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Town Hall Meeting with Secretary Robert Gates at Balad Air Base, Iraq

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
December 14, 2008
            SEC. GATES: (In progress) -- (off mike) -- so I have to tell you I know -- I have a little bit of experience in -- (inaudible) -- and a lot of experience in the government, some of it has been with volunteer institutions. So I hope you haven't had to wait around too long.
            When this visit was first planned a few weeks ago, it was supposed to be part of a farewell tour, my last chance as secretary of Defense to give a final goodbye and thanks to our awesome men and women in uniform. As you may have heard, there's been a slight change of plans. All I can tell you is I now have a better appreciation of what it's like to be stop-lossed. (Laughter.)
            Among the many reasons I visit commanders and troops in the field, one is a little selfish. It gives me a chance to get out of Washington, D.C. You know, Washington is the only place in the world where you can see a prominent person walking down Lover's Lane holding his own hand -- (laughter) -- a place where people often say, I'll double-cross that bridge when I get to it. 
            They say Washington is the city of monuments, the most monumental things I've seen in -- since I went there over 42 years ago were the egos of some of the people who work there. There's an old story about the time Lyndon Johnson landed in an airfield in Vietnam. An excited airman looked at Marine One, his helicopter, and said, is that your helicopter, Mr. President? And Johnson looked around at everything else on the line, and he said, son, they're all my helicopters.
            He one time had the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Ludwig Erhard to the LBJ Ranch in Texas. And Erhard looked at the president at one point and said, Mr. President, were you born in a log cabin? And Johnson looked down at Erhard, and he said, why, no, Mr. Chancellor, I was born in a manger. (Laughter.)
            In all seriousness, there were a lot of reasons to accept President-elect Obama's request to stay on as secretary of Defense. Among others, the crucial next phase we are entering here in Iraq, the plus-up of forces in Afghanistan, the tough choices in a tough economy that the Pentagon is going to need to make regarding the budget and priorities and a wounded-warrior care system that still needs more work. 
            But I will tell you that no reason was more compelling to me than the fact that if hundreds of thousands of young Americans are doing their duty, your duty, without fail and often under difficult and dangerous circumstances, then I really had no choice but to follow suit, although it does mean failing government retirement a second time.
            Before opening the floor for questions, I wanted to make a few comments about why I'm here and what I'd like to take away from our discussion. First, I wanted to be able to look you in the eye and thank you on my own behalf, on behalf of our current and future commander in chief and on behalf of the American people.
            Each one of you could have done something easier, safer and probably with better pay, but you chose to step forward to wear the country's uniform. You chose to volunteer and, in some cases, re-volunteer, knowing full well that a deployment to a combat theater was the most likely result.
            These past two years, I've come to work every day with the belief that the first, second and third priority of the secretary of Defense in war time and the department that he leads is to do everything possible to get troops what they need to accomplish their mission on the battlefield and return home safely. That has been my conviction from day one.
            And so from virtually a standing start over the last 18 months, we've built and sent to the theater some 12,000 MRAPs. I know they're not the most comfortable vehicles, but they're saving a lot of lives and limbs. We've also increased and are still increasing the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that you need. And we'll do whatever else it takes to give you the tools to complete your mission and come home safely as well as whatever it takes to create a warrior-care system worthy of the sacrifices made by so many brave troops.
            Iraq has been a long and a hard fight. And to be sure, the mission is not over, though its parameters and its focus will change. Iraq and the U.S. recently approved a new status of forces agreement to govern a continuing U.S. military presence in this country.
            Our forces will draw down over time and become less visible. Iraqi security forces will continue to shoulder more and more of the burden every day. But despite what you might hear about an increased focus on Afghanistan, let there be no doubt that your mission and the mission of all American troops in Iraq remains incredibly important during this crucial transition period. 
            The enemies of a stable and self-governing Iraq are resilient. They are lethal, and they are always looking to reverse the gains of the last year and a half. It is vital that we get the end game right here, and that will continue to depend on your courage, commitment and sacrifice.
            I understand that we have a pretty good representation of the services and units from this base, the logistical hub of operations of Operation Iraqi Freedom and I'm told the busiest airport in the entire American military. Medical care and MEDEVAC, close-air support, ISR, supply and transport, you do it all. And when it comes to MEDEVAC, you've broken new ground in the history of warfare, and you've saved countless lives in the process. And I thank you for your efforts.
            Just a few minutes ago, I met privately with about a dozen E-6s and E-7s representing different services and units here. I've made it a point during my visits to military installations around the world to have these meetings with everyone from junior enlisted to company and field grade officers, from active duty to Guard and Reserves, without the chain of command present. 
            Hearing their questions, concerns, aspirations unvarnished and uncensored has been bracing. And it's shaped my thinking on everything from day-to-day military operations to enhancing the quality of life for service members and their families. And believe me, testifying in front of Congress is nothing compared to meeting with a group of spouses at Fort Hood. (Laughter.)
            But I will tell you that it was one of those groups that one of the spouses made the suggestion about how about having the authority to share GI Bill education benefits with spouses and and with dependents. And that suggestion, as the Jewish prayer goes, from your lips to God's ears, that is now legislation. And the original idea came out of a meeting like this.
            I hope this setting won't keep you from being direct and honest with your questions and concerns. Don't worry about the reporters in the back. They're good people.
            So at this point, I just want to thank you for your time and your attention. I look forward to your questions. And when we've done some questions, then I'd like the opportunity to thank each one of you individually, get a photograph and give you a coin. 
            So with that, I'll stop, and you can start. And we've got a couple of microphones here on the side. So fire away. Thank you.
            Q     I guess I'll start Mr. Secretary. My last name starts with a Z, so I need to -- (inaudible). You spoke in Afghanistan about creating more of a cooperative effort with the government of Afghanistan. What are we doing with the government of Pakistan in the same way, coordinating attacks against terrorists in Pakistan?
            SEC. GATES: Well, the problem that we face is that, for most of its history, Pakistan has regarded India as its existential threat. And I think it's only been in the last few months that they have come to realize that what is going on in the western part of their country also represents an existential threat to their country from their own standpoint.
            And so we've seen their army going from basically doing nothing in the northwest frontier area earlier this year to being pretty actively engaged in combat. They're getting better a counterinsurgency. They're a little bit like the U.S. Army 10 years ago, just as our Army was principally trained to take on the Soviets at the (folded gap ?), the Pakistani army is trained largely to take on the Indians.
            And so they are learning as we learn here in Iraq how to do counterinsurgency. And they are suffering a lot of casualties. They are in the fight and have been for the last number of weeks.
            We are eager the help them. We have to partner with them. We are ready, willing and able, but we are also sensitive to their sovereignty. They are very sensitive to the size of the American footprint in their country. But I think we are beginning to see the growth of trilateral cooperation among Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States in trying to deal with this threat on the border. 
            I think it's a long-term problem, but I am heartened that the Pakistanis are taking it seriously and do, I think, now appreciate the dangers to them of what is going on out there in those ungoverned spaces.
            So it's going slowly at this point, but they are making sacrifices. Pakistanis are dying in conflict with these violent extremists. And we just want to help them as much as we can.
            Q     Yes, with the current changes and the status here in Iraq and changes happening in Afghanistan, do you see any changes in the way the units will be rotated through? Will the times continue at the 12 month? Will they change that, or do you see any changes at all?
            SEC. GATES: I think for the time being that the Army deployments, at least, will remain at 12 months. What we're trying to do is increase the dwell time back home. And I mean, our goal is to get to a year deployed, two years at home and then, hopefully, someday, three years at home. And then for the Guard and Reserves, a year deployed and five years at home.
            I think this will be a gradual process. I think we'll probably go from one to one to one to 15 months or one to 18 months. As we increase that dwell time, as I talked about at lunch, you'll see, I think, a return to full-spectrum training instead of the almost singular focus on counterinsurgency at this point.
            But I think that until -- we will not have -- I am confident we will never have in Afghanistan -- I shouldn't say never. Every time I say "never" I get into trouble, like I'll "never" stay on. 
            But I think that it's highly unlikely that we will ever have a troop presence in Afghanistan anything like what we've had in Iraq. And so I think we'll meet General McKiernan's request for the four additional BCTs over the course of the next year or so. 
            But as I've said on this trip, I would be very concerned about a substantially bigger U.S. presence than that in Afghanistan. The Soviets were there with 120,000 troops and lost because they didn't have the support of the Afghan people. And at a certain people, we get such a big footprint, we begin to look like an occupier and not the ally and supporter of the Afghans. So the real solution in Afghanistan is the expansion of the Afghan national army and the Afghan police with our international team backing them up.
            All of which is to say I think the number of brigade combat teams and enablers that we have deployed outside of the United States or abroad in combat situations over the next year or so overall is going to decline. And that's the point at which we can begin to look first at longer dwell times. And I think General Casey has said publicly that he would like, at some point, to get to nine-month deployments. And that may be possible, but I don't think it's going to be possible, certainly, for the next year and perhaps for two or three more.
            Yes, sir.
            Q     Mr. Gates, with a majority of the military operations being counterinsurgency, in light of the economic crisis we're facing, do you feel it's still appropriate to spend billions of dollars in new technology, like the nuclear submarines and aircraft? Do you feel more of that money should be going to more uparmored humvees and vehicles and body armor for troops on the ground?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think we have to provide -- my view and what I've argued for the past two years is our first priority is to provide you with what you need out here, whether it's body armor or MRAPs or ISR or anything else. That's our first priority. And if there are unmet needs, then we need to know about them, and we will fix it.
            By the same token, we live in a very complicated world. And I think it's important for us to sustain our technological superiority and advantage over any possible adversaries. There are some pretty aggressive and ambitious modernization programs being undertaken by the Chinese and the Russians. We're aware of the nuclear programs in both Iran and North Korea. And we have to be prepared and able to deal with those challenges as well.
            I think in the current budget environment or the current economic environment, we're going to have to make some hard choices, but I think we have some choices to make. And I think we can make those choices and still sustain the technological advantage that we have and be able to provide confidence to the American people that no matter who the adversary, they won't have a chance against the American military.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, what measures, if any, are yourself and the administration taking to provide for career soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in all services during this time of war?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I would tell you that I'm old enough to remember what it was like during and after Vietnam in terms of the reaction of the American people to our men and women in uniform. And I'm very happy to say it just couldn't be different.
            And I think a good example is one that I just referred to a minute ago, and that is the significant improvements in GI Bill benefits, education benefits under the Webb bill and the Congress's willingness to extend that so that it provides the active force the ability to help their dependents and spouses as well.
            In many respects, when it comes to benefits for troops, whatever we sent to the Hill, across the political spectrum, they trump. I went up two years ago and asked for a 3 percent pay increase, they have 3.5 (percent). So I learned my lesson. I went up for 3.5 (percent), in January, you get 3.9 (percent). So I don't know where this ends, but it's all good for you.
            And so I think that, in terms of benefits for troops, in terms of what we're trying to do to improve warrior care for those who have been wounded and to care for the families of the fallen, I can't think of a request that we have made, either to the administration, President Bush or the Congress that they have not responded and, I would say, responded generously.
            And I think it's a reflection of the extraordinary admiration that the American people have for you all. And you know, you've probably all had the experience of going through airports at home, and it's just, let me tell you, a hell of a lot different than it was 40 years ago.
            Q     Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. My question to you is, with the change in presidency, what major change do you foresee for this war?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that in a way, the signing of the SOFA has pointed the direction for this war, if the drawdowns we already had undertaken didn't do that already.
            We're going to have to be out of the cities, out of populated areas by the 30th of June. That represents a really significant change of mission. And it calls for us to have all of our combat units out by the end of 2011.
            The fact is that the June 30th date was the date we gave them, not vice-versa, because we believe, our commanders here believe that that's the point at which we will have turned over all 18 provinces to provincial Iraqi control. So we're already in a transition of mission. And so now it really becomes a question of the pacing of the remaining drawdowns of the brigade combat teams. 
            And the president-elect, as everybody knows, has talked about 16 months, but he's also talked about the drawdowns being responsible, and he's also talked about wanting to listen and hear from commanders on the ground. 
            So I think this will be -- we are in the process of the drawdown. We are, I believe, in terms of the American commitment, in the end game here in Iraq. And so it really becomes a question of the timing for that end game. 
            And I think the president-elect means exactly what he says. He wants to do it in a responsible way, a way that is safe for our soldiers and with the advice of our commanders.
            Q     Thank you, sir.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, I read an article that you wrote about the National Defense Strategy in regards to small wars now and in the future. And in that article, you stated that future attacks are more likely to come from a failing state than from an actual aggressive state. What actions are we taking to prevent attacks from future failing states and in the present, Mr. Secretary?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think the most important thing for us to do is to play a constructive role in countries before they become failing or failed states. And this gets at the whole idea of, how do we strengthen our ability to train their security forces? How do we train their military? How do we provide them with the kind of economic, developmental and other kinds of assistance, help them build institutions that prevent them from becoming a failed or failing state?
            And I think this is really all about, how do we strengthen the civilian capacity of the American government to play that kind of a role?
            Here in Iraq and also in Afghanistan, men and women in uniform have often undertaken those missions because there weren't enough civilians with that expertise, who were deployable, who were expeditionary and who could come out here and help. There are a lot who have, and they're very brave, and they're very talented. But there just aren't enough of them.
            And so I think one of the challenges that we've been talking about for the last year, the Congress and the administration and others, is, going forward, how do we strengthen this civilian component that can serve as a complement to what you do but, at the same time, be in early on the ground in places that are having domestic problems and prevent them from becoming a failed state so that we then don't have to deal with terrorists or other violent extremists in those states or the kind of chaos that prevails in a place like Somalia that has contributed to the rise of piracy? It's probably been 200 years since we had an NSC meeting on piracy, but there you go, we're back at it.
            Q     Hello, Mr. Secretary. Specialist Thorpe (ph). My question is, sir, with the type of enemy that we're facing, the terrorists, the extremists, it seems to be a war of ideas and ideologies, more or less we are in the infidel to them, et cetera, et cetera. Is there any hopes in the future of there being some sort of personnel from America and other allied nations, coalition forces to sort of come into these areas where the terrorists are, or people who we consider to be terrorists, and somehow maybe bring some sort of peace since this seems to be a religious war to them and somehow meet people at the playing field, I guess?
            SEC. GATES: Well, this gets at the whole area of strategic communications. And as I said in a speech last year, how did we end up in a place where the country that invented public relations ended up being outcommunicated by a guy in a cave? And partly, it's because we haven't devoted enough resources to it. Partly, we don't have enough people doing it. Partly, we are still operating, I think, in communications too much in a 20th century mindset rather than a 21st century in terms of the use of the Internet.
            I was in Afghanistan a few months ago, and I flew out to a post province on the Pakistani border. And I'm sitting there with a group of village elders. And here's this old guy in a long, white beard who says, I read your -- (inaudible) -- lecture at Kansas State on the Internet about balance of power. And I'm thinking, holy cow! Where did he even get electricity much less a computer?
            And so that's the world we live in. And so we look at these underdeveloped countries and their poverty and the lack of electric power and reliable water and so on, but they are on the Internet, they watch television, they communicate. And I think that we don't do a very good job of that. And I think we have to think anew how we do this because it is an ideological conflict.
            And the irreconcilables, we will have to kill. There's just no two ways about it. But there are a lot of people out there who are susceptible to that message, who are susceptible to being recruited. And we have the opportunity to recruit them away from the extremists or to keep them from turning to the extremists so that in fact we're dealing with a handful of fanatics instead of a larger group of people who are disaffected and who have come to hate us for various reasons.
            So I think there's huge opportunity in this, as a matter of fact. But it's going to require some creativity on our part in terms of how we go at this challenge. And I think that that's a real challenge facing the next administration.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, PFC Lodella (ph). I'm just wondering if you guys were aware of our vehicles, our MRAPs and all our uparmored vehicles and how they're continuing to have mechanical problems. And with the budget being cut, we have a shortage of supplies for, like, the MRAPs and the ASVs and our humvees. We're having a lot of problems with the undercarriage on these vehicles. Is the government aware of these mechanical problems and how it can be fixed?
            SEC. GATES: Actually, we are. And there is money in the budget. I can assure you that we will get them fixed. When we made the decision to get the MRAPs out here as fast as possible, we knew that there were going to be problems because we didn't go through the usual years-long, Defense Department test-and-evaluation process. We didn't go through the process of ensuring that the supply line was full before we deployed them.
            It seemed to me that it was more important to get them out here and get troops in them than to make sure we crossed the t's and dotted all the i's. And we knew we'd have to come along behind and fix some of these issues.
            Just as an example, one of the reports that I got just last week was that there had been some problems with some of the MRAPs on the fire extinguisher system and that sometimes they leak and sometimes they go off accidentally. And so we've got kits coming out here to try and repair that.
            When I was out last summer, they were telling me about the suspension problems and, particularly, the vulnerability of the axles. So I think we're trying to go back and fix all those problems. But we knew what we did last year, the MRAP going from conception to full industrial production in less than a year, was the first major military procurement program like that to do so in less than a year since World War II.
            And it just seemed to me more important to get the capability and the protection out here, and then we'll come along behind and fix whatever problems there are. And that's what we're doing. We've got the money for it, and we're doing it as fast as we can.
            And we're already in the process of trying to select and then procure a vehicle, an MRAP-lite vehicle, for Afghanistan that is more maneuverable, it is for all terrain and is somewhat lighter.
            Q     And I have another question, Mr. Secretary. We also have an ammo shortage. Our supply, like our budget, is, you know, our supply is low. And every time we test fire, you know, we're firing the ammo. And then when we go outside of the wire, it becomes a major concern for us when we're outside of the wire.
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think this is my 10th or 11th trip to Iraq, and I have never heard that, but we'll certainly look into it.
            Q     Roger.
            SEC. GATES: The one thing you ought to have plenty of is ammunition.
            Q     Thank you.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, Sergeant Yoke (ph) from the 332nd Maintenance Group. My question is about the total military. With the toll this war has caused on the nation, the economy the way it is and a president with a new direction, the addition of AFRICOM and everything that has (weighted ?) to effect on the military, what can we expect in the next four years for a total force structure? Are we looking at more drawdowns, new aircraft coming in, old ones going out? What can we expect?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I will tell you, I feel very strongly about sustaining the number of people in the military in all of the services. I feel very strongly about protecting the increase of 65,000 in the Army, 27,000 in the Marine Corps. I stopped the drawdowns in the Air Force. They were headed to 316,000. They're stopped at 330(,000) or 332,000. The Navy has stopped drawing down and I think in the FY '10 budget wants to add back about 7,000 people.
            I think we cut way too far in the 1990s. We have too few people to do all the missions that are expected of the American military.
            My view is my highest priority is to sustain the all-volunteer force in all four services at the levels where we are or where we have set a goal. And if we have to cut some major procurement program in order to protect that, then I'm prepared to do that. 
            I think we have some choices, as I said earlier, but I think that we have to protect our people first. And we'll deal with the other issues as they come along.
            I still think we have the capacity to be able to stay ahead of all of our potential adversaries, to fight the wars that we are in and still sustain the force levels that we have. I think that the statements that the president-elect has made about a strong military, he has supported the increase in the size of the Army and the Marine Corps, so I hope that he and I will be on exactly the same page. And based on his public statements, I think we are.
            Q     Thank you, sir.
            SEC. GATES: By the way, the military budget is a heck of a nice economic stimulus, also. (Laughter.)
            Q     Mr. Secretary, Sergeant First Class Matane (ph), 3rd Expeditionary -- (inaudible) -- command. I'm a bit of a history buff, and I've been fascinated in seeing the changes in the military in my lifetime. And I also know that the way the military plans for the future, there are things in the works now that we won't see happening for several years. I was just wondering, based on your experience, how do you think the military is going to look different, in general terms in, say, 10, 15 years from now?
            SEC. GATES: I was telling the NCOs at lunch that when I was in the intelligence business, we always divided everything we wanted to know into two categories -- secrets and mysteries. Secrets were things that were ultimately knowable. And the mysteries were those that we don't.
            The answer to your question is a little bit of a mystery and maybe a little bit of a secret. (Laughter.)
            I think that -- I hope that we will see a force that is the size of the one we have now. I think we will -- I'll give you an example of something I saw coming out of the future combat systems that it's just -- it's going to -- two things.
            First of all, I think one of the things we have seen in this conflict that has made it different than any other war we have ever fought is the marriage of combat operations and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, the ability to have long dwell over a target, the ability for relatively small units to have situational awareness of what's going on, I think, has saved a lot of lives and has made us significantly more effective. And that's why we're pouring as much ISR into both Iraq and Afghanistan as we can.
            And I think, as our troop levels here come down, the demand for ISR will probably increase. So I think this use of ISR and the integration of intelligence and operations is something that we will see continue and that is, in many respects, revolutionizing the way we fight. 
            Related to that, when I was at Fort Bliss a while ago, I saw an experimental UAV as part of the SCS that a PFC carries in a backpack. And so every platoon, if these things are bought, every platoon would have its own UAV. And this thing will go up and hover at a few hundred feet and with the PFC having a little keyboard with the platoon, and he can maneuver this thing so he can see around corners, the roofs of buildings and the whole works.
            The implications of that for ground warfare, it seems to me, are just gigantic. I think that this marriage of technology with combat has great opportunities, even at the small-unit level.
            I think that would be one of the big changes that I would see. It's already under way, and I can see it intensifying as we go forward. I think there will be some other capabilities that are hard for me to imagine now that will put more into the hands of our troops, more capability.
            One area that's been revolutionized during the war in Iraq has been the whole realm of military medicine and our ability to save lives on the battlefield. It's also presented us with some severe challenges because today's soldiers are surviving wounds that in every previous war would have been fatal but are still very severe.
            So those are a couple of examples of how I think it will be different. But at the end of the day, 15 years from now, it will be the same as it is today and has been in the past, and that is it will still end up depending on individual mean and women in uniform who have a belief in their mission and a lot of courage.
            Q     Thank you, sir.
            Q     Good morning, sir. Senior Airman Halley (ph) from the 332nd -- (inaudible) -- Air Squadron. My question is more related to back at home. Service Members Civil Relief Act of 1996 is coming up on 13-years old now. It was written in a time when the economy was thriving, and there was a lot of room for interpretation by judges and lawyers. Is there any intention of going over that at any time in the next couple of years?
            SEC. GATES: I haven't heard of any, but we'll take a look at it and see if we ought to.
            I think we've run out of time if we're going to leave time to get some pictures. So I guess we're going to do it over here. And I'll let somebody who knows what they're doing give you instruction. (Laughter.)

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