MODERATOR: It's always a pleasure to welcome back to the briefing room the 34th commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General James T. Conway, who has just recently been out visiting Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as he has done many times with you, come back to kind of give you an update from his perspective and what he's seeing out there and take some of your questions.
So General, thanks again for coming by and doing this.
GEN. CONWAY: Sure. Sure.
MODERATOR: And I'm sure we'll have plenty of questions.
GEN. CONWAY: Great. Thank you.
Well, good morning, folks. And thanks for taking the time to spend part of the morning with me. I understand that you all had a gaggle yesterday. I thought that was TV's term, but in fact I guess it's what you all call it. So I'm happy to be here in the wake of that.
I've always felt that keeping the dialogue open with members of the press is good for our Corps and good for the nation. Of course, I'd rather you had that dialogue with some of the Marines I recently visited in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those young Americans are patriots in every sense of the word, and no one sounds off quite like a deployed Marine in an expeditionary environment.
Speaking of Iraq and Afghanistan, I know that there's great media interest in the latter, but I would argue that what our Marines are currently doing in Iraq is singularly our most important undertaking. Done right, closing the book on al Qaeda in Iraq is something that has reverberated throughout the region and has added momentum to our efforts in Afghanistan.
In his book "Citizen Soldier," the late Stephen Ambrose credits the class of '44 with winning World War II in 1945. Quite a few of the younger Marines that I met in Iraq were on their first deployment, and to me, those Marines can be likened to the members of the class of '44 who fought the final battles. They're on the verge of realizing success on a grand scale, and that success will have global implications.
I can't speak of success in Iraq without bragging a little about the MV-22 Osprey. Our third tiltrotor squadron just wrapped up successful combat operations in Iraq while we were still there. The squadrons performed as we expected. They did it without incident or fanfare and through every type of assault support mission required. The way it was able to shrink the battle space was especially impressive. One of my commanders in Iraq compared it -- being able to turn Texas into a place the size of Rhode Island.
Just like the Osprey, I believe that the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle is going to revolutionize the battlefield. The EFV has a whole host of critics, who simply do not understand its importance. The United States Marine Corps, the Navy and, arguably, Army paratroop units represent the nation's forcible-entry capability. The EFV is inextricably linked to that capability and an absolutely critical requirement for us.
And by the way, China has already fielded a similar vehicle, and is building more.
Finally, looking at Afghanistan, there are going to be tough days ahead there. Before too long, you'll be reporting on places with names like Nawzad, Marjah and Baramshar, because enemy forces are very active there. Attacks and casualties are turning in the opposite direction from Iraq. Our forces in the south are operating where poppy fields abound and adjacent to a wide-open border in Pakistan.
Currently, we have a special-purpose Marine air-ground task force of 2,000 Marines or so, under ISAF Regional Command-South, and another 500 Marines, out of III MEF, serving on embedded training teams with the Afghan National Army and Police. The 8,000 Marines of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade are en route and will be in place by the end of spring. They're led by Brigadier General Larry Nicholson.
We also believe that for any gains in Afghanistan there must be corresponding advances across the border in Pakistan. Otherwise, you're just squeezing the air out of one end of the balloon. We can and will eventually run up the victory pennant in Afghanistan, but without eliminating sanctuary across the border, the bad guys will simply come back, as they did in 2003 and 2004.
At this point, I'd like to stop and take your questions. And Andrew, I understand that you're the first off the tee.
Q Thanks. General, you ended on Pakistan, there, so let's stick with that. What's your assessment of Pakistani military's efforts to crack down on the militants? Do you feel they share the U.S. assessment that that's actually the primary threat to their country, rather than India? And do they have the capabilities they need to take them on?
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah, Andrew, I had -- there's a number of questions there. I'll try to hit them all.
I've had three occasions now to speak with General Kayani -- who is the chief of the Pakistan army and, therefore, sort of the equivalent to our CJCS -- who strikes me as a very thoughtful fellow and, I think, a very good military man.
In the first discussions, when I visited in -- over Christmas, Mumbai had happened recently. He took me to the map and said, "You know, I have quality forces on our western border" -- to him the western border is Afghanistan -- "and I intend to leave those quality forces there, because to move them to the Indian border at this point, with tensions rising, could cause escalation that I can't control, and I don't want to do that. I do not want to cause problems with India that can be avoided, and we're willing to accept risk elsewhere in order to be able to do that." So I thought that was -- that was pretty good thought.
This most recent occasion, he expressed concern that our forces going into the south could cause a refugee problem that Pakistan is ill-equipped to handle right now, based on their fiscal scenario, and the possibility that we could be forcing Taliban out of the south and onto supply lines that the Pakistani forces are currently trying to protect for us. So, once again, good thought. And we talked then about how they would further go about protection of those -- of those supply lines.
I cannot judge from my discussions with him at this point as to whether or not Pakistan's scenario as it -- as it exists right now vis-a-vis the Taliban and the al Qaeda is a matter of will or of capability. Maybe it's -- maybe it's portions of both, although I'm encouraged to see in recent days that I think they have -- the Taliban has crossed a red line and they have said to them through their actions in the field that enough is enough.
Now, how much that will continue remains to be seen. But I sense that General Kayani at least senses that the Taliban advances and, again, I think, the al Qaeda inspiration represents to Pakistan existential threat. And so how they deal with that is going to be, I think, very important and pretty educational for us all over the next few weeks.
Q Just to follow up briefly, you talked about a wide-open border there in the area where your Marines will be heavily involved. Have you any commitments from the Pakistanis to step up efforts to try and seal that border?
GEN. CONWAY: No. They have frontier forces down in the area of Baluchistan. That supply line at this point is, let's say, protected by economics. There is -- there's a good deal of involvement on the part of the tribes and the drivers and so forth, who all are making a good day's wage over ensuring that that supply line stays open. So it was General Kayani's hope, at least, that those things would provide a level of protection to our supply lines that his frontier forces would not be able to -- to conduct.
Q But in terms of infiltration possibly, from militants coming in to fight Marines and others?
GEN. CONWAY: I think it is again, as I described it, wide open. There is not sufficient border police, on either the Afghan or the Pakistani side, at this point, to have much impact on it. And it's not restricted to passes.
It's much more an extension of the red desert that is analogous to, say, what you might see between Iraq and Syria. There are a lot of crossing points. And forces or troops would just not be restricted.
Q So you're just going to have to live with that.
GEN. CONWAY: Well, I think, we're going to pay attention to it. When we get enough force in there, to be able to deal with it, I think that local commanders will make those determinations, in terms of how large the threat, and how much force is he able to put against it?
Q General, Laura Jakes from Associated Press. I'm sorry for walking in late. Something you just said really piqued my interest. We've been briefed by ISAF commanders that there's going to be a larger concentration on the south, because that's where the Taliban is seen to move.
So based on what you just said, that the Pakistani army is concerned that the more we move south, our forces move south, the more we're pushing the Taliban onto the Pakistani side of that border, how do we square that circle with making sure we're not making the job harder for the Pakistanis but yet still trying to control and secure the south, as it sounds like the goal is?
GEN. CONWAY: Laura, I accept General Kayani's concerns as face value from his perspective. I would offer to you that not everybody believes that's where the Taliban will flush to.
There are others that think they may go different directions, based on what is now a potentially safe haven, based on the presence of coalition forces and that type of thing. Could be a combination of both. Nobody knows that for sure.
But in any event, we've got to do what we've got to do in the south. And there will be pond rings coming off of that that I think we're going to have to adjust to. But again not everybody is of the same mind as General Kayani, who might be citing a worst-case scenario to us.
Q (Off mike.) Defense Daily.
Can you talk about plans to deploy the V-22 to Afghanistan?
GEN. CONWAY: We -- our first three deployments, as I talked about in the preliminary comments, were to Iraq. And you know, we faced a conscious decision to put that aircraft into a combat environment as soon as possible.
The other options were to put it aboard a ship or to put it into, say, Djibouti and then have it sort of warm to the requirement. We put it into the toughest environment that we thought we faced, and ergo at least a measure of our satisfaction with the results.
We do need to get it aboard ship. And that's going to be the fourth deployment. That's what's under work right now, down east, with the next MEU into the theater, because we've got to answer some questions, for ourselves, about seaworthiness and the effects of salt- sea air and conditions aboard ship and those types of things, where the Osprey will have a great future.
By the way, that MEU will be going to the central region. So in a very real way, the Osprey is once again going back to the fight.
But the deployment after that, it's purposefully headed towards Afghanistan. We think that it's going to be a -- just a wonderful machine in that environment. We have had issues with our current medium-lift capability. The old CH-46 has run up against age and altitude and environment and is not doing the job that we need for our medium-lift squadrons to do. So I can assure you that the next squadron after this fourth one, the one aboard ship, is going to Afghanistan. And in all probability we will retain an Osprey capability there for as long as we have Marines there.
Q Any estimate to when that might be? By the end of the year, or --
GEN. CONWAY: Before the end of the year.
MODERATOR: Okay. Yeah. Yes, ma'am.
Q Sir -- (name inaudible) – with Aviation Week. Can you talk more about vehicle plans for the Marines beyond EFV, sort of a lightweight JLTV, MRAP 2 and the MATV, kind of what you're looking for?
GEN. CONWAY: You know, we're pretty pleased with ourselves right now. And I'll explain way. You know, we've identified a requirement out there alongside the United States Army with an MRAP that is Afghan-worthy: gets off-road and maybe not as big as CAT-2s, CAT-3s have been in Iraq.
And so we put our engineers and our procurement people to work saying, okay, how do we achieve that? We can achieve that through buying yet another fleet of vehicles, but the Marine Corps doesn't need more MRAPs. So we've gone about a -- an engineering effort to enhance those that we've got. And we've taken primarily, now, at the outset, our CAT-1 vehicles, put an MTVR suspension -- independent- wheel suspension on those vehicles, tested it off-road, and it's performed very well -- point one.
Now, when we did that, we created additional blast surface underneath the vehicle with these -- with these different types of axels and suspensions. So when we blew it up after having modified it, didn't work very well. Didn't work like an MRAP is supposed to. And the dummies inside all died, based on the testing.
We modified it, tested it again, with the same effect: the dummies didn't fare real well.
So then we got really serious about shrouding these kinds of extended suspension systems, and it worked very well the third time. So that vehicle will get to the field faster, will be able to revolutionize the remainder of our CAT-1 fleet so that the long-term use of MRAPs in the Marine Corps is going to be very positive, and we can do it all at a fraction of the cost.
So that's Marine-like as far as we're concerned -- you know, taking what you've got and making do with it in a very real sort of way.
We -- on the other part of your question, we're engaged with the United States Army towards development of a joint light tactical vehicle. It's my belief at this point that industry has not stayed apace of the vision, though, of a joint light tactical vehicle that equals the protection of a joint heavy-protection or tactical vehicle.
So we are taking a look at that program. If it comes in at the weight where it is right now, the Marine Corps simply cannot get involved, will not buy a joint light tactical vehicle that's 20,000 pounds. It doesn't fit our expeditionary kind of capacity. We can't carry it in our helicopters or even sling it. And so we've got to have something lighter than that.
So depending on what the evolution of the development looks like, we may have to depart ourselves from that buy and again rehab what we've got to take us into the next decade.
Q Secretary Gates recently said the Marines haven't launched a major amphibious operation since 1950. Are the days of the Marines hitting the beach over?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, when you talk about an amphibious operation, I think what comes to mind on the part of a lot of people is Tarawa or Peleliu or someplace where we had to fight our way ashore. That is not the way today that we would conduct amphibious operations. And if you -- not to contrast with our secretary, who's a great man and doing a magnificent job, but there have been a number of amphibious operations that have not involved hitting the beach that have nevertheless saved lives and performed functions for this great country, probably the most recent of which was the evacuation of Lebanon by our forces afloat and forward-based, with that noncombatant evacuation here not long ago.
We think -- because I was part of it -- in Desert Shield, Desert Storm we threatened hitting a beach there behind the enemy's main line of resistance, and in the process drew off six, eight, nine divisions. It depends on, you know, whose account you read.
So amphibious operations don't always involve assaulting a beach. And in this day and age, that's the last thing we want to do, because of casualties and that type of thing. So we have ways of conducting a forcible entry where the enemy essentially is not and in using our greater mobility and fires to get at those objectives that we have to take.
So I think it's fair that we conduct an amphibious review in this QDR. It's my fervent belief, though, that this nation needs a forcible entry capability. We are a maritime nation. If you look at where in the world there are partners or allies that will allow us to come ashore, build the iron mountain, aggregate the forces, and then attack across their border, there aren't many places like that in the world. And yet there's a lot of places out there, especially in the arc of instability, that have oceans and coasts.
So we think that it's a capability the nation has to have and that we're pretty much at the minimal right now with a couple of brigades that we have shipping for. So that's -- those are going to be the points that we engage in on the QDR. And we'll live with whatever's decided.
Q If I can follow up, if you're not -- if the goal is not to try to take a hostile beach, what is the goal of an amphibious operation?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, the goal of amphibious operation -- can be many and multiple. There are many types of amphibious operations. But if you're talking about a forcible entry into a nation, the purpose of the amphibious operation is to establish a foothold. An amphibious force, especially the size of what we can project today, is not going to take down another nation, okay? What it does is provide for the follow-on introduction of forces, most of them Army forces but ostensibly some Marines that would give us enough force to do what has to be done to punish another nation. That's just the forcible entry aspect of it.
Amphibious operations, again, can involve non-combatant evacuations; can involve humanitarian assistance, disaster relief. It really runs the whole gamut from peacetime sort of engagement all the way up to forcible entry. And we think that that's what the nation really needs.
Interestingly, if you look at the number of ships that are required to do both, if we simply satisfy what the combatant commanders tell us today they need in terms of amphibious ships, that gives us the number we need if we would ever have to bring those ships together in order to be able to conduct a forcible entry. So we think that's it's -- it's, again, a dual capacity that the nation really has to hang onto.
I'm trying to go in order here. Jim, go ahead, please.
Q Thank you, General. Do you believe that the Marines and ISAF forces have sufficient forces to conduct the kind of clear and hold operations in the south that many see as critical to driving Taliban out of that region?
GEN. CONWAY: I'm a Title 10 guy. Although I like to posture sometimes as a commander and go to the map and that type of thing, I'm a force provider. So I’m gonna refer your question back to what the commander in the field says he needs. And at this point we have satisfied most of the requirement with the request for forces and the force flow. There's still some forces that he would like to see introduced, probably in the south, that would involve another, I don't know, 5(,000), 6,000 combat troops, arguably Marines, and a two-star headquarters whose turn it is for the United States to produce in -- sometime in '10.
So those are sort of the outliers out there, in terms of what General Dave McKiernan has requested in terms of force flow that I think he believes will accomplish what you suggest.
Q But after your most recent visit -- because in talking to some military, and military experts, the operations so far have been clear-and-leave, and it often makes it more difficult for the locals because when the Taliban returns, then they seek retribution for any cooperation. So can there be enough forces to conduct the kind of clear-and-hold operations that are necessary in this case?
GEN. CONWAY: I'm reading General McKiernan's thoughts and words to me on this. I think he believes that if we have those forces he's asked for as a baseline and we have additional kandaks and reliable Afghan police, that it's actually their role -- we will live amongst the people in order to be able to support those kinds of host-nation forces, but in a perfect construct, it becomes their role to do the hold. They have the language, they understand the culture, in a lot of cases they're from that very region. If you format what we did in Iraq, that was precisely the formula that we saw succeed.
So I think that we would say that it's an aggregate of those kinds of forces, tied well together with communications and training methods and liaisons and those types of things, that give us the whole capability. And I would add to that, as we hold, we've got to start to do something about economics and governance taking root as well. Where you have a condition where you can hold, you need to follow very quickly with those types of things that are going to increase the quality of life for the citizens, because that's where your intel comes from, that's where your buy-in comes from for the whole of the strategy. And all those things need to knit together.
Q And if I may, one more. Will the Marines have a role in the counterdrug operations that the U.S. is -- and ISAF are considering?
GEN. CONWAY: Unavoidably. And the reason is that where we're going is the very hotbed of poppy production in all of Afghanistan. That Gancha (ph) River Valley and Helmand province produces 95 percent of the Afghan, you know, population of poppies. So we're going to be in and amongst all of that. And so it's unavoidable that we're going to have to be an instrument in the whole of that process.
Now, the ROE have been adjusted fairly recently to allow us to destroy facilities, I think is the term, that are drug-related and have a nexus with the Taliban. I think that the program has to be much larger than that, though. I mean, otherwise, we're going to be creating Taliban, if we simply take away the ability of a man to feed his family.
I was wrong. Before I went over on this last trip, I believed that -- that perhaps people didn't understand what we believe; needed to be a whole-cloth effort in terms of drug reduction and eventually eradication. And that involves alternate seed crops, the provision of those seeds and the understanding that goes with it, the education to the farmers. You need to have infrastructure and means to get that crop then to market. You need to have a policing function to make sure that the people are doing what you believe that they're doing.
I didn't think that those things were necessarily in place. They are, Jim, but it's now a matter of scope. Your drug problem is like this -- your solution set is like this at this point. So those efforts simply have to be, I think, dramatically expanded, in order to be able to get at the size of the problem in Afghanistan.
Q Amy McCullough, with Marine Corps Times. With thousands of fit reps still being submitted late, or not at all, what do you say to the sergeants that are vying for promotion, as it's getting -- the competition is getting even tougher? And in addition to your white letter, what changes can Marines expect specifically with regards to -- (off mike)?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, you can expect in very short order a series of steps that will ensure that fitness reports are gotten in on time by responsible commanders. We met on it this week. And it came up in a session that my sergeant major, Marine Corps sergeant major, conducted with staff NCO’s. We've looked at the scope and the size of the problem. It is a problem that is constant. It's not increasing or decreasing, but it's a problem we have not yet tackled.
That said, we have the appropriate websites out there to add discipline to the process. And so that's exactly what we're going to do. I tasked our Lieutenant General Ron Coleman, who heads up our manpower and reserve affairs, the chief of staff, the sergeant major of the Marine Corps, to come back to me in a few short days with a series of steps that will go about the auditing and the disciplining of the force, making sure that reports are in on time, not just for purposes of boards, but on a monthly and a quarterly basis. And we will put it in as an IG item, to make sure that we have compliance not only at the individual level, but also the unit and command level.
So we're tackling it. We take it seriously. And we're going to fix it in pretty short order.
Q Some of the suggestions have been actual, like, report cards for commanders. Is that one of the options being considered?
GEN. CONWAY: That exists right now. There's an entry on a fitness report that talks about that officer or that staff -- senior staff NCO's ability to provide well-written and appropriate reports on time. That's another thing that they're looking at, is how do we provide information. For instance, if you're writing my fitness report, how do we provide information to you on how punctual and how appropriate are my reports? Because right now it's a mark that's being applied somewhat in the abstract.
Q General, another non-Title 10 question if you don't mind. Do you have a sense, in Iraq, of how many of the Sons of Iraq, both in your areas of operation and around the country, how many have actually been absorbed into the Iraqi security forces? And if that percentage is on the low side, do you think that's related to the recent uptick in violence?
GEN. CONWAY: Let me set the baseline for your -- for your question. First of all, in Anbar province, we only had 3(,000) or 4,000. That was a question I asked when I went over last year, about August. We only had about 3(,000) or 4,000. These people were already being employed as what we would probably term auxiliary police. And there was a promise on the part of the Ministry of Interior to absorb these people pretty rapidly as your future policemen. And that has substantially happened in Anbar.
So we don't have much of an issue out there. There seems to be a pretty good balance between the police and the army and the Marines that support them in a crisis. So my answer for Anbar -- and that's really my only area of expertise -- is no. I think the things that we have seen there in terms of violence -- and it's very infrequent and disparate when it occurs -- have been as a result of cells that we and, more importantly, the Iraqi security forces have simply not fully stamped out.
If you cite and posted a map on a number of incidents that we've had, they tend to form around Kharma, which is northeast of Fallujah some few miles. That's always been kind of a trouble spot. And we just think that there's a cell or two in there, perhaps some people coming out of the prison, some recidivism, if you will, that has inspired that group. And we think that they're the basis for the problem as it still exists in Anbar.
So I don't think that there's a direct catalyst effect, certainly, with the Sons of Iraq.
Q Do you have a sense for -- of the rest of the country?
GEN. CONWAY: Not so much. I do know that it's more an issue in Baghdad and up in Diyala, but I can't speak to it, because I don't know the numbers and/or some of the effect.
Q General, now that you have more Marines moving into Afghanistan, could you talk about what benchmarks you think should be set to measure their success in RC South? And also, with more Marines going in, do you anticipate more changes to ISAF rules such that Marines can do things six months from now, for example, that they can't do now?
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah. To the first question -- the last question first, I don't see a change in the ROE because of the influx of forces.
I mean, ROE should be reluctant to change, because if you do a good job up front, you know, you should be lasting and, I think, providing for the addition of additional forces, more forces. So I don't see much of a change there.
In terms of the metrics, it's going to be analogous to what we saw in Iraq, although in some ways not the same. I think that the command and control structure of the Afghan forces start out in a better place, perhaps, than we had to build in Iraq. So just applying metrics to the quality of the battalions and then the size of the units, the UA rates and the availability rates, will probably work in part.
But my personal belief is that a set of metrics in a counterinsurgency are hard, because it gets down to your acceptance by the people. It is truly about winning over the people to believe that you're going to be successful and that you have their best interests in mind and that what the other guy offers is not good for your region, for your tribe, for your nation in the long term. That's hard to measure. How do you put a gauge on that?
And yet you know when it's happening, because your intel reports and IED, you know, warnings, all those things come to you in bunches when you sort of tip that scale.
So I wish it were something that we could simply, you know, have in the COC on a daily basis and chart and, you know, have it show red, green or amber. It's not quite that simple in a counterinsurgency.
So what we have to do is employ good techniques, as someone talked about earlier; be, you know, every place at once, or at least, you know, seem to create that impression with the enemy; and make him not welcome in those communities where we work and operate.
So it's going to be tough, and yet I am confident that my commanders sense it when conditions and the atmospherics are not right, but we also sense it when things are going that well. Your best indicator are the children, believe it or not, for they listen into the evening meal discussions. They sense, you know, who is there in a hostile fashion or in a nonhostile fashion. And when you drive through a town, you can often tell, you know, what their receptivity is to your presence and that of the Afghan security forces, just based on their reactions.
Q If I could follow up, one area, though, that doesn't apply to Iraq is, for example, poppy production, and it is a tangible metric is it not? How do you measure when that's, when that's an acceptable level?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, we've got to take care of that issue. I mean, when I was there, the estimates -- and they were broad, and I scratch my head about the very range of them -- but the estimates were somewhere between $80 million a year and $400 million a year that were going into the coffers of the Taliban based on the drug supply and production.
We have got to put a serious dent in that. I think, as job one, you need to cut off resources to your enemy. And that is measurable, I suppose.
But once again, we need, I think, a larger effort on the part of the host nation. We need a larger effort on the part of our own civilian infrastructure and the interagency that would help us with that. We need more help from the Europeans, who are mostly affected by the flow of these drugs. It just needs to be a larger scale.
And that probably is measurable, based on at least what I've seen in the past few years about estimates of crop fatality and monies associated with production.
Q Can I just follow up on that very quickly? Does that mean -- you said that the operation needs to be expanded. Does that mean that the ISAF and U.S. military forces, Marines, will be going after those local warlords who reap the benefits of the drug production? And what about the larger problem of government corruptions? Is the U.S. going to get involved in that?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, I think we will do what we have to do to shut down drug money going to the Taliban. If that involves a local warlord, so be it.
You know, at what person is -- at what point is a person a warlord versus a Taliban leader? I don't know. It depends, I guess, on intent and what he's doing with the money.
But the fact is, we know that the drugs are illegal. We know that large amounts of the production monies are going to the bad guys. So we simply got to do something about that. What -- again, what the effects of those are we're going to have to, I think, identify and live with.
We are encouraging advisers to the ministries. We're trying, I think, to help the Karzai government, in any way we can, expand the nature of a central government. It's tough in a place like Afghanistan, because the infrastructure doesn't support it. It's not been historically the case of governments in Afghanistan.
So in some ways, you know, we're working upstream. But at the same time, it is our doctrine that’s our philosophy that you need a viable central government to turn the nation over to when it's time to start reducing your presence and relying on them for security.
The people in Afghanistan will elect a government on the 20th of August. We hope that it's a corruption-free government and one that we can work with and one that understands and accepts our strategies. But that all remains to be seen.
Q General Conway, when you were talking about the Pakistani military, you said you couldn't judge whether they're current -- currently it's a matter of their will or capability in what the Pakistani military is facing with the Taliban.
Separate from the Buner operation the last couple of days, is it still the case that very top U.S. military officials have this question in their minds whether it's a matter of will or capability? How frustrating is it for you and other top U.S. officials, after all these years of working with them, not to be able to have an answer to that question in your own minds about whether it's their will or their capability?
Frustrating, because you're sending 8,000 Marines and you don't know if one of the most vital allies is really going to take on their part of the problem.
GEN. CONWAY: Well, Barbara, you can't get frustrated, I mean, that it's hard. We accept that they don't see things through the same prisms that we do, I think, is understandable. A nation will do what is in their best interest to do.
Our concern is twofold, I think. One, that the Pakistanis are able to assist us with what we see again as a parallel problem, on their side of the border, with regard to the existence of the al Qaeda and the safe haven of the Taliban. But also we see it as an existential threat to Pakistan. And Pakistan is an old partner nation and ally, is a nation that has a representative government and a nation that has nuclear weapons.
So we're concerned on a couple of accounts. One, they need to help us and they need to do more, to help identify and help resolve our problem. But they have a problem too. And that's the part that we continually have dialogues with them, to try to make sure that they understand our perspective, that they have the, I think advantages of our intelligence, in terms of what these people intend to do to the government of Pakistan.
But you can't get frustrated with all that. You just keep looking for avenues. You keep looking for engagement opportunities and hope that in time that those perspectives get closer together.
Q Completely different question; have to ask.
Marines in the United States; you have a lot of Marines living in very close quarters, at various installations. Any concerns? Any public-health warnings, to the Marines and your military population, about protection against swine flu transmitted?
GEN. CONWAY: Sure. Our base commanders are all very much attentive to what's taking place.
We have one suspected but not confirmed case at Twentynine Palms. We had a young man come in to see his -- into the clinic on -- over the weekend, I think Saturday morning. Flu-like symptoms: vomiting and not able to keep food down, those types of things.
He was tested. The initial tests are that he is suspected to have the flu. He has been quarantined, along with that of his roommate. That room is quarantined off. And he’s undergoing additional tests.
The battalion surgeon, a very aggressive, young Navy lieutenant, has identified 37 other Marines that he has come in contact with, over the weekend, before he came in. Those people have also been, at this point, set aside. And they're being watched and tested and given the Tamiflu, to prevent any further exposure to the disease, on their part.
Q Can I ask for a lot of clarification, so I make sure I understand everything you just said?
He is an active-duty Marine, he and his roommate, also an active-duty Marine, do they live on base, sir?
GEN. CONWAY: They live in the barracks.
Q In the barracks.
And those two are confined?
GEN. CONWAY: Quarantined.
Q Quarantined. What does that mean?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, it means that they are not allowed access to any other human beings at this point, save the medical treatment on the base.
Q Are they in the hospital or are they in the room?
GEN. CONWAY: No, they're confined to their quarters.
Q Food, medicine is brought to them?
GEN. CONWAY: It's being brought in, all those things. They're simply not allowed access to the base or contact with any other people that they might, again, cause to be vulnerable to what the young Marine has.
Q And the 37 other Marines, I just didn't quite get what you said. Are they also quarantined?
GEN. CONWAY: They are not quarantined to the same level. They are also restricted until they are -- are completely tested and we understand whether or not there's been any transmission. They are restricted in a very real sort of way -- not going to public places, not going to formations, not going to the mess hall, those kinds of things -- until we have a clear identity as to whether or not our first Marine has truly contracted the flu.
Q And when will you have the medical results of his tests?
GEN. CONWAY: We've got the test on the first part. We're awaiting the test from the CDC on the second part. We expect to have those within 48 hours, and the doctor is going to advise us all on whether or not that one case is real.
Q And for -- I assume, then, for all 39, these are not people who have their families with them on base?
GEN. CONWAY: No. No. These -- my belief is that -- is that those Marines -- those other 37 are all people that live in the barracks and reside aboard Twentynine Palms.
Q And do you know if any of them in the very recent past days, perhaps, if not weeks, have returned from --
GEN. CONWAY: Can't speak to the 37. Our concern with them is not that they've been to Mexico; our concern is that they've been exposed to our young Marine. He has not been to Mexico at all, but he has moved up and down the valley just in a liberty status. So --
Q And just one last thing. When you -- the two are getting Tamiflu?
GEN. CONWAY: The roommate shows no symptoms. He is -- he is taking Tamiflu. The doctor, as he assessed the first Marine's status, said Tamiflu will not help him at this point.
He has -- he has sort of reached the apex of the exposure. So he is -- he is being treated for some of his other symptoms, but he's not being treated against, let's say, getting the flu.
Q Is he recovering, would you say, or?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, he's doing fine. He's up and about. He said he feels pretty good. Our doctors tell us that at this point there appears to be no threat to him in terms of loss of life or those types of things. So --
Q He was not -- (off mike)?
GEN. CONWAY: No. No.
Our concern is, again, the obvious exposure to other people and the potential spread. So again, I am confident we've got a very aggressive doctor out there that's going by the book and being a little aggressive even beyond that in terms of making sure that Marines are not exposing themselves to other Marines.
Q Have you sent any additional medical resources or personnel to Twentynine Palms?
GEN. CONWAY: No, no. It's not to that level. I mean, we've got -- we've got a possible suspected case. There is a medical hospital there at Twentynine Palms. This young lieutenant is being observed only in his duties by the other senior Navy medical people on board the base, and they're very comfortable with his actions. You know, he's, again, going by the book.
GEN. CONWAY: Okay.
Q I'd like to go back to your MRAP retrofitting.
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah.
Q DOD is getting, or is in the process of procuring, some MRAP lite, MRAP ATV vehicles. Does this kind of not do away with the need of the Marines for that type of vehicle in Afghanistan? Or is this an avenue that maybe the Army should also pursue?
GEN. CONWAY: We'll leave that up to the Army, of course. But we -- we don't need any more MRAPs in the Marine Corps. We've got something akin to, you know, 2,200 right now. So we would much rather see a program where we redesign those that we have and gain, you know, long-term utility with those vehicles. And again, we think it's faster to get those things to our Marines in the field.
So there are some obvious advantages to it. If the Army is interested in doing the same thing, then you know, we would encourage them to do so, but it's entirely their call. And how that relates to the other vehicle requirements for the long term is something the Army will have to answer with you.
Q And the ATV vehicles were requested because they provide greater flexibility.
GEN. CONWAY: Well, that was the thought process, is that they're -- the more Afghan-capable vehicles, get further off-road, maybe have, you know, the ability to climb, you know, some terrain that we didn't face in Iraq. I have not seen the exact specifications on the new ATV, to be honest with you. But again, the fact is, from a Marine Corps perspective, it's much cheaper, much faster, and has utility for the long term with our other vehicles to go to this mod.
Q One more question, sir. Do you still feel that Afghanistan could be a Marine-majority operation, as you stated in the past? Or has that time come and gone given the force numbers?
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah. You know, that was a estimate that was placed against some things we said that was never right, okay? We enjoy working as part of a joint environment. There's lots of need for Army, Air Force and Navy support any time Marines go in, especially in a -- in a theater where we are into sustainment types of operations.
So is it -- is it an ideal environment for Marines? Absolutely, because of its expeditionary nature, because of the lack of infrastructure and that type of thing. But it was never go it alone, and -- nor do we feel today that that's the right way to do business.
Q Can I follow up? Then how long do you anticipate Marines being in Afghanistan, given all the challenges that you've laid out? How long are you planning for?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, we hope to see -- when we close the doors in Iraq, we hope to see a force of Marines in Afghanistan roughly on the order of 15(,000) to 18,000. The reason that we want to, you know, stay at something along those lines in terms of force structure is that it gives us one-to-two. To the essence of your question, if we're at one-to-two -- deployment-to-dwell -- we can do that for a long time and still get back some of the core competencies that we think we need to train to.
Q And 15(,000) to 18(,000) by what time?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, it would have to be commensurate with our standdown completely of forces in Iraq. So you know, it's when we get to that steady state that we say 15(,000) to 18(,000) is ideal. 2009 is a tough year for us because we're trying to balance requirements in both places, and our numbers are going to go up in terms of deployed Marines until we can move out of one place to the other.
I'm trying to get to folks who haven't asked a question yet, please.
Q I have a follow-up on the MRAPs. Are those enhancements being done now? And what kind of enhancements are you looking at? And is it across the entire fleet?
GEN. CONWAY: They are being done now. We are simply -- we're buying the independent suspensions from the manufacturers of our MTVRs. And we're going to move as rapidly as we can, based on my guidance to our procurement guy, to get it done as soon as we can. Emphasis, of course, up front on the numbers of vehicles that we need in Afghanistan, but in time, we're going to refurbish, I think, our entire fleet of MRAPs, certainly CAT-1s and CAT-2s. We have a few CAT-3s, but not many.
Q And then I just want to follow up on that, the EFV. Secretary Gates has kind of kept the door open to potentially canceling that program as he goes through the amphibious review. What kind of discussions are going on right now?
And you've mentioned the need for this amphibious capability, but one of the concerns with the EFV is the vehicle protection when it's on the ground. Are you in any discussions now to enhance the protection of the vehicle?
GEN. CONWAY: Sure. Sure. We had some very well-intended congressman ask us why don't we put a V-shape on 'em, on the EFV. And we examined that, but our engineers told us it's not feasible in terms of getting the vehicle up on planes, getting the speed that we need across the water. We have looked all along at modular protection to the vehicle once it's ashore, if you're in an IED environment.
You know, based upon how we anticipate use of the vehicle, based upon the types of employment that we would project, we would not be in an IED environment. That tends to happen when you're a sustainment force and you're living out of FOBs and your movements are predictable and so forth. That's not the way we would see using that vehicle initially.
But if we would get into that environment, we have a means to protect the vehicle that puts it right below an M2 Abrams tank. So we're quite comfortable that the vehicle has a suspension and the ability to carry additional weight that would give it good protection.
Our concern with any discussion of eliminating the EFV is that today the United States Navy is not intending to go closer than 25 miles to any nation's shore. That's a 25-mile bridge that has to be managed somehow, and you're not going to do it with our current set of vehicles.
So it gets back to the basic question: Does this nation desire a forcible entry capability? If it does, and you accept what the Navy intends to do -- and I believe it's probably accurate because we don't want to expose ships and Marines and sailors, you know, to anti-access systems -- we've got to bridge that 25 miles. And we think the best way to do that is with a vehicle that can do it in a couple of hours, not in a day. And that's what it would virtually take with our existing fleet of AAVs, amphibious assault vehicles.
Q Quick question as far as the mass hysteria about this suspected swine flu case. How many Marines are at Camp -- how many Marines are at Twentynine Palms, roughly?
GEN. CONWAY: I'd have to check. You know, historically, we've got probably 12(,000) to 15,000 there. Of course, a number of those Marines are deployed. I'd have to get you an updated figure on how many are there.
Q One suspected --
GEN. CONWAY: That's right, one suspected.
Q On the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, Congressman Murtha, a few weeks ago, said it was on the bubble. Do you agree with that? What does it need to prove, over the next several months or half a year, in order to prevent cancellation, given that its costs have gone out of control, by any fair measure?
GEN. CONWAY: The -- I'm not sure I agree with your last statement there, but I'll let it stand.
Q (Off mike) -- billion in eight years. That's a lot of money.
GEN. CONWAY: Well, it is a lot of money. But if you run comparisons against other programs, it's -- it breached, but it's been examined. In terms of the uniqueness of the vehicle and so forth, I mean, it's -- the cost is what it is.
It gets back, again, to whether or not you think the nation needs a forcible entry capability. There are no other -- to my knowledge, and we looked at this when Secretary Winter did an extensive review, with PA&E when it breached Nunn-McCurdy.
There are no other manufacturers out there that can give you this kind of a capacity. No one else is willing to attempt to go through the R&D and so forth to give us a vehicle that does the same thing at perhaps a lesser cost. So that's part of the issue that we face.
I do believe that we have some people that are operating off some old understandings of what the vehicle does, okay? I'll never understand how we did it. And I think you heard me say this before, but somehow, we conducted reliability tests on this vehicle back in about 2004-2005, with half a dozen vehicles that were well past their service life expectancy. That's like taking your old Ford out and running a race in it, you know, expecting to win against new vehicles. And so I think it was predictable that we would have issues -- reliability issues -- with vehicles that were past service life expectancy.
The new reliability tests are well exceeding what we hoped would be the case at this point. Nunn-McCurdy validated the requirement, validated what the manufacturer was doing in order to try to get after costs and production and performance.
And so we think that it's come a long way, and some folks don't completely understand that yet. We've got to do a better job, making sure that critical individuals in our government and in our department understand the potential of the vehicle, the current status of the vehicle, and the absolute need for the vehicle if we're going to retain a forcible entry capability.
Q Well, just one quick one. You seem like you wouldn't cancel this thing no matter how bad it got. I mean, at some point -- and you're the top dog of the Marines -- I mean, are you still objective about whether if, at some point, if the costs grow and the reliability --
GEN. CONWAY: What I am unequivocal on is the requirement to get my Marines ashore from 25 miles out. Now, if somebody can come up with a faster, better, cheaper means to do that, I'm happy to discuss it, okay? My point to you is that at this point, although it has been advertised, we have tried to look at it at Nunn-McCurdy, there are no hands in the air, okay? But what I am steadfast on is the requirement to get Marines from 25 miles out to shore.
Q General --
MODERATOR: Maybe time for one more.
Q Just a quick clarification on the flu business out at Twentynine Palms. Besides the roommate, who's also quarantined and taking Tamiflu, are the 37 who are confined, essentially, are they also being given Tamiflu?
GEN. CONWAY: Yes.
Q Oh, they are. Okay. So it's 39.
GEN. CONWAY: Because there's no indication at this point that they're in any way infected or affected. So we're taking every precaution to try to preclude them from getting sick.
Q General, what are your priorities for MARSOC? Do you see it becoming a permanent career field? And is there any truth to rumors that special operators won't be able to wear beards anymore?
GEN. CONWAY: See is becoming what?
Q A permanent career path.
GEN. CONWAY: Career path?
Q (Off mike) -- three to five --
GEN. CONWAY: We are probably going to assign a secondary MOS to our MARSOC Marines so they're identifiable and so they can come back to MARSOC after they, you know, spend time in the fleet, helping us and demonstrating some of those newfound skills.
The policy of the MARSOC commanding general -- and I agree with it -- is that in cases where it makes sense for Marines to be allowed to observe relaxed grooming standards, we will do that. In -- as a matter of course, however, that's not how the MARSOC is being employed, and so there's no need for beards in the field, okay? Otherwise, we'd all be wearing beards.
Q General, do you see the Marines staying in Anbar until 2011, or they might perhaps leave earlier than that?
GEN. CONWAY: Oh, I think -- I think at this point, if we follow the downsizing, Marines are not part of the long-term sustainment forces, and there's a need for Marines elsewhere. So I think Marines will be phased out before 2011.
Q By August 2010?
GEN. CONWAY: I won't say that for sure, but I'm hopeful, okay, that we're out by 2010.
MODERATOR: General, they'll keep you here all day if we let them. So --
GEN. CONWAY: (Laughs.) Okay, Bryan.
MODERATOR: I know I got to get back on schedule.
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah.
MODERATOR: But thanks for coming today.
GEN. CONWAY: Okay.
MODERATOR: And thank you for --
GEN. CONWAY: Okay, folks. Good seeing you again. Thank you very much. Okay.
Q Thank you. Appreciate it.
Q See us again.
GEN. CONWAY: Okay.
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