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Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with Los Angeles Times

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
December 14, 2001 12:00 PM EDT

(Interview with Esther Schrader, Los Angeles Times.)

Schrader: How groundbreaking is Afghanistan from a strategic point of view -- from a facts point of view -- and is it groundbreaking at all?

Wolfowitz: I think it importantly as it is -- I mean -- in no particular order.

First of all that we undertook a campaign of that magnitude pretty much from a standing start. I think it's been commented on enough. It's pretty remarkable that with no plan for this -- that if you'd told people in June or July that we had big plans for a war in Afghanistan they'd have said you must be crazy or you must be desperate for justification for the defense program. And yet when the president instructed the -- the CINCs (commanders in chief) to start planning an Afghanistan campaign -- and I don't know the exact date but it was roughly ten days after September 11th, and the campaign started October 7th. So we're talking about -- within about three weeks from the time the planning began until the war in Afghanistan. It's pretty amazing as compared to six months for the Persian Gulf, where we had a plan of sorts -- ten years ago. So that's remarkable.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, which has had a very significant effect and -- yet we don't have enough of them and we are still ironing out the bugs in terms of how to make -- not even how to make the best use of them. Just how to make basic use of them. It puts -- because of the ability to have real-time location of moving targets at great distances, it's a question of how do you shorten the reaction time. There -- order of magnitude -- a couple of orders of magnitude difference from what we dealt with before.

The remarkable ability to put a few people on the ground and thereby create a really devastating capability for long-range close air support. To me that's the most revolutionary thing -- I'll come back to it in a minute. Because I thought even before this that it would be a very potentially revolutionary development, and I think we're just beginning to see the start.

I think the -- the ability to leverage other people's forces in such dramatic ways to advance our own purposes. And it really is one of the most effective coalitions we've ever formed in terms of the ratio of Americans on the ground to coalition partners on the ground -- by which I don't mean that we --

Schrader: When was the last time we did that? I mean, we tried to do it in Vietnam, but it didn't work very well. When was the last time we did anything like that?

Wolfowitz: Well, World War II, and one could say the most highly leveraged operation in World War II was the Soviet Union. Even before we got into the war, our ability to provide assistance to the Soviet Union had kept them in the war and made all the difference. Then, of course, the campaign in Europe -- I'd say that allies probably took a third to maybe even close to half the burden on.

But here, if you look at the percentage of the ground forces -- the coalition people are supplying more than 90 percent of the manpower on the ground. So that's pretty dramatic.

I -- then I think -- this could go on -- but one other I certainly want to add is the ability to operate (inaudible) and to be able with B-2s based in Missouri and other bombers (inaudible) -- to be able to operate from those distances. And then to be able to do things and once again demonstrate the value of (inaudible) of naval platforms -- but now used in some different ways. We had the Kitty Hawk, which is basically made into (inaudible) carrier to support special operations forces (inaudible).

The phrase I love, which Dick is reminding me of -- we had these guys -- Special Forces guys -- literally on horseback with some of the Northern Alliance people. And if you think about it, here we had 50-year-old bombers -- I think in some cases some of the B-52s were 50 years old -- B-1s are 25 years old (inaudible). Taking a 50-year-old bomber with 19th Century horse cavalry and turning it into a 21st Century transformation instrument -- it does bring out a point that we've been saying often which is that transformation is more than just new technology. It's using the technology to use old things in different ways.

Another example of that, by the way, is the coordination of the Predator and the AC-130.

Schrader: Right.

Wolfowitz: One of the things they could do is use the Predator to find targets and then the AC-130 (inaudible).

Schrader: A lot of the specific -- I see great reason for self-congratulation. I don't mean for you, but the Pentagon in terms of things they've been talking about. And a lot of things that have been talked about in a theoretical sense coming into play -- coming to fruition here.

But are -- give me your thinking on is it anywhere where your assumptions about transformation -- the Pentagon's assumptions about what we need to do to fight the war of the future -- seemed to be wrong? That the Afghanistan campaign seemed to prove some of them wrong. Is there anywhere where --

Wolfowitz: I sort of put the caution on the other -- it's worth thinking about. And I thought about it (inaudible) lack of imagination. I don't see it. What I see, rather -- can you turn it off?

(phone interruption)

Wolfowitz: Although they think they're narrowing down, I'll believe it when it happens.

Schrader: Yeah.

Wolfowitz: I'm of the Elvis school of thought -- I'm prepared to have reports ten years from now that he's still out there -- (laughter)

[Rest of answer deleted due to ground rule.]

Schrader: Yeah, of course.

Wolfowitz: I mean it would obviously be a lot better for everyone if there's -- we know definitively how this ends, but we may not. And, you know, I suppose he could go and get plastic surgery somewhere and hide forever.

Schrader: Well, I mean this morning both of my competitors' papers ran with stories saying he's there -- we're honing in on him and he's contained within this area. Not just al Qaeda fighters, but bin Laden in Tora Bora. And but now -- I mean today -- we didn't go with it. And today Franks (Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief, U.S. Central Command) seemed to say, you know, we don't know about him.

Wolfowitz: We don't know. They're behaving as though he's there, but that's very circumstantial evidence.

Schrader: Yeah.

The question I was asking -- it was so long ago, I'm sorry. Basically, lessons learned -- what, have we done something --

Wolfowitz: What have we learned that might change, that we'd do differently in --

Schrader: Yeah.

Wolfowitz: I guess the first thing I would say is there's a danger of over-learning these lessons. And that there's a lot that's unique about Afghanistan. And some things that are much too easy in Afghanistan and some problems that you can face in the future from a country with ballistic missiles or anti-satellite capability or, you know, offensive information warfare capability, none of which were present in Afghanistan. So while it demonstrated the utility of long-range, it demonstrated the potential of precision strikes and ground forces (inaudible). There's a danger that we'll make the mistake that is classically made after wars. We do it a lot. Every military does it, especially (inaudible) preparing for the last war instead of the next one.

I think the goals of transformation defined in the defense planning guidance and the QDR (Quadrennial Defense Review) are a good deal broader than just the capabilities that came down to use in Afghanistan.

I think it is interesting that of those six transformation goals we identified, three of them have enormous applicability in this scenario. I mean I --

Schrader: Nothing that's a wakeup call?

Wolfowitz: I'm trying to think about that.

Schrader: We usually have wakeup calls from the wars (inaudible), I understand. But --

Wolfowitz: I mean one wakeup call -- but it's not on the transformation -- that I think we really underestimated the requirements for purchasing guided munitions. We sort of got on (inaudible) go back to making dumb bombs. I, to be honest, don't know why we (inaudible) for that assumption. I suspect it was bought because it was a bill payer.

Schrader: Right.

Wolfowitz: But that is a wakeup call -- I think an important one.

I would say the shortage of UAVs is a wakeup call.

The importance and shortage of people with the capabilities, including language capabilities and all the other stuff, (inaudible) getting in on the ground in difficult circumstances was a wakeup call.

(Inaudible) much lower level (inaudible) belief that it's important -- we still have problems operating helicopters in dusty environments like Afghanistan. I don't know if there's a great solution to it, but (inaudible).

To me, I'd like to come back -- to me, though, I still think that one of the most important things that I think we ought to learn from here, and I think we should have learned from was SCUD (missile) hunt in Iraq ten years ago -- is that if you link up long-range precision strike capability with people on the ground, you dramatically increase the capability of both in ways that we still have very far from adequately exploring.

Ten years ago, we had no capability to find SCUDs from the air and no capability to destroy them on the ground, even though we got people on the ground. We're better at that, obviously. We're doing things now that we didn't do ten years ago. But it's still not, I think, integrated into our doctrine and I think to the degree that it potentially could be.

Schrader: Is there anything --

Wolfowitz: One metaphorical way of describing it.

(phone interruption)

Schrader: You were going to make a point, I'll give you ten points if you can remember what the point was. (laughter)

Wolfowitz: Yes, I can remember what the point was.

You know the metaphor about the Battle of Arnheim in The Bridge Too Far -- and I think while people are now starting to understand the potential that people on the ground can have for leveraging the capability of long-range air power, what they haven't yet absorbed, I think, is the ability of long-range airpower to let these people on the ground. A way to think about it is if we'd had the sort of capability in 1945, I think it was, Arnheim would not have been a bridge too far, it would have actually been several bridges too short. In other words, you can put ground forces in places now that you would not have conceived of putting them because you can protect them from distances that you -- I mean we're doing close air support from Missouri, in effect. It's amazing.

Now that doesn't mean that it's quite as -- and, by the way, this is where the Afghanistan situation could be misleading because it's not rapid enough and effective enough to put a light force in front of a heavy armored unit. The fact that we were in open spaces with relatively light forces makes it ideal for that sort of thing.

(phone interruption)

Wolfowitz: -- very important point.

That, in certain ways, Afghanistan is very difficult, but in certain other respects, we were able to use rudimentary and experimental capabilities in a way that you couldn't manage in a more intensive militarized theater, I guess is the way to describe it.

Schrader: Right.

Wolfowitz: And so -- I'm sure -- the shortage of precision-guided munitions is the most obvious thing in terms of a wakeup call, but I still think the greater problem is that we might somewhat rest on our laurels or go to sleep on our success -- if that's the right word -- or make the mistake of thinking all future wars are going to be like this one. It wouldn't be the first time people have done it.

Schrader: (inaudible) and to do it again and again.

Wolfowitz: Or we make the even worse mistake of saying after the war's over, there aren't any more wars.

Schrader: To start out with what your task was, your priority was here before September 11th, was transformation. And that implies hard choices. You know, it implies eventually -- it implies --

(phone interruption)

Schrader: The question is what are you willing to (inaudible)? If the premise is that this is a wakeup call, that some of these things -- these transformational concepts we need to go farther with, we need to have more of them, we need to do better. What are you going to stake to make that happen and make it happen --

Wolfowitz: I think the first question is, you shouldn't try to do it on 2.5 percent of the GNP. I mean I think the real wakeup call ought to be for the country, that the whole issue of what's affordable ought to be looked at in a different light, in light of the incredible human material cost of not being adequately prepared. And the truth is we're lucky that the military still had the capability to conduct operations halfway around the world in spite of a fairly significant degradation in readiness and limited aircraft and all of that over the last ten years. If we had to do this ten years from now on the glide path we were going on, we might have had a problem.

So I mean -- I think the first wakeup call is for the country, I really do.

I think we've seen this budget coming up, a much more aggressive pushing of the envelope on several (inaudible) technology, capabilities like UAVs.

Schrader: But even so --

Wolfowitz: But frankly, I think it ought to make people much more wary than they were before September 11th about how much you can cut force structure and have the capability to operate on a global basis.

Schrader: But even if you get a larger pie, you eventually do have to make choices, particularly when you add in the fact that homeland defense is going to cost a lot of money.

Wolfowitz: Absolutely.

Schrader: A lot of new costs. Somewhere you have to -- at some point you have to decide this platform we're going let left out and this platform we're going to, you know, get into production.

I know you're not on the level of platforms, but there's a lot of people out there arguing -- I read a piece by Greg Easterbrooks making the point that Afghanistan not only isn't a transformational war -- he says Afghanistan is a war that proves that the old lumbering heavy military did just fine and we shouldn't do away with that.

Wolfowitz: And therefore?

Schrader: And, therefore, how do you -- do you think that September 11th is going to make it more difficult to transform and make these changes because it gives justification to those who -- it gives some legitimacy to those who say we can't do away with those platforms. What would we have done in Afghanistan without the B-52?

Wolfowitz: I don't think the B-52, because it's old you want to give it up. When we talk about transformation, one of the things we're talking about is long-range precision bombing capability. B-52 is a way to get that. Eventually we'll give it up because the wings may start falling off, but the B-52 would not be on our list of things because there are a lot of -- there are a variety of older systems that we probably would either cut or delay modernization on. I think here there's a danger of over-learning by Afghanistan. It sort of reinforces the idea that it makes more sense to invest in Army transformation than invest in marginal improvements to the tank force. You say that, and then the next war will be a tank war possibly. But it doesn't look that way if you look around the world.

But if somebody said the old lumbering military did perfectly fine in Afghanistan, well, first of all, it wasn't the quote old lumbering military -- it was the military that had the considerable agility to put together a plan to fight 10,000 miles away where the conditions (inaudible) on very short notice, and it's that kind of ability to respond rapidly I think that should be stressed more.

But secondly, Afghanistan may turn out not to be -- whatever the challenge ten years from now will look much, much tougher than Afghanistan.

Wolfowitz: We'll have to make this a couple more.

Schrader: Okay, just a few more.

Wolfowitz: (inaudible)

Schrader: No, that's okay -- understand.

Let me ask you, can you help me to understand -- help my -- give my readers a picture of how much these concepts about the future, how much time you've had to devote to them and how much time Rumsfeld as secretary has had to devote to them. You're obviously managing a war here, but was there a point -- is there a point at which (inaudible) and said yeah, but you've got to keep doing this. This is really important. Can you (inaudible) me into that at all?

Wolfowitz: I'm trying to think. First of all, I suppose from our point of view, from his point of view, the timing -- we're fortunate that September 11th didn't happen two months earlier. We really -- this is patting ourselves on the back -- I really do think the QDR work for the institutional product was pretty innovative and it came together roughly, I don't know the timeframe exactly, but -- well actually I do -- no, I do. It basically came together when the President -- when Rumsfeld went down to Crawford to -- for the announcement of General Myers and General Pace, and we spent about three or four hours with him going through the QDR results and the transformation issues. It was quite a fascinating meeting and the level of interest on the President's part for a hot day in August was quite impressive.

It's kind of fortunate we got it done before September 11th because since September 11th he has been very much absorbed in the day-to-day, almost the hour-to-hour issues of the war. And while I've been involved in those, the job of finishing up the budget has, I wouldn't say -- nothing with Rumsfeld (inaudible) entirely away from himself, but to a degree that it probably wouldn't have happened otherwise. A large faction of the budget process has involved me. And I found it very valuable over and over again to have those six transformational priorities laid out in a pretty clear way. (Inaudible) say how well are we doing on this. There is still very much a tendency to fund those last. We've got people to fund first and ongoing operations to fund second, the future -- there's nobody really at the table on voting for the future, arguing for the future. I'm overstating it but it's nothing like the constituency you have of people making demands for the present.

And, of course, the president from the beginning has said that doing right our people is the number one priority. But I think we've been able in the last couple of months to accelerate a number of important things and even (inaudible).

Schrader: Like what?

Wolfowitz: I've got to wait for the budget (inaudible). Who knows? If we don't get the top line, we're (inaudible) won't be able to do it. So I really have to be a little bit careful.

But I can say in a general way, for example, to accelerate some of the kinds of advances in communications capabilities that are the key to being able to advance UAV capability. It turns out the biggest limitation now in exploiting the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles is really the difficulty of communicating with them, the volumes of data that you need to manage (inaudible) operations. The Predator (inaudible) have to start to figure out some way to high-volume broadband communications with remote vehicles. It gets pretty technical pretty quickly, but I think the kinds of things that are being put together in this budget (inaudible) over several years if not more than that (inaudible) the future.

Schrader: Okay, two more questions. One is very specific, and the other one gets a little bit more on the level to the command strategy.

Specifically, I don't know if you can make any news here, but we're kind of interested in whether Bush is going to veto the defense bill if it doesn't have base closing in 2003 (inaudible) 2005. That has a lot to do with how fast --

Voice: Ari Fleischer (White House press secretary) said today that the president would sign the defense authorization bill (inaudible).

Schrader: He did? Oh. I wasn't here.

Wolfowitz: Rumsfeld also said, was it today or yesterday, how disappointed he was -- yesterday -- and you might want to get that language. It's pretty strong. But I think when you put it all together, he was not prepared to recommend a veto. It took a lot to get it in at all. It's amazing how the House members of both parties (inaudible). And without the veto threat --

Schrader: It's not really amazing. It's base closing. Nobody wants to close bases. Come on.

Wolfowitz: Well I know, but considering that we're spending a small fortune in calling people up for reserve duty to Guard bases that should have been closed a long time ago. I think -- I mean the argument I don't have much patience for is the argument that we're in a war, this is no time to be closing bases. I say we're in a war, this is no time to be operating bases that we don't need.

Schrader: On the broader strategic picture, does September 11th -- does it have -- are there lessons? Does it teach us that our enemy in 20 years is not likely to be China? Is not -- have you been planning in too focused a way for a major theater war in East Asia?

Wolfowitz: I don't think we've planning in that focused a way. I mean I think we've been planning a bit too much for wars on the Korean Peninsula or re-runs of Desert Storm. It's fortunate, as has happened sometimes in the past, in spite of that we have a lot of capability (inaudible) to do this thing, at least is -- was very different. But anyone who says that September 11th proved that the real threat is terrorism, not X, I think is making a fundamental mistake. The threat is (inaudible), and (inaudible) more imagination than all the scenario writers in the Pentagon. Surprise is just the order of the day. And surprise often happens because we get too focused on the idea that you know what the problem is, you know what the solution to the problem is, and the enemy looks (inaudible) at a single point, and only (inaudible).

Schrader: Why is what you're saying not -- why should I not believe that what you're saying is simply a justification for not making hard choices, saying we need a little bit of everything?

I mean, because we can't really have a little bit of everything, right? I mean the Pentagon, like every other department, has to worry about budgets and has to worry about priorities. So if you say -- if the argument is that we don't know what the future threat is, we have to be prepared for everything, then that means that --

Wolfowitz: I wouldn't say you have to be prepared for everything. You have to be prepared for a large range of things, and I think it's just a very big mistake to say that we know -- that we have one single measure by which we measure (inaudible). And we are -- if we were a poor country or we had very, very limited problems to worry about, we'd probably focus on some very narrow problem. But we can afford a capability that has to respond, I think, effectively to a pretty wide range of possible contingencies. We don't plan for everything. There are a lot of things we don't plan for, there are a lot of things we couldn't handle. But you have to make some judgments about what kinds of things we can think about.

And one of the things you look at is what are the vulnerabilities (inaudible)? Terrorism is one of them. Homeland defense is a transformation priority. Ballistic missiles are another thing (inaudible) and we'll work on hard. I think missile defense is important at all ranges. Information warfare is something that we know a number of our enemies are working on. They know how dependent we are (inaudible). That's something we ought to focus on.

Large tank armies, I would say, you don't want to give up that capability completely (inaudible) a little bit of everything, but it's certainly not something we're investing in heavily (inaudible).

Voice: Okay.

Schrader: Thank you very much. I appreciate you staying with us.

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