Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Gen. James E. Cartwright at the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, Va.
SEC. GATES: Before taking your questions, I'd like to just say a few words about where we are with the budget process.
In recent weeks, we've been working with the Office of Management and Budget to prepare for the submission of the president's fiscal year 2010 Defense budget. The discussions have been cordial and productive.
Irrespective of what the budget top line ultimately is, as I indicated in my congressional testimony last month, this department faces difficult choices among competing priorities and programs. I believe we must make those choices. In doing so, we will be looking at the budget in terms of efficiencies to be realized, programs with serious execution issues, and strategic reshaping to make sure the budget reflects the need to balance current and future capabilities and the president's priorities.
With respect to supplemental appropriations, Congress has made clear its desire that the department should migrate as much as the predictable war cost as possible into the base budget. The department's budget proposal put together last year with a much higher top line was an attempt to begin this process.
It is now clear that with today's economic realities, we are unable to place as much as the war cost as we would have liked as soon as we would have liked into the base budget. Nonetheless, there is broad agreement that that's the direction we should go, and I'm confident that over time we will get there.
In closing, I want to thank the Senate for acting on the confirmation of three senior Department of Defense officials: Michele Flournoy as undersecretary for policy; Jay Johnson as general counsel; and Bob Hale as the Defense comptroller. They reported for work this morning and are hard at it.
Q Mr. Secretary, the president today ordered an interagency policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan ahead of the April NATO summit. And I'm just wondering -- this is one more review on this issue, and I'm wondering, do you foresee additional U.S. brigades on the ground in Afghanistan before that NATO summit?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think the president will have several options in front of him, and I think he will -- he will make those decisions probably in the course of the next few days. I think that there is a realization that some decisions have to be made before the strategic review is completed, if -- if only because if he does decide to send at least an additional brigade combat team, even just one, the next one to go would need to be notified pretty quickly. So I think there will be a need for decisions before the strategic review is completed, but he has several options in front of him.
Q Have you made a recommendation to the president?
SEC. GATES: I have, and that has been a -- those recommendations have been the subject of discussion by the principals and by the deputies committee. I think it's a very constructive, deliberative process. This is -- this is the first time that this president has been asked to deploy large numbers of troops overseas, and it seems to me a thoughtful and deliberate approach to that decision is entirely appropriate.
Q A question for both of you.
The president said last night that the central government in Afghanistan seems detached from what's going on there. Is it your view that the right choice for the U.S. going forward is a strategy that essentially bypasses the central government in favor of more local contacts?
SEC. GATES: I have felt since I took this job that -- that we needed to focus not just on the central government, but also on the provincial and district governments; that -- that -- that these have always played an important role in Afghan history. That doesn't mean we walk away from efforts to help build a more effective -- help the Afghans build a more effective central government, and one that provides services and security, but I think it does mean also that we focus our attention also on government in both the -- at both the district and the provincial level. I don't think it has to be one or the other.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: And I'd just add that just going one way or the other makes you very predictable. You'd like to get at both ends of the spectrum, so to speak, here: get a presence out there that allows you to establish local security as well as work the central government piece, and then start working them toward each other.
Q I have a budget question, since you opened up with that. What was your initial reaction when OMB came back to you with this $527 billion top-line figure? Were you disappointed, accepting, happy about it?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think it was a place to begin a dialogue. We have had that dialogue. There are questions of definitions -- does -- do certain things belong in the supplemental or do they belong in the base budget? Where do certain kinds of health costs go?
So that's been sort of the thrust of the dialogue over the last couple of weeks. And as I said, I think it's been a constructive one. I'm certainly satisfied with the process.
Q One follow-up. Is it fair to anticipate that the (2)010 budget will have some program terminations versus cuts or reductions? You implied some programs that weren't executing properly -- I mean, program cut kills versus just cuts?
SEC. GATES: I think I would leave it the way I did in my opening statement, that one of the three areas we will be looking at as we develop the details of the '10 budget is programs that are having difficulties being executed.
Q Mr. Secretary, I'd like to ask you about the nagging case of next-war-itis that continues in the building. In this morning's Washington Post, there was a full-page, full-color ad calling -- by the builders and unions of the F-22 to continue production of that plane, to keep the country safe. Nearly half the Congress has written to President Obama, saying we need to keep buying this plane and 183 is not enough. You yourself have said 183 is about the right number. How do you convince these folks that you're right and they're misguided?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, there have been no decisions made in this building about the F-22. It's obviously one of the programs that, along with a number of others -- many others -- that we will be looking at.
It is my hope that we can present a budget to the president and then to the Congress that addresses all three of the areas that I talked about: efficiencies, in terms of reducing cost; dealing with programs that are being poorly executed or having execution problems; and then strategic shaping to ensure the balance between current and future needs.
My hope is that if we present a coherent whole, a holistic approach to the budget that demonstrates seriousness of purpose, that people will see the logic in what we've put together and conclude that it's in the best interests of the country as a whole. But that doesn't -- I don't want to foreshadow any of the decisions I'm going to make. But the strategy is to approach it from all three of these avenues and try and make a compelling case that as a -- what serves the nation best is this combination of measures in all three of these areas.
Q Can we talk about -- just go back to the numbers of troops in Afghanistan, which I'm sure you think we're obsessed with. But I know Admiral Mullen mentioned 30,000, and that would be about it. I think you've been careful to talk in terms of brigades. Is 30,000 accurate? And if so, if you'd explain again, why stop there?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think, first of all, there is no cap, and -- but what I have said is that -- and I think it is better to focus on units and capabilities as we talk about this. But I have said, and I said as recently as the testimony two weeks ago today, that -- that once we had -- if the president agreed to -- ultimately to satisfy the standing request from General McKiernan, I would be deeply skeptical about further troop deployments beyond that.
I worry a lot about the size of the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan. And so, you know, I don't want to get into the specific numbers, but once we have satisfied General McKiernan's request, if that is the president's decision, then I think -- and I hope that the strategic review that's under way will sort of point a path forward in terms of what we think the right number or the right size of the -- of the foreign military presence in Afghanistan should be, depending on the conclusions of the review.
Q And the goal of those troops is what?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think in the short term, the goal of those troops is -- is to -- at least the initial ones that would deploy -- is to bring greater security in places like Helmand by being a permanent presence there -- by being a long-term presence rather than flying out by helicopter for a day's operations or a couple of days' operations and then flying back to their base, they would be a continuing presence, and thereby, along with their Afghan partners, enhance the security of the population. I think that's important in terms of particularly the elections coming up. But in terms of the mission for those troops long term, I think that's what will be recommended by the strategic review.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I would just add, you know, in addition to the local security are the local Afghan forces and the Afghan army, and bringing them into the mix, training them in the area, getting their proficiency up. That's what's going to relieve the stress on our forces. The sooner we can do that, the sooner our forces can come down.
Q Mr. Secretary, there are reports that the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has reached out officially to President Obama and asked for a meeting with President Obama. Can you confirm that that has occurred through official channels or that the Iranians have reached out to other senior American officials at this time?
And, General Cartwright, how concerned are you about the satellite launch? How close are the Iranians to having a ballistic missile capability? Is there any potential for a military-to-military relationship with the Iranians in the near future?
SEC. GATES: Any kind of official outreach from Ahmadinejad to the president or to other senior U.S. officials is news to me.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: The space launch that occurred -- a space program and the technologies associated with a space program are technologies that are compatible with/commensurate with an intercontinental ballistic missile-type capability. So we have to worry about the transfer of that technology or the use of that technology for ballistic-missile-type capabilities that in range could basically range the United States and many of the European allies and the regional partners that we have. So you have to be concerned about that.
That's not an automatic. It doesn't happen in a day or two. And the work that they have done thus far is, at best, rudimentary -- very low orbit, very minimal energy to get up there. This is not a long- range missile, but it is the path toward that, so we have to worry about that.
Q And military-to-military relationship, any potential in the near future that you see as an icebreaker potentially?
SEC. GATES: With Iran?
SEC. GATES: Not at this point.
Q The other half of the Afghan buildup is the Iraq drawdown. How close is the president to making decisions on either his 16-month withdrawal plan or some of the other options that you've presented to him?
SEC. GATES: I think that the review of options for Iraq -- well, the review of options for Iraq has not really begun yet. The focus so far has been on Afghanistan. I expect that to -- that review to take place fairly soon. I think that the situation on the ground in Iraq allows us to make the next series of decisions with respect to Afghanistan with greater flexibility.
Q Mr. Secretary, last night the president said that the White House will was in the process of reviewing the Pentagon's policy on the return of remains to Dover, in conversations with the Pentagon. Clearly, over your two-year tenure, you have maintained the policy of allowing no coverage of the return of remains at Dover. Can I ask you why that is, since it's been seen in the past? After all these years of the war, why not let Americans see this ceremony and the final full measure?
SEC. GATES: I actually asked about possibly changing the policy at Dover probably a little over a year ago. The answer that I -- that I got back -- and partly it was the result of contacts with the families -- is that if the news media were at Dover, many of the families would feel compelled to be there for those ceremonies for their fallen hero. And for some families, this would delay the return of the remains home. For others, it would be a financial hardship to get to Dover. And there were some privacy concerns.
I think that looking at it again makes all kinds of sense. I have asked that we review it again, in response to the president's interest and the president's statements. And we will do so, and I've put a fairly short deadline on that effort.
Q Can we ask you a little more? Did you ask for that today, since the president -- subsequent to the president making his remarks last night?
SEC. GATES: Yes.
Q When will you -- when have you asked for an answer by? And can you envision any method in which Americans could be allowed to see this?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- you know, from a personal standpoint, I think, if the needs of the families can be met and the privacy concerns can be addressed, the more honor we can accord these fallen heroes, the better. So I'm pretty open to whatever the results of this review may be.
Q Have you ever been up there to see one of these?
SEC. GATES: Actually, I was scheduled to go and had to cancel.
Q Mr. Secretary, the president has outlined, at least in very broad strokes, a very aggressive arms control agenda going forward. Can you say whether or not you have been a participant in discussions with him on this sort of series of things that he wants to do, not just with the Russians but a fissile cutoff treaty, perhaps stopping development of a new nuclear warhead? The list goes on. Have you talked to him about it? And what do you see as your role here in the Pentagon in helping to execute that very aggressive, ambitious agenda?
And perhaps, General Cartwright, you could comment on it, too.
SEC. GATES: Well, I think what you've laid out is an agenda. It's not surprising that, three weeks into the administration, serious reviews of these issues has not yet begun. This department will be an integral player in those discussions, as it has been ever since we started arms control with the Russians. And it'll be our job to identify pros and cons of various proposals and identify -- and help identify options for the president with the risks and benefits of each of those options for his decision. But we clearly will be an integral player.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: And I would -- I would just add, there -- as you say, there are some trigger events that are coming -- START and some of the other treaties -- that need to be looked at. But to look at this in isolation would not give us the best look.
So again, going back to the three principles the secretary laid out of our reviews, doing this in the context of our conventional forces, of our irregular warfare responsibilities, what's the appropriate balances? How does this fit? How do these bilateral treaties fit in a global construct -- all of those questions need to be addressed this time around?
Q Mr. Secretary and General, do you think that General McKiernan needs all the troops that he's asked for, regardless of what strategy is adopted? And if not, what strategies are under serious consideration that might allow him to get by with fewer troops?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that's exactly the purpose of the strategic review, is to identify what those -- what those alternatives might be.
Within the framework of the mission that he currently has, as I have done with the commanders in Iraq, I give great deference to the commander in the field as to what he needs. And it's my job to try and satisfy those needs. If his mission changes, then the number of troops or the capabilities that he would need, would change one way or the other as well. So I think we just have to wait until the conclusion of the strategic review in terms of the -- of the strategies going forward.
Q But briefers have suggested that regardless of the strategy, you need to improve the security, which you said would be the goal -- the primary goal with the troops. So is there some strategy out there that would not require that?
SEC. GATES: (Laughs.) That's what the strategy review is about, is to find -- it seems to me, is to find that out. What are the options open to the president in terms of our longer-term approach in Afghanistan?
Q Mr. Secretary, when you talked about the president is expected to make a decision in the next few days, is that for all the troops you recommended going to Afghanistan or a portion of them?
SEC. GATES: I think it -- it -- the options before him give him several ways of going forward, including the pacing of troops going to the -- going to Afghanistan. So the answer to your question will depend on the decisions he makes.
Q Well, as a quick follow up, it's getting warmer in Afghanistan. In a month it will get even -- you will get to the point where there's the seasonal uptick in attacks. How many troops -- or what is the thought of putting as many troops as possible in Afghanistan ahead of the fighting season?
SEC. GATES: Well, I'm not going to prejudge the decisions that the president's going to make. We've laid out the options, we've discussed them, and he'll make his decisions.
Q Just in December, you were in Kyrgyzstan speaking about what an important transit point Manas Air Force Base is. We haven't heard anything official, but it seems pretty apparent it's going to close in the next six months or so. Can you talk a little about whether you see -- how you see this impacting Afghanistan, any possible other transit locations that are under negotiations right now?
SEC. GATES: Well, I would say that Manas is important, but not irreplaceable. We are looking at alternatives. We have not foreclosed the possibility that Manas would remain open. We're looking at whether, given the importance that Manas plays and the likely growing importance of Manas, whether there is something we ought to do differently in terms of compensation.
By the same -- by the same token, we're not prepared to stay there at any price. And so, as I say, I think we're exploring a variety of options, and I think we have some alternatives. But clearly Manas is important to us.
Q Do you still -- or do you consider the negotiations still open at this point?
SEC. GATES: I think so, yeah.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
As you know, North Korea seems to be ready to fire Taepo Dong missile, capability to reach West Coast of the United States. What do you think their intention is?
SEC. GATES: Well, since the first time that they launched the missile -- it flew for a few minutes before crashing -- the range of the Taepo Dong II remains to be seen. So far, it's very short.
I'm not going to get into intelligence reports, but it would be nice if North Korea would focus on getting positive messages across to the -- to its negotiating partners about verification and moving forward with the denuclearization.
Q Mr. Secretary and General, when you launched the surge and increased deployment lengths to 15 months, that was done so at the risk of potentially overstretching or overstressing an already strained force. We've still seen indicators throughout the times since then -- divorce rates, suicide rates and so forth being up -- that there are strains in the military. What's your assessment of the health of the force since you've taken -- taken the office?
And, General, you too; I'd like your comments as well, since you took over and from that point forward to now.
SEC. GATES: Well, there's no question in my mind that the 15- month tours were very, very hard on our troops and on their families. And I think we moved to get back to 12 months deployed just as quickly as we could.
My hope is that we will begin to see a lengthening of the dwell times beyond a year, perhaps toward the latter part of this year. And I think it will incrementally lengthen over time. We won't go straight from one year deployed to two years at home; we'll more likely go from one year deployed to 15 months at home to 18 months at home and so on.
And I think with the growth in the end strength of both the Army and the Marine Corps, the draw downs likely to come in Iraq that we will see that situation improve over the next couple of years. We have put a lot of effort -- the services have put a lot of effort into efforts to help the families, particularly in the last two or three years, and to address some of the stresses that we're dealing with.
I think that part of problem in terms of the strains that you describe, whether its divorce rates or suicides -- or I would say PTSD -- that these are a manifestation also of repeated tours. It's not just the length of the tour, but the fact that so many have gone back for two and three and even four rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I think it's a combination of all of those things.
I think that the force as a whole is incredibly resilient and their families incredibly strong. But there's no doubt that there is additional stress.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I would just add, one, having experienced, when I was younger, 15-month tours -- and they are very, very difficult -- it's very different -- very difficult to be sitting in a tent and realize that next year you'll be there too. That's first.
And second, even though we have stopped the 15-month tours -- we're not doing those anymore -- not all of them have come home yet.
So the cumulative effect is very important to understand, number one. And number two, we aren't done with the 15-month tours. They're not home yet. And so that's another benchmark that we've got to cross before we can expect to see some of this work -- some of these rates start to move in a positive vector.
But I think the bigger issue here is the cumulative effect. We've got to start to understand, whether it's 12 months or 16 or 15 months, what's the cumulative effect, how many of these tours, and when do we start to cross? Is it 15 months at home versus a year deployed? Is it two years?
We've got work to do there to understand this long term. And we're watching this very closely. The services are watching it very closely.
Q General, what's your assessment of the current state of readiness of the force?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: A great force -- resilient, motivated. Every time I go to the theater -- and that probably shouldn't be a benchmark because when somebody like me shows up, they're going to show you the best face they can -- but when you talk to the families, when you close the doors, you still get a very strong, very resilient force.
The uptick most recently in the suicide; very troubling. We're trying to understand that, for the Army. This is the first time that the Army has come up to the level of its counterpart, the civilian sector, so to speak. And so we're trying to understand, is this cumulative? Is there -- is there something that is a trigger event here? And we're working with several agencies on the national health side to try to understand this.
But I believe the force is very resilient and very much ready to do the job.
: Last question.
SEC. GATES: Okay, two last questions. (Laughter.)
Q Okay. The last time the North Koreans tried to shoot a Taepo Dong, the missile defense system was put on alert and the U.S. was prepared to shoot it down if it came in the direction of American territory. Do you intend to do the same if the North Koreans proceed with their preparations?
SEC. GATES: I certainly intend to make sure that my colleagues -- the secretary of State, national security adviser, president and vice president -- understand what our capabilities are, and that that's an option out there should -- should we deem it necessary.
Q And Mr. Secretary, going back to Kyrgyzstan for a second, the Russians obviously --
SEC. GATES: I would rather not. (Laughter.)
Q The Russians obviously put pressure on Kyrgyzstan to close the base. And yet, in the same breath, with Admiral Mullen, they volunteered to help with logistics for coalition forces in Afghanistan. That's mixed signals, to say the least. What do you think is happening there?
SEC. GATES: I think those are mixed signals. (Laughter, laughs.)
Q Can we ask how you're feeling since your surgery, sir?
SEC. GATES: I'm feeling fine. Thank you very much for asking.
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