peer-to-peer, it’s almost an asymmetrical approach to what the strengths of our military is to build that up. But I thought Robert Haddick did a very good job articulating that in his book “Fire on the Water.”

SANGER: General Neller, I was just back from a week in South Korea last week, and it’s pretty obvious that we’ve seen a big ramp-up by the North Koreans in activity in just the past six months—missile tests, one nuclear test, the possibility of another one ahead of their Workers’ Party Congress, which meets for the first time in 36 years later on this week. Tell us a little bit about how we’re thinking differently today, if at all, about the contingency of being once again the conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

NELLER: Well, since I’ve been in service, Korea was always the big fight, or potentially the big fight, because of the politics involved and the aggressive nature of the North Koreans, regardless of who the leader was. And the current leader has taken that to the next level. So I think their provocations, which go back to the sinking of the South Korean ship and the things they’ve done with missile technology and missile shots, makes everybody a little bit nervous and makes the whole region unstable.

So I think as kind of a two-prong approach, the ability to communicate directly with them is probably beyond my understanding of the politics of this, but I think, you know, we’re going to have to figure out how to communicate ideally through probably the Chinese and leverage the Chinese to do that. At the same time, I think we have to continue to reaffirm our treaty obligations that we have with the South Koreans, and the fact we’ve got forces there and that we’re part of an international alliance throughout the region.

So as far as anything different, I think part of the discussion that we’ve had—or at least I’ve had in my own mind—is before they were—it was annoying and it was kind of a difficult thing, but now the capabilities that they’re looking at—we know they have nuclear weapons but they haven’t had the means to deliver them to the homeland. And if that’s where they’re going, then I think that changes kind of the calculus in this whole thing.

SANGER: And now we believe that even if they can’t deliver them here, they probably do have a short-range nuclear capability.

NELLER: We do.

SANGER: And how does that change the calculus? For the first time you could have a North Korean nuclear weapon that can reach American forces.

NELLER: Well, I think the first thing we have to do is be able to protect ourselves and protect our citizens and protect our allies. So we have a capability to do that. It’s interesting with some countries is that when you do things in response to their actions and they then accuse you of doing something to aggravate them, which causes them to do something. So you get into this tit-for-tat thing, and I think the real issue is how do you, OK, let’s stop; we need to step back on this.

I mean, the Chinese would say that they’re doing what they’re doing with the land reclamation because of our behavior in the South China Sea, and we’re saying, no, we’re not doing it; we’re doing it in response to yours; we’re doing it in response to the things you’re doing. So the military is not—and we’re part of the national elements of power. We’re going to do what we have to do to support the policy makers.

So that’s a difficult—very difficult policy question on, how do we get to the reset on this? But at the same time, I think we have to make it very clear that, one, we’re going to defend ourselves and we’re going to defend the homeland and we’re going to defend our allies.

SANGER: Very good.

Let’s turn the question a little bit to resources, something that all five of you have to think about regularly. So we’re trying to do a very difficult balance here. You’ve going to have counterterrorism operations, whether it’s ISIS or something like it, for as far as the eye can see, we suspect. And you’re going to have all these other big challenges, and we haven’t gotten to Russia yet as well.

At the same time, General Milley, you’re probably going to be moving from a force that right now is about, what, 470,000 active?

MILLEY: Right.

SANGER: You’re going to go down to at least 450(,000). You still have some sequester issues going on. And yet you also have a discussion going on in the country about whether or not we even want to be engaged around the world as fully as we have been. In this campaign we’ve heard more than a few candidates talk—one in particular—about whether or not we even want to pull back from some forward deployment areas.

So tell us a little bit about, as you look forward to the size of the force and where we deploy them in the next few years, what are you seeing?

MILLEY: Well, for the Army they’re just—you mentioned going down to 450(,000). That’s the active Army, the regular Army. We’ve got the total Army, so we’re about a million strong in the United States Army. So it’s not—

SANGER: So that includes the Reserve and the Guard.

MILLEY: That’s Reserve, the Guard, and the regular Army. And we’re going to go do 980(,000) by fiscal year ’18. And for the regular Army that takes us from 479(,000) or 480(,000) or so today down to about 450(,000) or so by ’18.

So the question is, you know, is that sufficient capacity and capability to do the various national strategies? We think it is. We think that’s sufficient capabilities to execute the strategies as they exist today. I’ll stay out of any election politics. I have no idea who—what strategies they’ll be in the future, but we think that we can execute what’s asked of us today.

The real hard question is what happens if one of these other contingencies were to go off that—and Bob Neller was talking about Korea and John Richardson was talking about China, and we haven’t even talked about Russia yet or some of these others. And you mentioned the challenges that the secretary of defense mentioned. So the real challenge will be for all of us if there’s something beyond what is currently happening in the world, and then we’ll get into some really hard choices.

SANGER: China is a long-term challenge, for the reasons we’ve discussed. Is Russia a long-term challenge, General Welsh? As you think about it, you’re seeing renewed air patrols out along in Europe. You’re seeing renewed submarine patrols as well, Admiral Richardson. As you look at what the Russians are doing, is this a temporary show of force at a moment of economic decline or do you think we have a permanent resumption of activities we thought had gone away with the Cold War?

WELSH: To a lot of our Eastern European and Nordic partner air forces, if you talk to them they’ll tell you that Russia never went anywhere. We just quit paying attention. (Laughter.) And so I think from our perspective, due diligence would require us to assume that Russia is an enduring concern. And I think whatever they’re doing now, they are still a very capable military and they clearly have shown an intent to be disruptive, at least in the region. And so it’s something we have to be concerned about in the future.

SANGER: Admiral Richardson, we ran a story last winter, my colleague Eric Schmitt and I, about Russian submarine patrols that appeared to be looking at, among other things, the undersea cables that still snake across the Atlantic and Pacific. Talk about the ultimate hack of the Internet. And the concern is you cut right through the cables, you cut a lot of communications right away. What are you seeing in the Russian navy and submarine force?

RICHARDSON: You know, I would just echo what Mark said, is that in many ways, particularly in the undersea forces, Russia never really took a break. They’ve been active in there.

Now, with respect to their building program and steady patrols—not visible of course because that’s the whole nature of that business—but what we’re seeing lately is a resurgence of activity there that, really, you have to go back to the 1990s kind of Cold War levels of activity to see the same number of patrols that we’re seeing. And so we’re watching that very closely. It’s a changing dynamic. Even if you ran the numbers, did the threat analysis five years ago or so, you know, we probably wouldn’t have included Russia in that calculus.

So that’s why, in the Navy, we’re running those numbers again. We’ve got a project going on this summer to do that. What is the appropriate force structure in the Navy when combined with the joint force that can take on the missions that we’ve been assigned, including Russia, including ISIS, some of those forces that weren’t even on the table the last time we did this?

SANGER: Something you heard in the campaign a lot in the past few debates was that the American Navy is going down to sizes and numbers that we hadn’t seen in nearly a century, and yet you pack more technology onto every square foot of your ships—


SANGER: —than we’ve ever seen before as well. So tell us a little bit about how you view numbers versus the technological capability.

RICHARDSON: Yeah. Well, first if I could just sort of dispel the fact that we’re shrinking. We’re actually growing, right? So we’re at 272 (ships) right now. We’re going to be at 308 (ships) by the end of, you know, 2020, 2021. And so we’re actually—you know, the secretary has been very successful in putting together a ship-building program that has us on a growth in terms of those numbers. And as you said, you know, some of the technology that’s resident on those platforms is really exquisite.

With respect to the tradeoff between, you know, numbers versus capability, it is—it’s a false choice, I think, a little bit when you think about, you know, we need to provide maritime security and credible options to our decision makers. And so you’ve got to have sufficient capacity so that you’ve got options out there if something should happen. You can, you know, achieve your strategic aims on a continuing basis and on a contingency basis. And then they have to have the capability to be credible, right? They’ve got to be competitive in those environments, and that’s becoming more challenging as technology is becoming more sophisticated around the world.

WELSH: We’re all facing a problem, David, with this quantity-versus-quality issue—


WELSH: —because quantity does have a quality all its own in our business. And you can have the coolest ship on the planet but it can only be in one place at a time, and it can’t be in the Gulf and in the South China Sea. And so numbers matter in our business.

And one of the things we’re all facing is that the military services have all shrunk. The Air Force is 40 percent smaller than it was in 1991 and the appetite to use the military as an instrument of national power has not diminished at the same rate. And so we just don’t have enough to do everything we’re asked to do and everything we could potentially be asked to do. If the term “simultaneity” enters the discussion, we have a problem.

SANGER: And even without simultaneity, you have the pivot. President Obama talked about a move basically to reduce our focus on the Middle East a bit. He did this five years ago, begin to shift more and more assets to the Pacific, have roughly more of a 60/40 kind of mix toward the end of this. How are we doing on making the pivot a reality at this point?

NELLER: Well, let me jump on that one. For us as Marines, we have been historically a Pacific force. And because of the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, we took a lot of the force structure we had there that we would deploy from the States to Okinawa or Japan and we sent it to the Middle East. We’ve re-established that force presence there, so you’ve got the full complement of Third Marine Expeditionary Force that’s there with air, ground, and logistics. So for us it was “back to the future.” But as much as many of us would like to not be able to focus on the Middle East, the world gets a vote. And so we are where we are, doing what we’re doing.

I’d just like to go back to what the CNO and Mark Welsh said about numbers and quantity. You know, one of the discussions is that being forward deployed, having forward presence deters aggression and assures our allies and allows us to respond to crisis and to keep a crisis from growing into a conflict. I’m not going to speak for my fellows up here, but I think we generally agree with that. But there is some discussion that, no, we should not do that. But by doing that, that puts pressure on the force. That causes us to deploy. It improves our training and our readiness, but it’s expensive because, you know, we put hours on planes and miles on vehicles and—

SANGER: By doing forward deployment.

NELLER: By being forward deployed. So we think that’s the way to go. I think that’s the way to go to keep the world a stable and safe place. Now, it doesn’t appear to be a very stable and safe place because there are people doing nefarious things out there, but I would just suggest, if we weren’t there, what else would they be doing if we weren’t out there to monitor their activities and kind of keep an eye on things?

So we are the global power. We are. We’ve been that since World War II, and that’s been part of what we’ve done in this country, not for gain but for economic advantage for everybody, for the opportunity for people to establish their own way of life. And so that’s, you know, what America has meant.

You know, when you travel around, you go to Iraq—and there’s people that don’t like us but, I mean, you’ve been around the world. When you meet people, does anybody say they want to move to North Korea—(laughter)—or Iran or Russia? They want to come to the United States, so we must be doing something right.

SANGER: Just one or two last things and then we’re going to open it up to all of you.

Admiral Zukunft, we had a discussion the other day about global warming and what potential threats that poses to populations, the possibility of new conflicts that come up as you have rising seas. You said you were—the Coast Guard is sponsoring what sounded to me like a pretty fascinating expedition this summer.


SANGER: So can you tell us a little bit about it and where we sign up for it? (Laughter.)

ZUKUNFT: Yeah. Well, a couple.

Well, first of all, you know, we pushed out an Arctic strategy, but we did so in concert with the White House. So the White House has a strategy for the Arctic region with a number of milestones built into it. And then we have the compendium for it. In fact, ours came out the day after. And there’s a saying in New York—I mean in Washington, D.C.: You know, there’s enough strategies where if you swing a dead cat you can’t help but hit a strategy. (Laughter.) But make sure, you know, you hit a strategy that reaches to the top tiers of our government.

So I’ll go back to last summer, and I was in Barrow, Alaska, our northern-most outpost along the north slope of Alaska. And what’s happened is the sea ice up there has receded to record levels. And while we were up there, what they call storms would be Category 1, Category 2 hurricanes here in the Continental United States. And during the middle of this de facto hurricane they’re moving silt to create a berm so it wouldn’t inundate their only source of fresh water. These are Inuit tribesmen who have lived up there for more than the last millennium and they say: The ocean around us has changed.

I’ve been out to Majuro, to the Marshall Islands. And if you go out there during what they call king tides, they’re nearly up to their ankles in water. And they’re saying the sea level is rising.

And then this summer I’ll take members of the Arctic Caucus, members of Senate, climatologists, and we’re going to go out to what’s called the Jakobshavn Glacier—Jakobshavn with a “J” by the way. It is a glacier on the ice fields of Greenland that is moving during the summer months at the rate of over eight miles a year. That is mach speech for a glacier. It’s calving. It’s melting. And there are climatologists today that say the fuse has already been lit. We cannot turn back ocean temperatures.

I don’t assign causality to ocean temperatures—I have to deal with the consequences—but even when you look at Hurricane Sandy, when you have storm inundations that we have never seen before in history—and if you look at some of the climate maps of what would Florida look 50 years from now, where we have military infrastructure, where we have airports, we have maritime infrastructure, so we need to think long term. And it’s very easy to think in two-, four-, and six-year terms and election cycles and say, well, it won’t happen on my watch.

So we’re just trying to observe and not add causality to what is happening in the oceans around us because, let’s face it, you know, two-thirds of the world is water, but we are seeing a rise in sea level and we need to come up with strategies to address this because there is a military component as well.

Majuro, 70,000 people. Our compact going back to 1986, we are beholden to their liberties and freedoms, but if they no longer have a home then we need to make a home for 70,000 now climate-changed refugees, if you will. So that’s another element that we’re going to have to look at as well.

Bangladesh, by the year 2050 it could affect 18 million people with rising sea levels. So if you look at the refugees coming across the Aegean Sea—so we need to anticipate, you know, the movement of people and where will they resettle as we look at rising sea levels, and we need to think long term about this.

SANGER: Well, let’s turn to our members here. And we also have a number of members who are tuning in right now over a webcast and we’ll be getting some questions in from them that I’ll be mixing in with this.

I wanted to remind everybody that the meeting is on the record. So that means that not only are the answers on the record, the questions are on the record. So you might want to think about that for a moment. (Laughter.) And if you wait for a microphone and give us your name and affiliation, and please limit yourself to one question, and please actually make it a question.

So let’s see, who will—who will be first? The gentleman right back here.

Q: Father Andrew from St. Paul’s Foundation on Mount Athos.

I wanted to ask about the role of chaplains in forward areas, if each of you could speak a little bit about that. I mean, I’ve been to Aleppo 25 times in the last four years but—I’ve met many special forces from the United States. I haven’t seen one chaplain. But our men are dying. They deserve the sacraments. Why not?

MILLEY: They Army has been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and we’ve suffered a lot of casualties. About 70 percent of casualties have been Army. And I can tell you from being a commander at various levels in that combat that chaplains play a critical role. And they are out there. You may not have seen them but they’re there.

And as the saying goes, there’s no atheists in a foxhole sort of thing. I can assure you from personal witness that chaplains are out there. They’re doing incredible work day in and day out counseling soldiers in the midst of a fight but also after the fight when the trauma is sometimes very, very serious. So the Army chaplains are out there. I can assure you that each of the services’ chaplains are very, very active.

NELLER: There’s no Marine Corps unit—just like an Army unit or a Navy ship that sails or an Air Force squadron or Coast Guard ship—that doesn’t go where they go forward—

MILLEY: Right.

NELLER: —or even in garrison, without a chaplain. You know, they’re not—whatever faith they are, they’re there. And they’re huge combat multipliers because, as General Milley says, even though if you went—whatever chapel you would go based on your perspective faith, there may not be a lot of people at church, but when people start shooting at you, everybody gets religion.

MILLEY: Every battalion has a chaplain.

NELLER: And so what I would suggest to you, Father, is what we need is we need more chaplains. So maybe—you know, I’m not sure if we’re going to Aleppo, but why don’t you come to Fort Bragg or Camp Lejeune and we’ll sign you up? (Laughter, applause.)

SANGER: I was going to ask all of you about recruiting. I didn’t realize you were doing to do it while you were here. (Laughter.)

MILLEY: He looks perfect.

Q: Thank you. This would be directed to General Milley. My name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer. A long time ago I was in OSD.

You responded to David’s question about saying, against ISIS, that you were going to have an indigenous force. It kind of seemed to me sliding over the part about the split between the Sunnis and the Shia that were going to be in this force. And I wondered if you could elaborate a little more, without going into battle plans, what—you know, are you going to have enough Sunnis to carry the day, or what will happen if they’re all Shiites and they come into Sunni territory? Could you say a little more on that?

MILLEY: Well, the self-proclaimed caliphate that is the geography of ISIS that they currently control is fundamentally Sunni territory but the Iraqi security forces are mixed both Sunni and Shia, but there’s indigenous forces that are a mix of both.

It is obvious from my time over there that Shias have a difficult time operating in Sunni territory and Sunnis have a difficult time operating in Shia territory. But I think the military capabilities of the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish security forces that are operating in those areas, and the various indigenous forces that we’re working with, I do think that, given sufficient time, as long as we stay on track and we keep executing what we’re doing. And I think we will be successful and I think there is sufficient forces. But the bigger question is, once ISIS is destroyed, then what?

WELSH: Right.

MILLEY: You know, what force is going to go in there to stabilize, to administer, to govern? And that will be—that could be a challenge, especially on the Syrian side of the border. On the Iraqi side it will be the Iraqi government’s security—

SANGER: Follow that for a second and tell us a little bit about what kind of Iranian presence you see, whether it’s changed much since the Iranian nuclear accord, whether you’ve seeing as much activity as you did before then.

MILLEY: Well, I don’t think it’s a state secret that the Iranians are in Iraq with a variety of capabilities that they have. And they work closely with a variety of the Shia groups and they have a fair amount of influence. There’s no doubt about it. But it’s also—I think it would be a mistake to characterize the Iraqi government or the Iraqi security forces as a surrogate of Iran. My personal observation is I don’t see that. Elements within it, sure—Shia militias, the Sadrists, those kind of organizations—but the Iraqi security forces themselves I think are largely loyal to their government and they want to defeat ISIS as well.

The issue with the Iraqi security forces is not so much one of loyalty and religious confession sort of thing. It is one of capability—its leadership, training, equipment—and for about two years there they had a big gap and they became essentially very poorly trained, poorly led after we left from ’11 to ’14. And then when ISIL or ISIS attacked in the spring of ’14 they were pushing essentially against an open door and the Iraqi security forces collapsed coming down the Euphrates and Tigris River valleys.

So that force is now being rebuilt. They’ve taken Ramadi. They’ve taken Hit. They’re in Anbar. They’re repositioning some capabilities up towards Mosul. So they are performing. They’re actioning targets. They’re out there attacking ISIS in a variety of places. So there is the Sunni-Shia piece. That’s for sure. That’s still there. That will always be there. But I think there’s more to it than just that.

NELLER: Could I just—on this question I agree with Mark about the Iraqi security forces. They’re going to do fine. They’re going to be successful. They’re being hugely successful in Anbar right now. But we’ve been in this movie before. The real end of the movie has to be when an Iraqi government can present itself and govern all people in Iraq.

MILLEY: That’s right.

NELLER: If that doesn’t happen, like it didn’t happen after 2011—

MILLEY: We’re going to see this movie again.

NELLER: —we’re going to see this movie again. And that’s why we can’t fix this. I mean, we could fix it short term, in my opinion, but it’s got to be—there’s never been a successful counterinsurgency or a counter-fight against an adversary when there wasn’t a government that was legitimate, stood up and took care of all the people within the boundaries of that state.

And if that happens, then there is a chance, which is why you see, I believe, our government supporting Prime Minister Abadi and trying to bolster him, because he appears at the present time to have the best potential to create a state that supports all Iraqi people.

MILLEY: That’s right. The issues are less military than political.


Q: K.T. McFarland from Fox News.

General Neller, you talked about North Korea having nuclear weapons and just really it’s a matter of time before they get delivery vehicles to deliver them to nearby and potentially even to the United States. What are we doing about missile defense—not just to you but any of you, what are we doing about missile defense, and particularly looking forward to a world where there will be several nuclear weapons-capable states, bad guy states?

NELLER: Well, it’s very dangerous to have a Marine infantry officer talk to you about ballistic missile defense. (Laughter.) But in a previous job I actually had to kind of break open the books and learn about this, so I would say, without getting into the details, that we have a very capable ballistic missile defense. We have the ability to track and find and see, and given—it’s not perfect but it’s better than what anybody else has got.

So we have sea-based interceptors. We’ve got other interceptors. We’ve got radars. We’ve got abilities. The question is, you know, we’ve only got so many bullets. So our adversaries—not necessarily North Korea but other countries like Iran—have developed a very large inventory of short-, medium-range missiles that are just conventional weaponry, but they could very easily overwhelm, you know, a certain number of Patriot batteries or other capabilities that have a capability to shoot them down.

So we watch this all the time and we’re coming to the point where we’re counting the number of missiles that are there and we’re trying to come up with the force ratios. Admiral Gortney is soon to be replaced by General Lori Robinson at NORTHCOM. That’s their job. That’s what they do. And so, you know, I’m confident that if one or two missiles were fired by an adversary that we would have a—we have the capability to defeat that missile. It depends, though, if you get into a large exchange, God forbid.

So I’ll stop there and let somebody like Mark Welsh or CNO—or General Milley, who actually owns most of the shooters and the Patriot batteries and stuff, let them talk.

MILLEY: There’s a very robust, very sophisticated, integrated air, naval, and ground—integrated air missile defense system scattered all around the country and overseas. And it’s been tested and I’m very confident that—it depends on volume but I’m very confident it will be successful.

SANGER: When I was in South Korea there was, of course, a lot of debate about getting the South Koreans to adopt, very quickly, a THAAD system that would—

MILLEY: Right.

SANGER: —help against the threat that K.T. was describing, which was—

MILLEY: Right.

SANGER: —a North Korea that could actually put a nuclear weapon on a short-range missile.

MILLEY: Right.

SANGER: Would that do the trick if the South Koreans agreed to take it?

MILLEY: Do the trick, defend—

SANGER: Meaning if you had—defend if you had—


SANGER: —an attack of just one or two or a handful of—

MILLEY: Again, short range—you know, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, independent of each other don’t win wars. All of us together—and it’s a whole of government—it’s a joint force, whole of government with allies. It’s an integrated system. So there’s naval ships out there, there’s radars, there’s air capabilities, and then there’s the ground capability. So the THAAD—in and of itself, the THAAD do the trick? No. The integrated system would do the trick, of which the THAAD is a subcomponent.

RICHARDSON: I’d like to comment just a little bit. First I’d like to just endorse everything that’s been said, particularly—you must have read those books a couple of times.


MILLEY: Well done. (Laughter.)

RICHARDSON: Lead us out there.

And then—

NELLER: I read the MIT program. (Laughter.)

RICHARDSON: They get them online now.


RICHARDSON: Just watch the movie. (Laughter.)

But I’ll tell you, you know, we are, I would have to say—there’s an issue of magazine depth there in terms of interceptors, and there is—you know, we’re on the wrong side of the cost curve as well.

NELLER: Yeah, exactly.

RICHARDSON: And so I think that—you know, you talked about future technologies, future of the force. You know, I look—I believe we are on the cusp of some technologies that will turn that cost curve around with sort of directed energy and those types of technologies that will allow us to be much more effective and sustain this fight a lot longer, really bring the cost per round down and increase our magazine depth.

SANGER: Directed-energy antimissile, what was imagined back in the Reagan era but is now actually, you think, getting closer to a reality.

RICHARDSON: I think we’re getting closer to those types of solutions, yeah.

WELSH: You know, we started with a very complex approach to this, and the fundamental reality on the economic side is it’s got to be cheaper to shoot it down than it is to fire it, and we’re not anywhere near that yet. That’s where we have to go—


WELSH: —in the technology that John is talking about.

SANGER: Very good.

Let’s see, right back here? Yes.

Q: Thank you, gentlemen. I am Dris Tanakes (ph) from a consulting firm here in town and also a lieutenant, ex, from the U.S. Navy.

I have a question about what has been called hybrid warfare or gray conflict. How does the U.S.—how does DOD and how does the wider government plan for opponents that may seek strategies that stay under a threshold of a military response, that try to use less than fully attributable means to prevent DOD from responding to them? What can DOD do and what can the whole of government do to deal with those kinds of problems?

SANGER: We’re discussing a Ukraine-like situation but not limited to Ukraine, of course. Who wants to take that?

MILLEY: I don’t want to take it because I gave a speech up at Norwich a week ago and I used the word “hybrid” and “little green men” and everybody’s saying I’m talking about aliens coming into America, so I’m staying away from it this time. (Laughter.)

WELSH: He’s an Internet sensation.

SANGER: Yeah. (Laughter.)

ZUKUNFT: I’ll take—

SANGER: So who wants to be the next Internet sensation?

NELLER: I’ll go, and then Paul.

MILLEY: The Marines can deal with it. (Laughter.)

RICHARDSON: He read the book and he saw the movie. You look like an alien.

MILLEY: He’s a little green man. I think he looks like an alien, don’t you? (Laughter.)

NELLER: You should all be so lucky. (Laughter.)

I think what we’ve seen the Russians do—where we kind of got this hybrid war thing—in Ukraine is where they took advantage of the political situation and the ethnic lay-down of people that live there. And there was already political unrest. So what are we doing about that? What I think we’ve done, and we continue to do, is we work with nations who have come to ask us to help them train their force to be able to be able to counteract this.

And we talked earlier about the Internet and cyberwarfare. You know, I would say, David, one of the things that—the reason that we are more involved in cyber is the adversary has gone to this domain and we are not going to cede that to them. We are not going to cede that domain, whether it’s they’re recruiting on it or where they’re messaging on it, where they’re providing disinformation or propaganda or however you want to couch it. You know, we are—we cannot just sit there. This is different than, you know, attacking networks and water systems and all that. This is just contesting messaging and words and ideas and thoughts on what we would call social media.

So what we’ve done—and this is more of a special operations thing. And if General Thomas or General Votel were here they could wax much more eloquently about it. But I think what we’ve done is, first of all, identified the problem, seen that it has certain traits or characteristics that are identifiable, and then helped our partner nations develop counter-capabilities, to include intelligence in messaging and information so that they—when they see something like this they can confront it and call it out and they don’t sit there and wait and somebody’s like, hey, who are these guys walking around dressed like this and what did they say and how did this story get planted, and then there’s a political aspect to it.

So it’s very clever, very insidious, and it’s—you know, as you said, it’s war without war. I mean, that’s the—you know, Sun Tzu, the ability to defeat your enemy without having to fight them.

SANGER: Is cyber the little green men of the future in that the attribution issue is still so difficult for the U.S. government that frequently you don’t know whether the adversary at the other end is a state, a non-state actor, a bunch of teenagers sitting in a basement?

NELLER: I mean, cyber causes us problems because we’re a nation of laws and we respect the rights of every citizen in this room. And so we’re—we are reluctant to pass through your webpage or your website to get at somebody who’s on the other side of that firewall who’s lying and violating the law. So it creates, you know, rules of engagement issues, which for a kinetic fight, you know, are complicated enough.

And so our adversaries are very clever, and they know what our strengths and our weaknesses are and they use those against us. So we’re going to have to be—we’ve thought about this a lot but it all involves permissions and authorities. As Admiral Richardson said, you know, every day our networks are under attack and our ability to identify those people that are attacking us—I mean, you know, we can pour boiling oil over the wall and scrape them off the wall of the castle, but if I can see them over there in the woods forming up to make their attack, do I have the authority to—

SANGER: And right now you do not, except—

NELLER: It depends on the context and the legalities, if we are in a designated area of hostilities or we’re not. So under certain contexts, yes, we do have those authorities, at least for Title 10. And I’m not going to speak to those authorities that are available to the president of the United States and the national leadership under authorities that they use to protect the nation.

RICHARDSON: If I could go back, you know, I think that—to just kind of get back to this gray warfare or whatever it is, and the cyber piece, I mean, we should be very clear that there’s no more capable nation or actor in the world than the United States in terms of cyber warfare. So, you know, it’s important to understand that upfront.

But, you know, it isn’t the—I guess I’m a classicist in that the nature of war really hasn’t changed, and we are going to—it is a contest between thinking adversaries, and they’re going to study our vulnerabilities and they’re going to target those vulnerabilities to achieve their aim. I mean, that’s just sort of at the macro scale—you know, your father went up—his job off of Okinawa was the fighter director who was the person who vectored fighters in to go against the kamikaze threat, which was the only thing in World War II that Admiral Nimitz said he did not anticipate by virtue of his participation in the war games in Newport, right, that resulted in War Plan Orange.

We’re going to be surprised. We’ve got to build in an inherent agility and adaptability. And so we’re seeing that we’re confronted with a new, you know, form of competition here. We realize we may have been a little bit too dogmatic in terms of, you know, phases of warfare and such, and our competitors are targeting that vulnerability and we’ll respond.

WELSH: OK, one last comment on that just real quickly.

From a grand-strategy perspective, what this question and what John just said highlights the fact that whether it’s Chinese expansionism or Russian buffering or cyber or it’s hybrid warfare, it all creates uncertainty. And from a grand-strategy perspective, instead of worrying about what China might be, Russia might be, where cyber might go, it’s helpful if the United States of America decides clearly what we are going to be 50 years from now. Other decisions will fall from that, because the nation that puts certainty into uncertain situations has an advantage.

MILLEY: I think, David, that’s a really key point. It goes back to how big the forces are. It goes back to the capabilities, et cetera. The very first thing that has to be answered is what’s the role of the United States in the world? How do we define ourselves? And I think that question has to be asked and answered before we get into details about tactics and operations and all that kind of stuff.

SANGER: Well, we’re in the midst of a campaign that may actually be addressing that some in the next few months.

MILLEY: Right.

SANGER: Right here.

Q: I’m Padma Desai, economics professor at Columbia University.

Some of the provocative activities of Russian President Vladimir Putin—a Russian fighter plane zooms into Lithuanian territory, a Russian submarine floats in and out of Swedish waters in the Baltic Sea—can we handle these activities beyond cyber monitoring militarily? Is it possible? Do our smaller NATO partners—Albania, Bulgaria, even Poland, which border Russian border—do they feel safe enough with proper equipment, soldiering, and whatever is necessary so that Vladimir Putin doesn’t mount an attack on little Albania?

SANGER: Who wants to handle that?

WELSH: I’ll start.

No, they don’t feel safe. They’re concerned. I think clearly if you go to the Baltic States and talk to them, they’re concerned. I think the issue is if Russia decided to cross another border, could you stop them? The answer to that is probably no. Could you move them back across the border? That would be a major undertaking. And so that’s really the question: Will we honor our alliance to NATO or not? And there’s partners all over the world watching this.

SANGER: And is the redeployment of some NATO forces that are circulating through this area sufficient to create a deterrent for that?

WELSH: We certainly hope so.

MILLEY: That’s what we’re trying to achieve.

WELSH: None of us know that answer, David. Yeah, we just don’t know.

MILLEY: We’re trying to assure the allies and deter the—deter any further aggressive behavior. The strategic situation with Russia is fundamentally different than it was prior to, say, 2005, 2004. Russian behavior changed. Russia has aggressively crossed sovereign international boundaries that have been sovereign countries since the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89 and ’90. That is a strategic condition that has not existed in Europe for seven decades. The ‘56 Hungarian invasion was—they weren’t a sovereign country at the time. They were part of the Warsaw Pact. Soviet forces were already there. Sixty-eight, in Czechoslovakia, Soviet forces were already there.

This is a fundamentally different situation. And it’s happened in Crimea, it’s happened in Georgia, it’s happened in eastern Ukraine. And then add onto it all these aggressive incident-type behaviors, and barrel rolls over aircraft, and challenging ships, and submarine activity, and cyber activity. You add it all together and you connect those dots, that’s a fundamentally different external behavior of a nation state.

And that is something that needs to be closely monitored, confronted. And I think each of our services, our national leadership has asked us to do certain things with capabilities and we’re doing that. And you’re seeing some of that play out, and with a bit of luck it will assure our allies and deter any further aggressive actions by Russia.

SANGER: So we have just a few minutes left, so we’re going to do a little lightening round and collect up just two or three questions and ask them to answer the ones they want to answer and avoid the rest, right?

So we’ll start with you, sir.

Q: Thank you. Jun Ayota (ph), Princeton University.

Is NATO obsolete? Do we still need NATO or not?

SANGER: OK, do we still need NATO, a question I think I’ve heard in the campaign here or there.

Right behind you, if you’d take that one.

Q: Hi. I’m just curious. What’s on your wish list? If you could set aside sequestration for a moment, what is, you know, the top thing you want? Is it more F-35s? Is it another carrier strike group? Is it more Marines? Thank you.

SANGER: And we’ll take one more out here. There was a hand right over here.

Q: Herbert Levin, a Council member.

For Admiral Zukunft, don’t you think that the Coast Guard shortfall in ships, et cetera, is much more compelling than the Navy’s need for more carriers? (Laughter.) Would you object strenuously if the decision was made to shift part of the Navy budget to the Coast Guard? (Laughter.)

SANGER: These guys are going to have to take sides, yeah. (Laughs, laughter.) OK.

RICHARDSON: A classic ploy, drive the wedge, you know. We’re just not going to fall for that. (Laughter.)

SANGER: Well, we’ll see. (Laughter.)

OK, let’s start with the NATO question, which was, do we still need it? And let’s make it a little more complicated by asking the question, do we still need it if the NATO members other than the United States don’t pay a larger and larger share?

WELSH: The largest period of sustained lack of conflict in Western Europe in history, I think. Yes, we still need NATO. The good overrides the bad—always has, always will. NATO was an alliance of necessity when it began. It became an alliance of choice as nations saw the benefits of being a member. It’s now an alliance of necessity again. We just have to understand that the texture has changed. But I believe we need NATO.

MILLEY: It’s been very effective—very effective, as pointed out, for seven decades. And I commanded NATO ground forces in Afghanistan. It’s still an effective alliance and I absolutely think it’s needed.

RICHARDSON: I concur. And, you know, they are responding. NATO is responding to this changing dynamic in Europe. And so they have been effective and they’ll, I think, remain effective as they respond.

SANGER: Um—oh, sorry, General.

NELLER: As a former NATO staff officer at SHAPE, it’s a political alliance. It’s kept the peace in Europe since the end of World War II. And when you look at the overall amount of money it is, it’s really—it’s nothing.

So if not NATO, then what? I mean, I think the only people that are questioning NATO are Americans. And I think we would be a little better—we’d be much better off if we were a little more supportive—and those countries have capability and we need to be a less dismissive of them and figure out how to use them in a more effective, better way.

SANGER: OK, to the question of wish list.

NELLER: You go first. You go—

MILLEY: Red Sox to win the series. (Laughter.)

ZUKUNFT: This will be a—this will be a—

SANGER: I’m with you on that.

ZUKUNFT: I’ll make—I’ll make this a twofer, actually.


ZUKUNFT: And so we talked a lot about the Mideast, talked a lot about ISIL, South China Sea. An area we didn’t talk about is Central and South America, our hemisphere. Can anyone here name eight out of the 10 most violent countries in the world? The top two—

NELLER: Honduras and El Salvador.

ZUKUNFT: —are in Central America.

So how did they get that way? Why did we have over 60,000 unaccompanied minors show up via human traffickers at our Southwest border? Because some of the most violent crime, believe it or not, is in our backyard.

So in my role, meeting with all of the presidents of Central America, the problem they’re dealing with is that bulk shipments of cocaine land in those countries, are broken down to retail for consumption in the United States. President Cerén in El Salvador, President Varela in Panama, President Hernández in Honduras is looking to the United States and saying, we can’t fight this alone. In fact, we don’t even have a coast guard, let alone a navy.

They give us very broad authorities. We have 42 counter-drug agreements that allow us to use deadly force right up to the shoreline of another country. Today I’ve got probably in the neighborhood of 15 tons of pure, uncut cocaine on ships deploying in this area today—whole of government, intel-driving operations—but two years ago we had four ships down there. So we doubled the numbers. We’re not doing as much stuff elsewhere. At the same time the CNO had to decommission the Perry class frigates, which were doing the lion’s share of duty.

We changed the narrative of why we need to recapitalize the Coast Guard, but people listen. You have to demonstrate outcomes and the impact on regional stability, where the United States has an inherent responsibility. So our acquisition budget, it doubled this last year in 2016 so we are no longer a “do more with less” Coast Guard. Will we ever have everything we need in our kit? Absolutely not.

The other key piece in this—if you’re going to build public trust to invest in a service—we doubled down on our financial auditing process. So three years in a row we have a clean financial audit opinion. Our acquisition portfolio has grown less than 2 percent over the last two years. So you want to make—you know, you want to build public trust, one, that you’ll produce outcomes but, two, you’ll be a good steward of the resources you invested in.

And when you buy a new ship in the Coast Guard, well, 50 years later we’re still operating these darn things. I did a change of command on a ship not that long ago where the ensign, whose father was on that ship, whose grandfather was a captain of that ship. (Laughter.) So I think the only thing like it is Her Majesty’s Ship Victory that Lord Nelson served on. (Laughter.)

So, yeah, we do need to modernize, but the good news is when you say, what do you need, you need to be able to modernize but you need to maintain your force structure at the same time. We’ve had pretty good success at that here of late without going after my dear friend John Richardson’s Navy budget. (Laughter.)

SANGER: General Welsh said that he’s got something on the wish list, so maybe he’ll talk to us about the F-35. (Laughter.)

WELSH: Probably not—(laughter)—although you’d all look really good sitting in it, just like we do. (Laughter.)

The only thing on our wish list really—and I think I would speak for everybody up here—is that the incredible men and women who continue to wear these uniforms and sit in this front couple of rows and stand in the back continue to want to serve this country and that their families want to stay and support them. As long as that happens, we’re fine. (Applause.)


SANGER: Well, I want to thank all five of you. I want to thank the audience for coming here and for such terrific questions. I hope we keep this tradition going for many years more.

It’s always one of the most interesting and invigorating evenings at the Council, and it reminds you that you really have multiple jobs here. You’ve got jobs thinking about the current threats. You’ve got the jobs thinking about the future of the force. And you all have a third job as diplomats in many ways. It’s come through in all of this discussion about how you’re trying to put together coalitions, how it is that you’re attempting to build force multipliers. And it’s a very different job than your predecessors had. I think that that came through in the discussion tonight, so thank you all. (Applause.)


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