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DOD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen
September 23, 2010

                 SEC. GATES:  Good afternoon.

                 Before taking your questions, I'd like to give a brief update on our ongoing efforts to change the way we do business.  Yesterday, our top military and civilian leadership came together to discuss progress on the department-wide efficiencies initiative launched this summer. This meeting included the 10 combatant commanders, who lead our operational military. 

                 It is absolutely critical in our view that the COCOMs be involved in shaping all aspects of these initiatives, especially those that affect military capabilities, missions and their organizations.  And their contributions yesterday reflect their important role in our efforts. 

                 I'm determined that those responsible for executing these changes and reforms be involved in developing both options and recommendations. 

                 In the meeting I also underscored this is a team effort.  These initiatives, designed to instill a culture of savings and restraint, have buy-in from the civilian and military leadership of the department.  These leaders recognize the need to shift resources from overhead to real military capabilities.  They believe in the specific measures we have announced and are committed to implementing them and further developing our plans.  We must all make every dollar count to ensure that our military has the forces and capabilities needed in a dangerous world. 

                 An example of the savings of this new approach -- this new approach is delivering is the contract for the fourth lot of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.  After extensive negotiations, the department has reached an agreement to use a fixed-price incentive fee contract for the purchase of 30 F-35s for the U.S. military.   

                 This type of contract shares the cost of overruns between the government and industry up to a fixed ceiling.  It also shares the rewards when the programs come in under cost.  The per-unit price we've negotiated for this new contract is 15 to 20 percent below the independent cost estimate for the F-35 prepared earlier this year.   

                 The contract as structured will enhance the productivity of the Joint Strike Fighter program to reduce overall costs.  The department will continue to closely monitor and aggressively manage this important program. 

                 As part of the guidance issued to our industry partners and defense contracting professionals last week, I made it clear that we need to see more of these types of contracts in order to provide more value and better programs for the American taxpayer and provide good business opportunities for our industrial partners. 

                 Anne. 

                 Q     This is a question for both of you.  

                 And it comes in the context of the Woodward book; but since I know you don't do book reports, I'll separate it from that.  A year after the Afghan strategy review, can you both say without reservation that the strategy that emerged is coherent and sound enough to justify the expenditure of American lives and money? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Yes.  I wouldn't sign the deployment orders if I didn't believe that. 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  And I feel that way as well. 

                 SEC. GATES:  Yes. 

                 Q     Just to follow up on that question, you know, the internal divisions came up just as recently as McChrystal was relieved of duty. Are there still -- to what extent do these divisions still hang over the administration, and to what extent do they affect the war effort? 

                 SEC. GATES:  My view is that once the president made his decisions last December, everybody at the senior level in the administration was onboard in terms of going forward with the strategy he approved and executing it to the best of our ability.  And that continues to be the case. 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  And we've -- and as been said -- as has been said many times, we're at a place where we think we've got the inputs right, and we're starting to see some signs of progress.  We've -- with the right strategy and the right resources and the right leadership, you know, we're starting to move forward. 

                 This is a very, very difficult year.  We knew that.  And has been reflected as recently as just yesterday, with the terrible losses that occurred.  That said, we think we're in a position to move forward and continue to execute on the strategy and look at its execution over the next many months in terms of exactly how we're doing and the progress that we're making. 

                 Q     Why did you decide to speak with Bob Woodward? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, I think I was probably the last person he spoke to.  I think I was the last person he spoke to with the previous book, at the end of the Bush administration, and I think I timed it to the point where the book was already in galleys at that point.   

                 I think that he had some specific questions about overall issues and about the strategy.  We didn't get into any specifics about issues or anything like that.  And I had his questions in advance, and they were sort of at the 40,000-foot level, about tone and atmosphere and the role of the president in this process.  These were issues I'd spoken to publicly, and so I felt comfortable responding. 

                 Q     How do feel about the fact that classified transcripts from Situation Room briefings were shared with him?  How is it really different from a WikiLeaks publication? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, I can't say, because I haven't read the book. And so I don't know about that.  I guess I would -- I would just -- since I figured I'd -- we'd get a question on this book, there are -- there are actually three points I'd like to make. 

                  The first is, conflict sells.  The second, the relationship among senior officials in this administration is as harmonious as any I've experienced in my time in government.   

                 And the third is -- and I believe this very strongly -- presidents are always well served when there is a vigorous and spirited debate over important issues.  And I felt that the debate with respect to Afghanistan was instructive.  I learned things in the course of that debate.   

                 My positions changed, or were adjusted, or I adjusted them at various points.  So I thought it was a constructive process. 

                 Q     Mr. Secretary, but, you know, American public support for the war in Afghanistan is already waning.  And for them to see the kind of what appears to be divisiveness and backbiting and backstabbing in a way this policy was eventually arrived at, how can you expect the American people to have confidence, not only in the strategy but in American leadership to carry it out? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, I said that there was a spirited debate. People were often passionate about their views.  But I will tell you that once the president made his decision, this team came together and has been working together to execute this strategy.  And that was last December. 

                 Q     Do you expect another spirited debate at the review in December? I mean, it seems like many of these issues, the fundamental issues of the strategy, aren't settled.  People may be behind it now, but when the next review happens, will we have a fundamental debate on the principles of how to go forward?  What's December going to look like in that regard? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, I think just based on the things that I've heard people say, I think the evaluation that we will have in December will be, how are we doing, are we on the right path, do we need to make any adjustments to the basic strategy?  I have not gotten the sense from my conversations with people that any basic decisions or basic -- basic changes are likely to occur.   

                 I suspect that we will find some areas where we can make some adjustments and tweaks to try and enhance what's going on now.  The fact is we've now got triple the number of civilians as when the president made his decision.   

                 We've got another 30-plus-thousand -- 30,000 American troops, pretty much all in now.  All of the -- as the chairman said earlier, all the inputs are there now.  And now it's just a matter of executing, both on the civilian and the -- and the military side.  I don't know if you want to add anything. 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  No, sir, I think -- I think you have it exactly right.  I think there certainly could be some adjustments, but we think the strategy's sound.  Things that we've -- a lot of things we talked about last year have changed fairly dramatically.  And one of the keys has been the development of the security forces, for instance.   

                 So it, I think, looks to how it has been implemented, you know, how we're doing against that strategy and what adjustments we will need to make, if any. 

                 Q     If I could follow up with one specific, the Woodward book makes the allegation that the two of you were upset with Lieutenant General Lute that his position that he took during the review last year was not helpful.  Was that accurate?  Is that book accurate in that regard?  Did you make that -- did you say that to Lute? 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  (Inaudible) -- well, the secretary's already said it:  He hasn't read the book; I haven't read the book either. 

                 Q     But in terms of that accusation, which seems -- (it's been blowing up ?) -- 

                 SEC. GATES:  Not going there. 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  Yeah. 

                 Q     Mr. Secretary, in general terms, are books like this helpful in that they expose, you know, what we like to think of as smart people wrestling with hard questions?  Or would you prefer to be operating in the dark -- (off mike)?  (Laughter.) 

                 SEC. GATES:  I think the safest answer to that is no comment. (Chuckles.) 

                 Q     A federal court in California recently found that the "don't ask, don't tell" law is unconstitutional.  Do you think that decision should be appealed to the 9th Circuit? 

                 SEC. GATES:  I think that's under consideration right now.  And I -- and I don't know what decision either has been made or will be made. 

                 Q     If I could just follow up on a related topic with "don't ask, don't tell."  Earlier this week, the Senate wasn't able to invoke cloture on the defense authorization bill.  What's your reaction to that, and why do you think the Senate was able -- unable to go forward with that? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, it's clear that -- what the president's position on this is, mine and the chairman's.  I don't want to get into procedural issues in the Senate.  Our position has -- the chairman's and my position is similar to the chiefs in the respect that we believe legislation -- the best legislation would be legislation informed by the review that we have going on.  But, fundamentally, I'm not going to comment on the -- on procedural issues in the Senate. 

                 Q     (Off mike) -- can you talk a little bit about your meetings last week with Ehud Barak and with Anatoly Serdyukov from Russia?  And how optimistic are you, especially with the events this week up in New York, about your relationship with Russia and the prospect of moving forward -- and perhaps for the chairman as well -- moving forward and having something concrete for them at the summit in Lisbon?   

                 And with the -- with Defense Minister Barak, did you discuss the pending Saudi arms sale with him, and what was your message on that? 

                 SEC. GATES:  First of all, we did not discuss with Barak -- we did not discuss the Saudi arms sale.  

                 I would say that -- and I do want the chairman to speak to this, because I think that the relationship that he has built over the last two or three years with Russian Chief of Staff General Makarov has played an important part in the improvement in military-to-military relationships.  Serdyukov came in with -- and gave me a pretty detailed -- gave us a pretty detailed review of the changes he's making in the Russian military and where they're headed.   

                 We talked about a range of issues.  I thanked him for Russia's help with us -- to us on the Northern Distribution Network.  And we talked a bit about that.   

                 So we have -- we talked, really, about a broad range of things, including the new START agreement.  And so I think there is an opportunity and -- to move this relationship forward and continue the kind of dialogue that -- with the Russians and, before them, the Soviets that I think frankly has been very important in this relationship. 

                 (Inaudible). 

                 Q     Do you think you'll have some concrete for Lisbon? 

                 SEC. GATES:  I don't know if we'll have -- if there is something in this area for Lisbon, I think it'll be more in the diplomatic arena, not in the military arena.   

                 Q     Okay. 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  I would just clearly go back over the last three years -- I mean, when I first engaged General Makarov from Russia, in very difficult circumstances, in August of 2007 -- you know, we've worked hard to both stay engaged, stay in touch and talk about those things that we agree on and those things that we disagree on.  And we continue to do that.  And we've gotten to the point now where we actually have working groups and a work plan to move forward over the course of the next several years, and I think that's very positive. It doesn't mean we don't know there aren't huge challenges out there that we continue to address. 

                 That's also had, I think, a salutary effect inside NATO, because NATO as well -- I just came from a conference with all my counterparts -- you know, NATO is working to strengthen the relationship between NATO and Russia, and there are a few challenges supported -- huge challenges there as well.   

                 The secretary mentioned the Northern Distribution Network, which the Russians and Makarov in particular have been very supportive of. That has given us more flexibility in Afghanistan than we ever imagined a couple of years ago.   

                 We're also focused on looking at the terrorist threat broadly and more specifically.  It's a huge concern on their part.   

                 So there have just been opportunities created through this engagement and the working relationship that just weren't there three years ago. 

                 Q     Mr. Secretary, I had a question about Iraq.  Since August 31st,  the U.S. military's been involved in at least three major operations, al Qaeda is trying to reconstitute itself throught some of the major bombings we've seen.  And the Iraqi government still hasn't -- the Iraqi politicians still haven't formed a government.  My question is, other than that ceremony at the end of August, what makes this period the end of combat operations for the U.S. military?  

                 SEC. GATES:  I'm sorry, what was the very last -- 

                 Q     What makes this period now the end of combat operations in Iraq and what we've seen? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, the mission of our forces has changed to advise and assist.  We have always acknowledged that we would continue to partner with the Iraqi security forces in counterterrorism operations.  We are now essentially formed in six advise and assist brigades.  And we will continue to work with them on the counterterrorism front, but our mission now is fundamentally for them to be responsible for security, and our primary role is to train them and advise them. 

                 (To Admiral Mullen)  I don't know if you want to add anything to that. 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  Well, the only thing I'd add is, that doesn't mean there won't be events that involve, you know, combat arms. Principally, our combat -- our forces there, our military forces are there to protect, obviously, those Americans that are there, to work to continue to support the Iraqis.  And over the course of the last year, year and a half, I mean even as recently as this morning with General Austin, who's the new commander, that our leaders have talked about the Iraqi security forces in the lead and really doing well. 

                 Perfect?  No.  Yes, AQI is trying to reconstitute itself.  So we're very focused on that.  I think we still think the most important part that's in front of them are -- is involved in the Iraqis setting up this new government. 

                 Q     If I could follow up, that counterterrorism effort, is that not combat operations?  What I don't understand is why this period in particular the end of combat operations.  Isn't working on the counterterrorism role, combat? 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  I think we've been pretty clear from the beginning that we would continue to have counterterrorism -- there would be a CT aspect starting -- even as this mission changed. 

                 Q     Just a follow-up on Iraq.  You are talking about training and arming the -- what about the arming part of the Iraqis?  The Iraqi generals have mentioned that -- where are they going to get the arms -- because you will leave with your arms.  So when, where and who is going to supply those arms?  Have you got anything? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, we're leaving behind for the Iraqis a significant quantity of arms and equipment.  They -- if I'm not mistaken, we have begun the delivery of tanks -- new tanks for them.   

                 ADM. MULLEN:  We have. 

                 SEC. GATES:  We are working with them in terms -- they have an interest in buying F-16s, and we're working with them on that.  So I would say all of this is a work in progress. 

                 Yeah. 

                 Q     Sir, about two months ago you had an interview with Foreign Policy magazine where they asked you about your future in this position.  And you mentioned that somewhere in 2011 was the logical opportunity to do this, because you said the springtime of an election year in 2012 -- this is not -- this isn't the kind of job you want to hand over at that time period.   

                 Could you explain your thinking on that?  What do you -- exactly do you mean by that, that -- and what kind of things do you want to see through 2011? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, I think it's pretty straightforward.  I think that for the president to get the kind of person that he would want in this job, he has to -- the likelihood of being able to do that with a year left in the administration, or potentially less than a year, I think that would be a difficult challenge.  No one knows what the outcome of the 2012 election will be. 

                 It also seemed to me that having a confirmation process in the early spring of 2012 in the middle of a presidential election year is probably not the wisest thing either.  So that was my rationale. 

                  Yeah? 

                 Q     Is there any thinking that you -- maybe you might want to just extend all the way through to the end of the term? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Not in my thinking.  (Soft laughter.) 

                 Q     Chinese Premier Wen in New York on Tuesday threatened action against Japan if it didn't return the captain of the ship.  I'm wondering, does the U.S. security umbrella extend to the Senkakus -- the Senkaku islands? 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  I think we're watching those -- that tension very, very carefully, and certainly our commitment to the region remains. And, you know, we're hopeful that the political and diplomatic efforts would reduce that tension specifically, and haven't seen anything that would, I guess, raise the alarm levels higher than that.  And obviously we're very, very strongly in support of, you know, our ally in that region, Japan. 

                 Q     And second -- 

                 SEC. GATES:  And we'll -- and we would fulfill our alliance responsibilities. 

                 Q     And a question -- quick question on -- Premier Wen extending the invitation to China.  Have you moved -- do you plan to go to China?  And if so, when? 

                 SEC. GATES:  I haven't received the invitation yet. 

                 Q     Oh, you haven't?  I thought --  

                 Q     Mr. Secretary --  

                 Q     Do you think that it would be helpful for General Petraeus to return to Washington in December to explain to the American public the progress is being made? 

                 SEC. GATES:  I think that -- I think we ought to wait and see about the evaluation and see the outcome of the evaluation and see about a recommendation to the president and a decision by the president whether that would be useful at that time. 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  I would only add that you haven't seen him traveling much, Gordon, and that's really because he's got a full-time job to get this right and move.   

                 SEC. GATES:  Yeah.  

                 Q     Mr. Secretary, thank you.  Two questions.  One, as far as the recent elections in Afghanistan is concerned, have you -- do you think that it has changed anything as far as strategy is concerned? Because people were happy and what they are asking the U.S. -- that the U.S. must and should stay longer than what outcome is coming that -- July 2011.   

                 And second, as far as China's rise or buildup militarily in the Indian Ocean, India is also concerned.  And what is going between India and the United States as far as military-to-military or any future -- 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I think that the elections took place despite the threats of the Taliban to try and disrupt them, with actually lower levels of violence than there were in the presidential elections last year, at the end of the day.  There was still a lot of effort put in by the Taliban to intimidate voters, which undoubtedly had an impact on the turnout. 

                 A higher percentage of women voted in this election than in the presidential election.  Certainly, a lot of complaints about the election that will have to be adjudicated.  But I think, having held the election, the Afghans organized it, the Afghans were in the lead in terms of security for the election and the polling stations.  So I think it's an important landmark that we -- that they have had these elections.  And we can now move forward as they tabulate the results of the election. 

                 (To Admiral Mullen) Do you want to talk about the Indian mil-to-mil? 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  Just the military-to-military relationship with India is exceptionally strong, and growing.  And we're very committed to that, and with all of our services.  I was recently there and it is -- it has taken on a significance that, you know, is equal to so many other historic relationships for us, and we know that.  And the Indian Ocean, we also know, is an incredibly important body of water; not just now, but also in the future.  So we recognize the importance of keeping that relationship as strong as it is, and also making it grow. 

                 Q     Mr. Secretary, you will be meeting the Indian defense minister next week.  Can you give us as sense of the relationship you have with India, and what are the issues on the agenda with the Indian defense minister? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, I had a very good visit to India last year, and met with the defense minister and met the prime minister.  And I think that, as the chairman said, we are looking to expand this relationship in ways that are mutually beneficial.  I'm sure that we'll -- they have a big competition going on for a new modern fighter.  We'll probably have some conversations about that. 

                 But I think we'll also be looking at ways in which we can expand our exchanges, exercises, and strengthen -- further strengthen the relationship that we have. 

                 Q     India is willing to place much higher order for the defense sales, but they have concerns about the restrictions you have imposed on India on the high-technology things.  Would that be on agenda? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that that is certainly high on our list, particularly in the context of export-import, or export controls, and my view of the importance of changing those export controls in ways that better protect the things that are really important and open up trade and allow U.S. companies to sell abroad those things that -- those technologies that are not critical.   

                 So I think -- and India certainly is high on our list in terms of a country that we would like -- I would like to see those restrictions eased. 

                 Q     Thank you. 

                 Q     Mr. Secretary? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Yeah. 

                 Q     Back on your departure date, do you intend to stay for the July 2011 review? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, I just -- I just would -- I'd just rather not say at this point.  I'm sorry. 

                 Q     Have you made up your mind about that? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Yeah, I've made up my mind. 

                 Q     Admiral Mullen, you mentioned that it's been a very difficult year in Afghanistan.  Do you anticipate the coming year's going to be as difficult?  And when do you anticipate seeing clear signs of improvement? 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  I mean this year, because we were adding so many additional forces, we had a better sense of the degree of difficulty of the insurgency.  

                 I mean, for me, I go back to where I've been for a long time, is, as long as we've been in Afghanistan -- and I recognize it's been -- you know, we're in our 10th year of war -- it's really been the last year, year and a half that we've really focused on Afghanistan.  So it's very difficult to predict, you know, where we're going to be a year from now.   

                 I think that -- you know, my overall view is that we've got the right forces.  We've got 47, 48 other countries who have forces there as well, and so there is an opportunity here with the right strategy and the right resources and the right focus.  I do not in any way underestimate the degree of difficulty or the challenge.  So being able to predict now where we'll be a year from now is -- or what kind of year next year will be -- I think it's just too soon to tell. 

                 SEC. GATES: I think that there's a need for a little historical perspective here.  And the way I like to frame it is - I think there have been three phases to the war in Afghanistan.   

                 The first phase was the operation in 2001 and 2002, which I would say we won outright.  The Taliban were expelled; elections were held; a constitution was put together; women started -- girls started going to school; health clinics were built; a lot of positive things happened. 

                 Two thousand three to 2006, I believe our attention in Afghanistan was distracted by Iraq.  And we had a relatively low level of troops there.  Our casualty levels were very low.  When I -- when I took this job on December 18, 2006, 187 Americans had been killed in action in Afghanistan. 

                 And then, in 2007 and 2008, we were paying much more attention to Afghanistan, especially in this building.  But the reality was we had no additional resources to send -- or relatively few.  We added another brigade or two, and President Bush in 2008 authorized the addition of some thousands more.  But the reality is we did not begin to resource this war in a way to actually give ourselves -- and the Taliban used that period from 2003 to 2006 to reconstitute themselves, across the border in the safe havens, and to reenter Afghanistan. 

                 And so it's really only been, I would say, since the beginning of 2009, with the president's first decision to add another 21,000 troops, and then his decision in December to add another 30,000, and the increase in civilians, that we have actually begun -- and I would say a tripling of the foreign -- of our partners' troops -- that we have actually got the resources in Afghanistan to partner with the Afghans and have some prospect of dealing with a resurgent Taliban that used that period to reconstitute themselves. 

                 So while we speak shorthand of a nine-year war, in reality that war, in my view, has been in three phases.  And the third phase of that war began last year. 

                 Last question. 

                 ADM. MULLEN:  One more. 

                 Q     Sir, I think the reason we keep returning to your confidence in the strategy of this new war in the last year is because counterinsurgency requires a lot of troops, a lot of money and a lot of patience.  It's clear that the military in this building didn't get all the troops it asked for. 

                 There are economic problems.  There's a deadline of next July.  So help us understand why you are sure that the strategy is not so hobbled by these compromises that it can still be successful. 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I don't believe -- I believe that the resources that were requested for the time period that we're talking about did satisfy the military requirement. Of the 30,000 that the president approved -- another 5,000 couldn't be delivered until well into the middle or latter part of 2011, anyway, so there was no need for him to make a decision on that -- and then an additional 5,000-plus by our allies.  The reality is, the allies have plussed up by about 7,500 over the last year.  So they're almost at 50,000 themselves. 

                 When you add to that the growing ANSF, you have a -- you have a substantial military force. 

                 The other key part of the president's strategy was narrowing the mission and narrowing the areas that we were going to focus on in Afghanistan to those key districts that mattered in terms of reversing the momentum of the Taliban, denying them control of territory where there was population, degrading their capabilities at the same time we were enhancing the capabilities of the Afghan security forces.   

                 I think all of that is under way.  And we are seeing slow, tough progress, but I think -- and I believe that actually this is one of those instances where the closer you are to the front line, in some respects, the better it looks. 

                 And we'll just have to wait and see, and we'll evaluate in December.  But I think that we have the inputs that are needed for this -- for this effort.  

                 We have 46 or 47 international partners.  We do not -- they are playing a critical role in this.   

                 And the chairman just got back from meeting with the heads of our NATO military partners.  I'm going to be at a NATO defense ministers' meeting.  But I will tell you that at the June NATO defense ministers' meeting, there was a broad sense of confidence that we were on the right track. 

                 Q     Mr. Secretary, there was a period in time where you believed in a smaller footprint there, your Cold War-era experience. You know about the wars there and the Soviet experience there.  What changed for you that made you, sort of, back this larger footprint? 

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, I think people have written about this.  I -- what started me thinking was General McChrystal's response to that, when I raised that skepticism, that the size of the footprint matters less than what you're doing with it.  And if the Afghans see you as an invader, then hardly any footprint will be big enough.  If they see you as an ally and a friend and their partner, it's a completely different situation. 

                 And as I reflected on it, it seemed to me first of all the Soviets invaded the country; we were invited in and are there under a U.N. mandate. The Russians -- the Soviets killed a million Afghans, they drove 5 million out of the country, and they basically destroyed the country.  I'd say that the effort that we have under way is diametrically different than that and has a lot to do with a different attitude on the part of the Afghans. 

                 Every -- every poll that I've seen shows that support for the Taliban is about 10 percent.   

                 They don't -- the Afghans don't want them to come back.  And they have the presence that they do because of their intimidation efforts and their willingness to kill people. 

                 By the same token -- and the numbers vary -- but generally, everything that I've seen indicates that somewhere between 55 (percent) and 65 percent or so of the Afghans want us in there and helping.  So I think it's a totally different situation than existed under the Soviets. 

                 Thank you all.

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