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DoD News Briefing with Gen. Conway at the Pentagon

Presenter: Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway
December 15, 2009

         STAFF:  Good afternoon, all.  I will be brief, since the gentleman next to me needs very little introduction.  We welcome back to the briefing room General James Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps.  Sir.

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Thanks, David.  Okay.

 

         Well, it must be a slow news day, folks.  Greetings.  Good to see your friendly faces again.

 

         I think we've got the better part of an hour.  What I'd like to do is just start maybe with a quick few comments on a trip I recently made to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq -- came out through France --    and then maybe talk for just a moment about the deployment sequences taking place and perhaps where we are there.  That's not to say that I wouldn't be happy to field any questions on those things, if you have them.

 

         We went this year for Thanksgiving.  We do Christmas or Thanksgiving every other year, did Christmas this year, so we were in theater for Thanksgiving, and reversed the process this time by going to see the troops first, before we went up to see the commanders in Kabul, and that seemed to work fairly well.

 

         On Thanksgiving Day, we traveled to eight different forward operating bases around Afghanistan to visit our Marines, pretty much in place where they live.

 

         We flew, by the way, on Ospreys and Yankee helicopters.  That was one of the last little victories; two of our newest aircraft, airframes are into flight and doing very well, zipping us around the battle space.

 

         Someone had asked me before I went over if I would take a look at morale, because there had been some reports about sagging morale and that type of thing, where troops are out, again, on the leading edge. I could tell you my observation is that morale is just fine.  

 

         We were talking to both troops coming out as well as troops coming in.  I think you all know we do seven-month deployments, and we're at that seven-month deployment window at this point for the first troops that went in with the 2nd Brigade.  I couldn't tell the difference.  The people that are going out of course are happy to be going home, satisfied they've made a difference and very, I think, proud of themselves, as rightly they should be.  The people coming in were simply happy to be in Afghanistan and to do their part and go into this seven-month sprint that we think that we have with regard to our units on deck there.

 

         If I've got a problem, it's with the other 190,000 Marines who want to go to Afghanistan.  They're still a little long in the lip these days, awaiting their opportunity -- a lot of them, of course, combat veterans out of Iraq.

 

             Where we visited, things were going very well.  I mean, we had a chance to visit with sub governors, Iraqi generals, Iraqi police chiefs, and there's smile on their faces as well, because they see the difference that's being made in the marketplace, with the schools, with the population being much, much more secure.  

 

         We've got a very effective training program taking place in the south now to train the police.  We've got an old retired Marine gunner that simply knows how to teach people to shoot.  And he's working hard with these folks.  And out of a class of 53, 52 are going to graduate. The one guy that was in question couldn't see, and they're working to get him a set of glasses.  So they're just refusing to accept that -- if they're worthy being policemen, we're going to help make them such.

 

         So it was a very good visit and one that we came away with, again, feeling very good about things.

 

         Had the opportunity to visit, again, with the leadership in Bagram and Kabul.  I'd be happy to talk with discussions there.  Dave Rodriguez was not in the country, but had a chance to meet with a couple of my generals up there and with Stan McChrystal, Ambassador Eikenberry, et cetera.

 

         We visited Iraq.  And I will tell out that this year, 23 September was an important day for us, because on the 23rd, we had more Marines in Afghanistan than we did in Iraq.  And that separation continues to open.  Today we have just under 5,000 Marines in Iraq. Because of our turnover that I referenced earlier, we're at about 13K in Afghanistan, and of course, you know, that's going to grow to something just under 20,000 when the deployment is compete that the president has approved.

 

         The equipment, major -- end items, are 95 percent out of Iraq.  Our folks there in this last rotation, if you will, have been doing a magnificent job phasing down, breaking trail for the much larger army, shipment of equipment that's going to follow.  Evacuating our stuff, both through Kuwait and Jordan as well.  A lot of it's going through Afghanistan.  We've got some issues these days with equipment sets.  But in any event, a lot of the things that are coming out of Iraq are getting a very rapid rehab in theater and are making their way to Afghanistan to be able to support the additional troop requirements that are going to be there.

 

         What I told the troops in Iraq is that the most dangerous thing that our Corps is doing today is happening in Afghanistan.  The most important thing we're doing today is happening in Iraq.  And that is because we're sealing the win there.

 

        They are making sure that although the clock is ticking down, and we're on the other guys' five-yard line, that they do the right things to close this out.  

 

         The reason that we think it's so critically important that we do so is that it's the first battle of this extended war against extremism.  Our philosophy has worked.  

 

         The idea from the very beginning that we needed to insert a wedge between the extremists and the moderates in the country showed itself, in 2006, when the Sunnis out in Anbar with us rose up and said, we've seen these guys; we know what they do; we're tired of the murder and intimidation and we're going to turn on them; with your help, we will slaughter them.  

 

         Their term, and that's what -- that's what started to turn that thing.  And we should all find encouragement through that, because that has I think spread itself across other portions of that region. And in a less overt way, other nations are using their security forces to go after some of these same people.  

 

         I would also offer that the way we see Afghanistan is very much through the filter of Iraq.  And that we come out of Iraq under a victory pennant, facing now what we see in Afghanistan, I think, is the way we would want to do that, the way we would hope and expect American forces to be able to do that.  

 

         Certainly I can offer that although Afghanistan has a lot of things different about it, we have validated our tactics, techniques and procedures that we used in Iraq, that we thought would work based upon our old doctrinal manual.  

 

         It's a pub called the "Small Wars Manual" that was written really back in the '20s and '30s.  But it talks -- it's a very applicable document on insurgencies and still is useful today.  

 

         In any event, after Iraq, we came back through France, had some good conversations there with the chief of staff of the French army. And then we came home.  

 

         Came home to listen to the president make a decision and I think the right decision.  He announced of course the increase of some 30,000 troops, gave the secretary of Defense some flexibility in providing a few more thousand that would save lives, I think, is the operative phrase that the secretary will examine, when he looks at deploying any additional troops that might be requested.  

 

         And we're in the process now of executing those orders.  I think you all know that the first units out of the block were Marines, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.  And some of their attachments and support troops are in transit as we speak.  And they will close out in about two days.  

 

        We actually had some leftward movement on the -- on the scale based on some good work that TRANSCOM [Transportation Command] is doing.  And they're actually going to be in theater even before we thought.

 

         We're going to give a couple of other units the opportunity to be home with their families for Christmas.  But right after the first of the year, we're going to start completing the rest of the deal as far as Marines into Helmand province.  

 

         And so we think that our movement will substantially be complete by, I would say, very early spring -- and part of that delayed because there's a -- there's a headquarters turnover that would happen at about that time.  But the combat units will be in early, and we'll start expanding those zones of influence where we all already work, primarily up and down the Helmand River Valley and the Helmand province.

 

         So with that, I'd like to sort of end my preliminary comments and see what's on your mind today, folks, please.

 

         David.

 

         Q     General, could you talk a little bit about whether you've got infrastructure in Helmand to receive that many Marines?  And if not, what's the plan?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  David, I will tell you up front that we do not, but that is not an issue with us.  I remember reading -- and you know what I'm talking about; you've been there and you've seen it.  I stood and took a picture with a Marine at what he called his "rack."  His rack was a hole about that deep in the ground -- okay? -- that in his own explanation or phraseology would keep him below the shrapnel line.  It had a poncho liner over the top of it, and he was completely happy with that.  And that's how they're living out there.  Let there be no doubt.

 

         I was -- I was discouraged some months ago, probably 10 months ago now, when I saw a line coming out of a CENTCOM [Central Command] directive that said about Afghanistan that the infrastructure must be created before the troops can be deployed.  That is not a description of the United States Marine Corps.  I mean, that's what we do for the nation. That's what being expeditionary is all about.  

 

         And so we spent a lot of time and money and gray matter attempting to determine what do we need from an organic capacity that   will allow us to move rapidly, live on what is to everyone else a moonscape, and do what has to be done.

 

         Now, there are things that need to sustain us.  Let there be no question about that.  There's a supply line out there that's going to need to get us the fuel.  We'll need to have water for our troops, although we're doing our own well-digging, and we're purifying.

 

         Winter's coming on.  We're going to have to be able to provide some level of heat and comfort, probably heating tents when all is said and done.

 

        But the enemy doesn't have those kinds of things, by and large, that you see at some of our larger FOBs [Forward Operating Bases].  And in some cases the people don't have those kinds of comforts.  So we're out living amongst the people with our own organic methodologies.

 

         And I got to be honest with you:  We're not imposing things on the great young Americans that join our corps.  We've visited those people in Iraq that were living along the same lines, and said, are you going to rotate back to al Assad or back to Taqadum?  "Sir, I don't want to do that.  This is -- this is great out here.  This is -- this is what we're supposed to be doing.  We don't want to go back."

 

         So we're blessed that we have young people like that that believe in the mission and are able to do those things.

 

         Q     General, when I was in Helmand province I heard few complaints about living conditions, but there were complaints from Marines about the rules of engagement.  They think they're too restrictive now, that in some ways their hands are tied in going after Taliban forces.  They understand the need to protect civilians and so forth, but they think it's gone too far.  That's one of the complaints we heard repeatedly.

 

         And the other was the lack of Afghan soldiers to partner with.  I think when Larry Nicholson started his operation in the summer, he had 4,000 infantry Marines and only several hundred Afghan soldiers. Could you just address those two points?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Yeah, I'll be happy to.  First of all, with regard to the ROEs [Rules of Engagement], as you can imagine, it was one of my first questions as well to Larry and other commanders:  What's the impact here?  And first of all, let me tell you that I understand and believe in what Stan McChrystal has done.  

 

         You know, in Iraq, you had what you call sort of the collateral damage of an attack.  And in some cases we had to have that degree of collateral damage approved all the way up the Iraqi chain of command. But there was a mentality in Iraq that says, if you do proper compensation and make apology for loss of civilian life, then in some ways it's God's will; it's "insha'Allah."  

 

         That is not the attitude in Afghanistan.  It's just a different culture.  And if 15 Taliban run into a house and you put a bomb in the square of that thing and you kill a woman and child, it's not the    Taliban's fault; it's your fault that you killed that woman and child, and you've got enemies for life.

 

         So first of all, the thought process behind the ROE change I think is valid, and we've simply got to adjust.  But I would offer to you that I think we have.  We are pretty good at that business to begin with, okay?  We tend to hit what we aim at, and we spend a lot of time in combined arms.

 

        That's how we prefer to fight.  

 

         What has happened, if you talk to the commanders -- since the ROE have been introduced, the ROE change have been introduced -- is that we've proven ourselves.  

 

         And Larry Nicholson would tell you.  If you ask him this question, he gets very little out of Baghram or higher headquarters about the bomb that they dropped last night, because we have reconnaissance Marines watching that site by and large for a couple two or three days.  We patterned the life around it.  We were certain that they were only bad guys.  And we hit them.  

 

         Now, there will be popups and those kinds of things.  When you have fire that hits you from a tree lying 150 meters away, you've got to be sure that you're only going to kill the enemy.  

 

         And our own people will be exercising that, with regard to the ROE.  But it -- I think in a word, it is not as restrictive as perhaps we thought it might be at the outset.  

 

         Now, I will also offer that there is an investigation ongoing with the loss of some of our TTs, trainers, up in the 201st Corps. Sadly we lost four Marines up there in a fight.  And there's some question, at least on the part of the reporter on hand, as to whether or not those fire missions that were being asked for arrived in a timely fashion.  

 

         That investigation is not yet done.  But we will be very interested in that, to see if what we're applying down south applies everywhere to our Marines -- in the MARSOC [Marine Corps Special Operations Command], in the TTs [Training Teams] and so forth -- so that we don't have unnecessary loss of life.  

 

         Q     But first, it was clear that there was a lot of frustration, widespread frustration, among the Marines.  Did you hear any frustration from any of the Marines when you -- 

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  No, I didn't.  

 

         I think -- I think that was the initial sort of blowback to the thought, you know, that hey, we could have our hands tied.  And this becomes all of a sudden an M-16 kind of fight.  And that's not the way again that we go about business.    So no, I didn't hear any of that.  And I think in time, it will be proven that we're going to shoot artillery.  We're going to drop bombs.  We're going to fire tanks, if they're in support of us, to do what we have to do.  And we're not going to put Marines up against a structure just because we're scared of asking even.  

 

         With regard to Afghan troops, it's still not where it needs to be.  We now have about 4,000 that are working with Larry in the south. We have a promise however that there is going to be a 2-0, no, as you were, a 215th Afghan Corps that's going to be built.  

 

         It's going to be in the south associated with our terrain and that as opposed to the earlier thought process of building infantry battalions and artillery battalions and com battalions and long battalions pretty much simultaneously, they're going to build rifle companies, Afghan rifle companies.  

 

        They're going to get them into the fight.  They're going to be training and operating alongside us.  And those numbers are going to dramatically change in the next few weeks and months.

 

         Q     The former commander of RC [Regional Command] South said the situation in Marja has a direct impact on the security in Kandahar.  What can the Marine Corps do to take this Taliban stronghold away from the bad guys?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Yeah.  Okay.  Let me start by saying that you win the confidence of the people, whether it be Iraq or Afghanistan, by being the strongest tribe, okay?  That means that there can be no place in our area of operations where we don't go.  

 

         And right now Marja's one of those places, so Marja has to be cracked open.  The people there, I think, will welcome us when that happens, because the reports that we get is that there is a murder- intimidation campaign at work there, that people are being kept in, in many ways, against their will.  So Marja will be one of those areas of direct concern for us in the coming weeks and months.

 

         Q     Are we talking like Fallujah one, Fallujah two?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  That's probably all I'll say about it, because it's a pending operation and I don't want to -- I don't want to do anything that's going to go afoul of what the commander has in mind.

 

         Okay.  Yes, ma'am.

 

         Q     General, based on what you saw on this recent trip to both theaters, what's your assessment of the IED threat now?  Is it getting better, worse?  What observations do you have on that?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Okay.  I think I can say this:  We're encouraged by what we're seeing.  You know, we have working dogs that in the heat of summer don't do much for you; they simply want to go to where it's cool.  And those dogs were initially trained against military-grade explosives.

 

         What's being used in Afghanistan are larger IEDs, volume-wise, than some that we saw even in Iraq, where the tendency was for military-grade explosives.  And again, the dogs had to be trained    differently in order to be able to smell out those fertilizer-based explosives, if you will.

 

         They are susceptible to weather.  And so you know, in the winter of the year, those types of things -- that particular type of explosive may not be as effective as it is in the dead of summer, where you can dry it out, put it into a container and make it work.  

 

         I'll be honest with you, though:  We're not seeing -- because of tactics and techniques, again, that the enemy uses against us -- I'm speaking for the Marine sector in Helmand; I'm not speaking for what the Army is seeing in Kandahar -- the Strykers have been hitting pretty hard over in Kandahar with some just massive types of IEDS that you would probably be hard pressed to survive, even in an MRAP [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle].

 

             So we're encouraged that, through different means, that we can take away that weapons system at a point and place of our choosing. It's still going to be dangerous to us; it's still the most used weapon; it still produces probably 70 percent of our casualties.  But we're encouraged by the -- by the trendlines.

 

         Q     Do you have enough MRAPs in Helmand right now?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Well, we're getting what we need.  I just checked this morning.  At one point the new MRAP, the M-ATV [MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle], was put on a -- on a hold by U.S. Forces Afghanistan because of some issues, mechanical issues that they're having, that made it a little dangerous.  Actually, one of the issues were not applicable to our Marines, because we didn't buy the gunner's cap.  That was a 400-pound piece that tended to float around in a -- in an explosion.  That could be very dangerous.  And -- but we didn't buy that.

 

         The other thing had to do with fire suppression.  Our people on deck, our maintenance guys, can fix that.  So today we have 83 MRAPs, and more to follow, that are working out in Afghanistan.

 

         Our preferred vehicle is one that we have sort of created, if you will, which is the Cat 1 MRAP from Afghanistan, the Cougar, that we have put a 7-ton suspension on.  A 7-ton was a very popular vehicle with our Marines, because it could get off road and go any place you wanted it to go.  So we said, hey, instead of buying more MRAPs that one day we won't need as a Marine Corps, we said, let's take a look at those we've got.  Can we do something with this suspension system that comes off the MTVR [Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement ] to make it able to go everywhere and do anything? And we have.  It is a heavier vehicle than the M-ATV, and this terrain we're operating in, for the most part, supports its use.  

 

         So we've got -- we're building to over a thousand of those in theater.  I can't give you the exact number on that.  But MRAPs are the number-one delivery item for the people in Transportation Command. And we're turning that crank just as hard as we can.

 

         Yes, sir.

 

         Q     General, as you talk to commanders in Helmand, do they give you a sense of how they expect the enemy to react as you move additional forces in, in the winter and spring?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  We think that in most cases they're not going to take us on.  You know, they've tried different approaches.  In the   early going, it was -- it was direct engagement; they lose.  There's been an IED campaign, and again, that's not as effective as it was perhaps at one time.

 

         They tried an indirect-fire phase, but they don't -- they don't shoot very well.  They don't get good registration.

 

        They don't have enough rounds, really, to stay very long.  They know if they do stay long, they're probably not going to walk away from it.

 

         So our commanders are feeling pretty good about things right now. That's not to say that there won't be some places where they stay and fight.  And again, I do not want to in any way leave you with the impression that these aren't good fighters.  They're intense.  They're not -- they're not fanatics in the sense that we saw some of those people in Iraq, but they're simply good at what they do.  They were raised fighting.  They've been doing it for 30 years.  They're better marksmen.  They're better at infantry tactics.  They're courageous -- not fanatical, but courageous -- and they'll die for each other.  So where they will stay and fight us, we're going to have our hands full. 

 

         So right now -- we just ran an operation, for instance, Cobra's Anger, up at Now Zad.  We killed a dozen or so, but we think most of them tried to E&E [Escape and Evade] the area.  We got word recently there may be some foreign fighters that are coming back in to try to contest us now. That'll be harder than if they, you know, had been there in the first place.

 

         So it's a mixed bag, I guess, to answer your question.  If it's important to them, they're going to stay and fight for it.  If it's not, they're an insurgent.  They don't -- they don't want to take on a main force if they think the end is inevitable.

 

         Yes, ma'am.

 

         Q     Sir, can you talk about the Osprey and utilization rate in Afghanistan, maybe how differently -- I know in Iraq they were still sort of getting used to how to fully load the aircraft, and again -- and the pace is a lot higher.  Can you talk a little bit about that?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  You know, I'll start with our three deployments of Osprey into Iraq, one on the heels of the other.  We then took a break and put it aboard ship with the MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] that went into the CENTCOM Theater.  It was there for availability.  But from our own internal purposes, we were finding out a lot about salt sea air and systems aboard ship and all that type thing -- things that we needed to answer for the long-term use of the aircraft aboard the MEUs.  

 

         When that MEU left the theater, it flew its Ospreys into Afghanistan.  And there will be Ospreys in Afghanistan now for as long as there are Marines in Afghanistan, because the aircraft, again, just has an incredible capability.    One of the things that we had to, I think, experience is that this is not just a replacement to the CH-46.  This aircraft is so much more capable than that, that we actually had to adjust our aviation techniques and tactics and procedures to match the capability of the airplane.  Used to -- two H -- two CH-46s would take off and stay mated for the entire day.

 

        Today, two Ospreys take off, go different directions doing different things around the battlefield because they can join very quickly on each other if there's -- if there's an issue.  

 

         We're using them in some of our operations, if you will, to land troops deep and to very quickly build up troop numbers on the deck. They can do that so much faster than any other means.  So when you're selection for that course of action is an air assault, this aircraft has tremendous capacity; fly above the air threat that we've got, deposit its troops quickly and do it all again.  

 

         We now have guns on our Ospreys in theater.  That's something that took a little while, but they're now with them there.  So they have a self-escort, an immediate suppression kind of capability.  

 

         So if I sound excited about the airplane, we are.  It is -- it is really, I think, showing its capacity here in an area that really lends itself to it, because when I first went there and flew around in a CH-53, or drove the roads, I come to realize just how expansive this area is.  It's the size of Texas.  And so getting around in something that large requires a fast-moving airplane that is very non- susceptible to enemy fires.

 

         Q    Can I follow up on that?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Yeah.

 

         Q     We've heard this before, about how good it is, and admittedly major improvements.  Then last June the GAO came out with a report laying out all the mission-capable shortfalls in an Iraq that, frankly, no offense, but you and other Marine Corps officials never really disclosed.  Everything was hunky-dory.

 

         What is the mission-capable rate at this point?  What are they predicting?  And is there going to be another cannibalization of parts issue?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Let me go back and address your first point there, if I can an, Tony.  And that is to say that everything you read in that GAO report was old news.  Okay?  For whatever combination of reasons, both the GAO and the congressional inquiry that followed chose not to use information that we provided them about the fixes that were in place to the very issues that they cited.  We thought that was a little bit one-sided and that intelligent people would make different determinations given the facts of the matter.  So we continue to work it.  You know, we're the last to paint something in rose colors if it's not going to, you know, help accomplish the mission or be dangerous for employment with our Marines.  

 

         So in terms of availability rates, they started out in about the 68 to 72 range in Iraq.  We discovered some things about a little part called the slip ring that was wearing out in that unique kind of Iraqi talcum dust that hadn't been an issue for us in the U.S. western desert.

 

        We found similarly some things with regard to shipboard life that we hadn't anticipated, but that's part of this whole learning process. Today it's in the 70s, approaching the 80s at times, in Afghanistan.  

 

         And the answer to your question with regard to the future is what every other new platform has experienced.  It starts out, you know, with these lower than what we would like availability rates, but it climbs the ladder to the point we're at 92, 93, 94 percent.  And we think that the Osprey is on that trajectory.  That's right where we would want it to be.  And the things that we're finding are not major systems kinds of problems that need to go back to the manufacturer; they're bushings and they're coatings and they're things that wear out in use when you fly the wings off the airplane.

 

         Q    Let me ask about the Joint Strike Fighter, too.  There's a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on this tomorrow.  What's your level of concern these days, contrasted with earlier this year when you were fairly enthusiastic about the STOVL'S [Short Take-Off Vertical Landing] purported performance? You know, it hasn't flown yet, the full envelope, but we're still waiting, sir.  What's your level of concern?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Yeah.  We have the first test aircraft at Pax [Patuxent] River.  The second one, I think, is going to be there before the end of the year.  

 

         My focus, Tony, is on the promise that the contractor has made to us that we will have IOC [Initial Operational Capability] of our first squadron -- and by the way, I think you know we're the first service to get an operational squadron -- in 2012.  That is an important period to us because the British and the Italians, who are buying the same version that we are, are keenly interested in that.  We have accepted risk now for a number of years not buying fourth generation airplanes, such as the Navy has done, to await the arrival of this aircraft.  We've got a small bathtub out there, a vulnerability with regard to attack and fighter aircraft.

 

         So all of our planning is 2012 backwards.  And when we ask that question, we get the same answer:  We're going to make 2012 for you; it may be December of calendar year 2012, but we're going to make 2012 for you.

 

         And what the contractors tell us, and in fact it's validated by the program manager, is that the ground test birds that we have used are going to be tremendously more impactful than they have been in the past, and that a lot of things that we're going -- that we could see when we start flying the experimental aircraft in the vertical takeoff mode will be less problematic for us.

 

         I still fully expect to get an invitation in the spring of next year to go watch the first vertical flight at Pax River.

 

        And if that happens, again, the contractors and the program manager tell me that we will be generally on the schedule that they think we need to follow.

 

         Q     What does your BS meter tell you, though?  I mean, you've heard this from the companies and the program manager before, that the thing is on schedule, it's going to do this, it's going to do that.  I mean, are you getting more skeptical or are you --

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Well, I'm a -- I'm an unapologetic optimist, okay, I got to tell you that at the outset, I guess.  But, you know, I -- we are very concerned about it.  We register that concern, okay.  I just saw Bob Stevens last week, you know, and we stood closer than you and I are, and I asked him that question, okay.  So -- and he's not a BS kind of guy.  You know, he tells me he's got his A team on it, he still thinks he can make 2012, and all, you know, focuses are in that direction.  So I got to take the man at his word.  And so I think everybody understands how important it is and that we're not going to -- we're not going to let up.  

 

         Q     What are concerned about?  I don't -- this will be my last question.  What are you concerned about at this point, though?  That they may not make the '012 date, or that the program is just slipping too much?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Our focus is 2012, okay.  And I think they're related.  So long as that -- as that doesn't slip, then I -- I'm not going to be critical of the other things that they have in some of the areas of the program, okay.  Cost rise and all that, that's someone else's concern, at least at this point, although we're watching it in a per-unit kind of consideration.  But our focus is that we want to get those planes in and operational so we can start doing the same thing with the F-35 that we -- that we have done with Osprey.

 

         Okay, Otto?

 

         Q     General, staying on that issue, forward-looking, both the Osprey and the Joint Strike Fighter, the Navy's now having concerns about the heat on deck -- you know, that if you're burning -- turning the engines on the Ospreys, you know, pre- or post-flight, you know, you're overheating the deck, and they're worried about eventually wearing them out.  Same problem expected with the F-35.  You know -- and are you getting into a situation where you're going to have your airplanes but you're not going to be -- have anything to -- 

 

GEN. CONWAY:  No, we don't think that's an issue.  If you simply alter the direction of the blast deflector a little bit, it's not as large an issue.  The other fix that we've got are some relatively inexpensive pads that will absorb the heat and not -- and not fry the non-skid.  So they're just -- we think that there's not that much that's going to keep it – aboard ship.  

 

         And we're going to experiment with it, okay.  We -- you know, we don't want to minimize the Navy's concern about these types of things.

 

        But we fly Harriers on and off the deck.  They have the vertical thrust.  And so we think all those things can be fixed in time.  

 

         It's going to be -- it's going to be a different set of requirements admittedly.  But there's nothing that we see there as a showstopper that keeps us from putting the aircraft aboard ship.  

 

         Q     (Off mike) -- you know, any indication that they're rethinking, allowing you to put your Ospreys and Joint Strike Fighters -- 

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  No.  I think they want us to put the Ospreys and the Joint Strike Fighters out aboard ship.  I think collectively for those reasons and others, we're going to find a way to get it done, yeah.  

 

         In the back, yes, sir.  

 

         Q     Japan -- Prime Minister Hatoyama say he will put off the decision on the Futenma issue till next year.  Can you tell me, how does that affect on moving Marines from Okinawa to Guam?  

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Well, you know, we -- the facts are there.  We have a new Japanese government that is looking at I suppose all the treaty agreements and obligations of the preceding government.  

 

         Now, in this case with regard to this treaty, we await you know their formal notification.  We're hearing about all kinds of churn. There are reports coming out of Japan and Okinawa about this minister or that saying this or that.  

 

         But I mean, we've got to give the government a chance to reach their logical determinations and give us a formal response.  And when they do, we'll see, you know, what our nation and what our departmental reactions to that ought to be.  

 

         Right now I think it's no surprise that our position is that the Futenma replacement facility is absolutely vital to the defense that we provide, of the entire region, and that we agree with the original planning that where we are right now, down at Futenma, needs to come out of a very populated area to a more sparsely populated area, where the other strip can be built.  

 

         So at this point, it's sort of their move.  And there is a joint commission that's at work, I think, that will probably be receiving some additional guidance from both the Japanese government and the U.S. government.  But I'm simply not privy to what those folks are saying these days.  

 

         Okay, yes, sir.  

 

         Q     Sir, can I go back to some of the numbers you mentioned originally -- 1-6 you expect to be in theater completely by the end of this week.  

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Before Christmas, that's right.  

 

         Q     Before Christmas.  

 

         And you expect to grow to 20,000 by when, sir?  

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Well, less than 20,000, just under 20,000, I would say, by spring.  

 

         Part of that is going to be a headquarters that we put in, a two- star headquarters that we put in.  But we will not put them in prematurely because we've got a headquarters there right now.  

 

        So I think by spring that your minus some 20,000 Marines will be -- will be fully up and operating.

 

         Q     Are you seeing Marine elements going above 20,000 during this transition that's going on?  And do you have any commitment, sir, by July 2011 that some of them will be coming out -- coming out?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  No, I do not see -- I do not see us exceeding 20,000.  Now, hopefully, or later -- and the reason that that's an important figure to us is that we are on the verge of achieving 1 to 2.  In Iraq our standing complement was something on the order of 25(,000), 26,000 Marines.  If we can keep it below 20,000 in Afghanistan, and we now have the ability to input the effect of 27,000 additional Marines that we started growing at the beginning of 2007, that's having a pretty good impact out there in the field, in terms of our deployment to dwell.  So we think we can be at 7 and 14 probably by mid- or late next year.  And there's goodness in that for our troops, for our families, et cetera, et cetera.  So we're encouraged by that.  

 

         The second part of your question was --

 

         Q     July 2011.  Do you have any commitments that some of those -- 

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Yeah.  You know, that's a long ways off.  We got a lot of work to do between now and then.  But as I understand what the president said, and as I've read the secretary's testimony statements and so forth, I think that what you will see is reduction of forces, U.S. forces, where the Afghans are ready to take over.  

 

         My belief at this point -- I mean, fully, you know, what, 18 months out from that -- is that that's going to be in the lesser contested areas.  Helmand does not fall into that category.  So what that means to us as Marines is yet to be determined.  We intend on making good progress, but I have to be honest.  I'd be surprised if we're in that initial tranche of turnover by, say, 2011.  

 

         Yes, ma'am.

 

         Q     The project officer for the infantry automatic rifle in the fall said that you had concerns with fielding the weapon.  What were those concerns?  Do they still exist?  And do you think that fielding the auto rifle will in some cases sacrifice firepower? 

 

GEN. CONWAY:  Yes, ma'am, I do have concerns, and those concerns have not been abated at this point.

 

         I got it that a SAW [Squad Assault Weapon] with a 200-round magazine is not perhaps terribly accurate shot to shot, but it's a light machine gun.

 

        If you take another weapon that fires three-round bursts, you know that every fourth round's going to be an aimed shot.  Okay?  So in terms of accuracy, there's probably no comparison.  

 

         But let's step away from accuracy for a moment and talk about suppression.  And the psychology of a small-unit fight, that says that the other guy's got a light machine gun and I've got an automatic rifle, I'm going to be hard pressed to get fire superiority over him; you know, to keep his head down instead of him keeping mine down, because that 200-round magazine just keeps on giving.

 

         So I got the accuracy argument, but now let's talk about suppression.  Let's talk about what it does to squad tactics and see how the troops feel about this thing, because you're not only changing the kit, you're changing the way, potentially, that we fight.  And with this new automatic rifle, every 30 rounds, you got to change magazines.  Well, you're probably not going to do that, you know, in an exposed position.  You're going to have to drop down, change that magazine and come back up again.  You know, fire superiority is fleeting.  And so I'm concerned about the sustained effects of all of that.  

 

         I'm concerned that moving at night, that the other squad members carrying those additional magazines for that automatic rifleman might, in a spread formation, be hard pressed to get him what he needs in a timely fashion.  I mean, how are they going to do that?  Are they going to throw them over to where they think he is?  They're going to be a little bit occupied themselves, I suspect, in a firefight.  

 

         So there's just some -- and I don't want to get so far down in the weeds that, you know, I'm doing lance corporal work here.  But it's a big deal when you start changing how a Marine infantry squad fights.  And we're going to treat it as a big deal.  And I'm going to have to be convinced that we're making the right move before we start to purchase another system and change that whole dynamic.

 

         By the way, we also have to be able to justify to the Congress, and to you folks, arguably, that we're moving away from a tried and true weapon system that the Army's going to continue with, and yet we're going to go another way.  And there's another additional burden of proof here, I think, that has to be met simply because of the expense to the taxpayer.  So there's a number of things out there that we've got to accomplish.  Yes, ma'am.

 

         Q     Do you see the Marine Corps going -- if the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, the JLTV, if those being developed now are too heavy, if there are concerns about them, do you see maybe going to an interim vehicle in the near term?  General Amos raised that possibility last week on the Hill.   

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Yeah.  We could.  Our concern is not just with the JLTV.  Our concern is that right now, and arguably since 2003, really, we have been serving as a second land army, okay?

 

        We believe in large doses of salt-sea air, okay?  And there's not much of that in Anbar or in Helmand province, okay?  We're a long way from the water.  

 

         What we offer to the nation is an assured access from the sea. And we're strongest working with our brothers in the Navy, not our good friends in the Army.  And so we need to get back to that.  

 

         And a part of that is shucking some of this weight that we've picked up, that is analogous to a land army, in the process of defeating the enemy's favorite systems and putting fire on our own objectives, the maneuver that's necessary over these large expanses, that type of thing.  

 

         So as we look at our next set of vehicles, we want them to be helicopter transportable.  We want them to fit in what we call lower- vehicle stow on the amphib ships.  We don't want to wait these ships out before we cube them out.  And all of that is at risk if you stay with heavy vehicles.  

 

         Now, enter the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.  And it's hanging in there around 22,000 pounds.  Emphasis on the light here, question mark, and we ask ourselves, is that the vehicle that we need to be buying?  

 

         Now, people will point to the curb weight.  Well, that's interesting but not terribly relevant when the vehicle goes into combat, okay?  It's got to be loaded.  It's got to have the protections and that type of thing.  

 

         So what do we do?  And that's what we're kind of asking ourselves right now.  If you go back and check the parameters, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle was dependent upon technology to give us composite or plastic armor or something that would be light and yet serve the same purpose as steel.  

 

         Well, it just hasn't happened.  And the experts will tell you, that's still five years out.  That leads us to your question on, do we do something in terms of a bridge?  I tell you, we're looking at it. Once again sort of analogous to what I talked about earlier with the seven-ton, we've got tens of thousands of up-armored humvees out there.  

 

         Now, are we going to give them to the Iraqis and the Afghans or push them over the side on the way home?  You know, it probably wouldn't be wise to do that.  So we're looking at a capability, and I won't talk about the manufacturer, but a capability that would elevate that humvee, so it's not flat-bottom and it's well above the ground compared to what it is now.  

 

         Now it's eight to ten inches.  We need something two or three times that for blast mitigation.  With a V-shape bottom, that would have a protective compartment for the crew.  And there are some manufacturers out there that think they can do that, for about a tenth of the cost of a new vehicle.  

 

         So again you know, hey, that's what the Marine Corps does.  You know, we try to be good -- you know, good servants of the nation and use Defense dollars wisely.  So if we can come up with something that will give us that capacity for, I don't know, a few years, then we're going to look at it, until the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle comes along.  

 

         Q     How would you describe the discussions with those companies?  And are there multiple companies that could make those modifications to the existing humvees?  

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Yeah, we think that there are.  We've got one that's already given to us.  We're in the process of blast-testing it to see what's the comparison between that and the figures that we now have on some of JLTVs that we now have, on the M-ATVs.  

 

         And it's not only a matter of making standard.  Just this last week, we asked that the M-ATV be blasted to failure -- okay? -- because we want to understand the difference between what it will sustain and what the ISS will sustain, because it's important to us, as commanders of Marines, to know what's going to put our people into the safest vehicles, given conditions.

 

         So we want to do the same thing with these other vehicles and say, "Okay, what is the disparity here; what is the best buy for the money that we can, you know, peel the fastest and still feel comfortable that we can accomplish our missions?"

         Okay.  Yes, sir.

 

         Q     (Off mike) -- you spoke earlier about the MEF going in, the two-star command going into Helmand.  Was that always the plan, or was this an adjustment that you made as you went along?  And how is that, having a two-star command within the RC South structure, going to impact the command structure there?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Okay.  You know, we -- as Mike Mullen said it once upon a time -- you know, we do what we must in Iraq; we do what we can in Afghanistan.  We're at that point now where Afghanistan has moved from being an economy of force function to our main effort.  So in the process, we're looking at expanding the capacity that we have had there.  

 

         There are some places that we simply haven't been able to go. Nimroz province, you know, is a big enigma at this point to a lot of us.  Farah, owned by the Italians, but they probably don't have enough forces there to do what needs to be done routinely to canvas the areas, make the villagers feel secure and that type of thing.  So we're expanding that way a little bit as well.  At some point, you really start to stress the command-and-control capacity of the established headquarters.  

 

         And remember, you know, when these headquarters were established, it was about nation building, not about -- not about fighting a counterinsurgency.  I mean, this was -- these things go all the way back to, what, 2002, 2003 perhaps?  And at that point, the nations of NATO were simply dividing up the country for PR -- you know, PRTs [Provincial Reconstruction Teams] and that type of thing.  So conditions have changed, and we've, I think, had to adapt with them.  So it's a natural thing for us. 

 

         And we're going to put 20,000 Marines into an area of operations to say, "Okay, that's bigger than a brigade, smaller than a MEF, a Marine Expeditionary Force, so it probably needs to be a MEF (Forward)," something very much akin to what we did in Anbar.  So I think we are always thinking along those lines.  

 

         Now, what follows with a subdivision of RC South into RC Southwest or RC South-Central is going to be a decision that Stan McChrystal has to make in terms of what's the best allocation of resources and command-and-control networks.  

 

         Q     So you potentially see the MEF (Forward) becoming another regional command, then, just -- 

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Could -- that's an option.  Got to be an option, you know?  

 

        It could also, you know, work for the commander that's there.  Although, he's also a two-star; I think we'd probably scratch our head about that some.  

 

         But there's probably three or four courses of action that I think General McChrystal and certainly General Rodriguez will take a look at in terms of what is the best distribution, given, again, a complete understanding of the significant landmass. 

 

         But there's some other factors that crank in as well.  You've got to look at the alignment of the Afghan forces laid out, what is the area of responsibility for their Afghan 215th Corps.  

 

         We like to work with a governor, a single governor, and not start splitting up his province so that we're having to deal with two or three governors, you know, in the villages.  So there's a lot of things that will have to go into that stew, I think, before decisions are made.  But certainly we think that we've got the capacity to take on a RC Southwest or something like that if that -- if that's the final determination.

 

         Q     You talked about pushing into Farah.  When you sent the trainers in there initially, do you think they had enough lift to go in there -- to go in there with them, and do you think you have enough lift to -- for the forces you have now?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Well, there's a couple of types of trainers.  We've got some MARSOC people out that way.  And you know, I think that if you asked Admiral Olson, he would probably tell you that he's short a little bit of lift.  That's been something that the QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review], I think, has been looking at.  

 

         We have suggested, "Hey, you know, those guys are Marines. Redraw that boundary and they become an inherent part of our AO [Area of Operations]."  And you know, we would look at their requirements in a -- in a -- in a scheme of priority, work the ATO [Air Tasking Order], and support them as best we can. That hasn't happened to date, but that's another option out there.

 

         So no, we're not -- we're not totally comfortable that they've had the kind of support that they needed.  We had some causalities up in -- up in a MARSOC unit that were a long way out.  Now, that's what they do in part and mission planning probably ought to provide for some of the things that were -- that were lacking that day.  What we are concerned about -- about medical evacuation if    somebody goes down.  And we would encourage that that be a stronger part of the planning, perhaps, so we don't lose anybody because he bleeds out.

 

         Let me get somebody that hasn't -- please.

 

         Q     Can I clarify what you said about the Futenma issue, just to make sure?  Are you saying that the decision made by the Japanese government yesterday does not influence the replacement from the -- of the Marines replacements from Okinawa to Guam?  It doesn't influence it?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Now, can you elaborate and tell me what decision that you're talking about precisely?

 

         Q     Yesterday, our Japanese government made a decision to delay the implement of the agreement about Futenma replacement.  They said they will make a decision next year about the Futenma -- 

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Okay.

 

         Q     Doesn't that influence the --

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Well, if that is going to be the formal notification to our government -- I frankly had not heard or even read that the Japanese government had slapped the table on a decision.

 

        But if that is their decision, then I think it's unfortunate in terms of what we're attempting to plan on our end, because what we have said -- what the treaty says is that work on the Futenma replacement facility must be substantial in order for us to kick into gear and begin moving Marines to Guam and doing the necessary drawdown that, again, our countries had agreed upon.

 

         There's always been some question in our mind, based upon the scope of the work and some things that we needed to do on Guam for arrival, as to whether or not we would make 2014, which is, again, a part of the treaty, and what both governments I think were striving for.  Any delay at this point only puts that date I think in greater doubt, because we do want to see a firm statement and an action that will show us that we have a replacement facility that is -- that is being filled.  Now, that's -- again, that's part of the treaty.

 

         Okay.

 

         Q     A follow-up to that?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Yes.

 

         Q     On operationability, on -- some of the local Okinawa politicians have been talking, throwing ideas around, one of them as being -- instead of sea-based to have a land-based facility, as in Henoko.  Now, what's the -- operationally speaking, what's --

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  You know, probably too early to start talking about alternatives.  I think our government -- if that is the Japanese position, our government's going to have to, I think, tell us what it is that they want us to begin planning.  But -- so in that context, I won't -- I won't comment on any alternatives.  

 

         But it's going to be interesting to watch the formal response come in from the government of Japan, and then we'll await the formal reaction of our -- of our own State Department and of the president's administration in terms of where we are on this thing.  At this point, it sounds like it's more and more up in the air, which is -- which is unfortunate.

 

         Q     Can you talk a little bit more about equipment reset as far as you pull out of Iraq and into Afghanistan?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Yeah.  Yeah.  I will tell you that you probably touched on my hot-button issue at this point, because we're concerned.   We -- we're facing sort of a vortex that is, I think, caused by several factors, the movement of equipment into Afghanistan from Iraq that we previously thought was going to be able to come home, go into a reconstitution or reset phase and get put up on a first-tier basis.

 

             We've had a lot of equipment destroyed.  Now, most of that is replaced by our OCO [Overseas Contingency Operations] funds, and so I can't really say that that's a dramatic factor, but it impacts it, certainly, on availability of equipment.

 

         We have gone to training sets in the United States.  Now, that's different from what we used to have.  We used to have battalions with their entire TE [Table of Equipment] in the warehouses and down at the -- at the motor pool and so forth, so that if another contingency broke out, you load your kit and you go to war.  Today we don't have that wealth of equipment, so we have the training sets that these units need in order to be able to prepare themselves to go to Iraq or, increasingly now, Afghanistan.

 

         Part of the problem is that what we call the table of equipment -- what a battalion rates in 2003, for instance, is a fraction of what a battalion has on deck today in Afghanistan.  Communications equipment is probably tenfold above what it was at that point.  Rolling stock, 350 percent; heavy weapons the same way.  So that depletes our home-station allowances and causes us to be, again, woefully short back in the States. 

 

         We have made a conscious decision -- and we may have to reconsider it -- but we made a conscious decision not to draw down our maritime pre-position stocks.  We have three squadrons out there afloat with a great deal of Marine equipment.  That to us is our sort of national reserve.  That's our ability to respond to a crisis elsewhere.  The ships sail there; the Marines fly in; they link up with the equipment that's kept in great shape, and we -- and we do what we have to do.

 

         The Army hasn't done that, and so the Army conditions are a little better than ours, really, in terms of readiness and availability of equipment.  The Army goes to theater with their equipment, and then they bring their equipment home.  We leave ours there.  It saves money, but it also means that equipment is not available for reset or rework.  

 

         And so it's starting to reach a little bit of crisis proportion here.  And today it's fair to say that -- and I won't give you the figures, but today it's fair to say that our equipment readiness at home station is not what we would want it to be to be able to train and/or deploy to another crisis elsewhere.  And so we've made the point that we simply need to start laying in some more procurement dollars and get some of that equipment so that we can, I think, have a better picture on reset.  The Congress has been very good to us, up to a point.  At one point there, we were about 75 percent of need.  Today it's only about 50 percent.  And so promissory notes for money and reset after the fight -- you know, we like to hang our hat on that.

 

             But I saw "Charlie Wilson's War" the other night, okay?  And there was a time where Charlie got a lot of money for what he was doing.  After it was all over, he couldn't get any money for what he wanted to do.  And so we don't want to suffer from that and find ourselves with our hat in our hand with a lot of broken-down equipment, in that we are the nation's force in readiness.

 

         Q    General Amos said -- (off mike).

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  That's a pretty good figure, I think.  That's everything.  That's reset, and that's what we need in terms of some interim infusions for sort of our contemporary requirements.  But it's a lot more money than we first thought it was going to be, just because of these factors kind of taking us down the drain.

 

         STAFF:  One last question.

 

         Q    I'll try again.

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Okay.  (Laughs.)  

 

         Q    Where are you going to be in the next 18 months in Helmand province in terms of transitioning from clear to hold and build?

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Okay.  You mean at the end of 18 months, Dave?

 

         Q    Yeah.  During the next 18-month period, how much building are you going to be able to do?  How much holding are you going to be able to do?  (Off mike) -- civilian capacity there that you see to be able to do that.

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Okay.  You know, we don't know what we don't know, Dave.  In terms of what we're going to be able to do with regard to Iraqi [sic] police and army, I mean --

 

         Q     Afghan.

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  I'm sorry, Afghan.  While I was there, I was told by General Caldwell that they had increased pay by 40 percent.  He told me that the month before, they fell 2,000 short in terms of recruitment for the army.  This year I'm told that there were 3,800 people in the first week on what is essentially -- has been a 5,000- man-a-month kind of requirement.  So if that continues to take off and, you know, suddenly things are looking much better in terms of force availability in the south, I think we can do a lot.  We have gotten authority to take the gloves off with regard to our police training programs.  And so we're going to turn up the volume on that.  I mean, 50 sounds great, but it's a fraction, really, of what we need in these other villages and areas that we're going to go.  

 

         But if we can increase our throughput there, and we've got plenty of people that want to do that -- it's a relatively short training program -- then I think we start to create what we saw in Iraq, which was very effective JCCs -- Joint Coordination Centers -- that said, "Hey, police, you got it.  Day in and day out, if you get bad guys coming in, take care of it.  If you can't call the Afghan army.  If they can't handle it, call the Marines."  Okay?  And that way you start to turn over responsibility for them.

 

         So, key to all of that, in my mind, is the support of the people. You've got to win them over.  You've got to get them off the fence so that they truly believe that there is a central government that's going to support them, and these police are honest people and they're not going to, you know, charge them unfairly to go to market, those kinds of things.

 

             But if we can get that momentum going, then I think the sky's the limit, in terms of what we can accomplish, even in an 18-month period. And again I'm encouraged by recent trends.  But we'll have to watch to make sure that they continue on through the winter and into next spring.  

 

         Q     Thanks.  

 

         GEN. CONWAY:  Okay.  

 

         Okay, folks, thank you very much.  Have a great Christmas.   

 

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