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Media Roundtable with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from Melbourne, Australia

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
November 08, 2010

              GEOFF MORRELL:  Hey, guys, thanks for coming.  Welcome to our Australian friends.  We’ve got a half an hour so let’s move quickly, shall we?  Let’s start with our Australian hosts if we could.  Peter Hartcher and Greg Sheridan have double-dipped today so they go last.  How about Ian McPhedran? 

              Q:  Mr. Secretary, I was wondering if you could perhaps expand on your comments about enhancement, enhancing your presence in our country in the future militarily.  Could you just expand on that a little bit please? 

              SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES:  Well, what I was referring to is – oh, thanks – enhancing our presence in the Pacific area in general.  And obviously, over the past year or so there have been some very preliminary conversations, what more we might do jointly here in Australia.  And actually the reporter reeled off some of the things that have been speculated about in terms of pre-positioning of humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, equipment, more training, more joint use of – or more port visits, a greater naval presence in the region.  So it’s a pretty broad menu.  

              And as I said at the press conference, we really – I haven’t even come to any conclusions within the Department of Defense with respect to the Global Posture Review.  And then, those, my recommendations will go to the National Security Council and ultimately a decision by the president.  And only then would we be seeking to reach agreements with other countries if those were necessary.  

              As I said to our press on the plane coming out, we have no interest in any new bases in the region, but rather looking at how we can make better use, enhanced use of what we have. 

              Q:  But just on that point, Mr. Secretary, would you envisage the possibility in this review of some existing Australian facilities becoming in fact joint facilities in a legal sense? 

              SEC. GATES:  Well, the honest answer is I don’t know.  And I would expect the working group to look at a broad array of alternatives.  We obviously do not want to do things that would be politically difficult here in Australia.  And we would like to do things that in the eyes of the Australian people enhance our alliance, not create controversy about it. 

              Q:  Why do you think it would be politically difficult in Australia to expand the U.S. presence? 

              SEC. GATES:  Well, I think it would – you are a better judge of that than I am.  I think it would depend on the form.  I think our experience has been that the joint use of facilities, the full and open transparency, what we have been doing seems to me to be not controversial.  But I’ve seen some speculation that I suspect would create problems and we don’t want to go there. 

              Q: Secretary Gates, chairman, can I ask you about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the comments yesterday from General Amos to the effect that now is not the right time to repeal?  Did you know those comments were coming?  Do you have any reaction to them?  Have you been in touch with him?  And separately, on the December review – are you confident that it will both come in on time and that there will be a way to make use of it with the current Congress? 

              SEC. GATES:  Why don’t you take that? 

              ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:  I have great confidence that the review is tracking and we’ll comment on time.  And all the service chiefs – and I’ve met with them several times – understand both the process as well as the timing of all this.  And it’s I think very important that as these results are studied and that we all come to our conclusions that we do that in a way – what we’ve agreed to is to do this privately and to put together our best military advice.  And my expectations are that that’s part of the – that’s part of the process.  That’s what we’re committed to advise both the secretary and the president on how to move forward. 

              Q:  General Amos? 

              ADM. MULLEN  Specifically yes.  I was, actually surprised.  I was surprised what he said, surprised he said it publicly.  And specifically, again, back to the commitment that’s been there which has been to come together based on several meeting that we’ve had, look at the data, and make our recommendations privately, which is where we are. 

              Q:  Have you been in touch with him or – 

              ADM. MULLEN:  I have not.  I have not. 

              MR. MORRELL:  Yes,  Greg, go ahead.  Oh, this is Peter. 

              Q:  Did you discuss with your Australian interlocutors the Chinese assertion of the South China Sea as a core national interest?  And what’s your view:  Is China inclined to persist with that claim or to retreat from that claim? 

              SEC. GATES:  Well, we spent a little bit of time this morning talking about China and our respective relationships with China, our desire to build those relationships.  We talked about the importance of the meetings in Hanoi and elsewhere in terms of a variety of countries talking about establishing rules of the road, if you will, in terms of freedom of navigation, maritime security, and working in the context of international law and in particular the U.N. Law of the Sea.  

               And it seems to us that that kind of a multilateral engagement among all of the countries, including China, is the most productive way forward.  We talked about that.  And we talked about additional ways in which we can engage China and work with China. 

              Q:  Mr. Secretary, this year we’ve seen China make its claims on the South China Sea, demand that you not send an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea on two occasions, then taking the actions on the rare earth minerals.  They reacted so strongly to the Japanese taking custody of the captain who ran the Japanese ship.  Is this a pattern of assertiveness from China that gives you any pause for concern?  And why are we seeing this pattern from the Chinese? 

              SEC. GATES:  Well, I would say that there were – in a meeting in Hanoi of the defense ministers there was a discussion of a number of issues, including some of those that you’ve talked about and countries expressing their concern.  And I would just say that I felt like that was a constructive conversation.  At the same time, we’re seeing what I hope are some promising signs from China in terms of our military-to-military relationship.  

              One of our officers was in Beijing in late September and laid out a – got an agreement in terms of the various steps of cooperation going forward.  It began with the maritime consultative talks a couple of weeks ago.  There’ll be the defense consultative talks in December in Washington.  And, as you know, I’ve been invited to China early in the year and I’ve accepted that invitation.  So I would say that this is all a work in progress. 

              Q:  Will you send an aircraft carrier back to the Yellow Sea whenever you feel like? 

              SEC. GATES:  Well, we – let me just say that we believe and have long believed in the importance of freedom of navigation and we intend to abide by international law.  But we will assert freedom of navigation, as we have for a long time.  I don’t know.  Do you want to add anything? 

              ADM. MULLEN:  The only thing I’d answer is those are international waters and they aren’t owned by China.  They aren’t owned by Korea.  They’re not – they’re international waters in which we have and many other countries have sailed forever.  My expectation is we’ll continue to do that. 

              Q:  Mr. Secretary, can I ask – during the presser today you said that you have indications that efforts are having effect in Iran.  Can you elaborate on that?  What signs you’re actually seeing? 

              SEC. GATES:  Well, I would, without getting into details – I think we see evidence that the sanctions are biting more deeply than the Iranians anticipated they would and that the actions that individual countries have taken on top of the U.N. Security Council Resolution have had considerable effect in terms of aggravating Iran’s trade and financial operations.  

              Q:  Mr. Secretary, John Kerin.  Can you clarify, when there will be more on the joint strike fighter, and the details of the review? 

              SEC. GATES:  There is a – well, the review is underway or will be underway I think next week if I’m not mistaken.  And then there will be a meeting of the partners in Rome under the MOU.  

              As you know, I took strong action last – earlier this year in terms of restructuring the program, firing the program manager, hiring an extremely capable vice admiral to run it and penalizing the company $600 million in performance fees.  So I think people know we’re serious about this and going to be very tough in our expectations. 

              I think that the actions that I’ve taken over the last 18 months or so show that the time when the Pentagon will be patient with programs that are over cost and overdue with the government accepting the risk has worn thin.  This is obviously a very important program not only for us, but for all of our partners.  We will go forward with it but we clearly have expectations. 

              Q:  Mr. Secretary, could I just ask a follow-up to the earlier question I asked?  You said in answer to that that the United States didn’t want to do anything which would create political difficulties in Australia.  In terms of the future cooperation between the two countries, to what extent do you feel constrained by potential political difficulties? 

              SEC. GATES:  Well, at this point since no ideas have actually been put on the table between two governments, I don’t feel constrained at all.  And I expect that Joint Working Group will put a number of things on the table and the first thing we have to see is what’s useful and what’s useful to both countries from a military standpoint, from the standpoint of preparedness, especially for natural disasters.  

              So I think that – I realize it’s been a big deal in the Australian papers here in the last couple of days, but the truth is we’re right at the beginning of this process.  And not only has nothing been decided, nothing formal has even been put on paper between the two countries as far as I know. 

              MR. MORRELL:  Anna. 

              Q:  You both were discussing cybersecurity throughout these meetings and cyber warfare.  And there’ve been concerns about the extent to which the military should and can delve into the cyber security in the private realm as well.  And I’d be curious about your thoughts.  How do you protect private U.S. citizens and their privacy while still protecting cyberspace? 

              SEC. GATES:  Well, this is an issue.  And here is the challenge.  In terms of protecting American – America’s networks, the reality is the military has virtually all of the capability.  So how do you – and it can’t be replicated.  There isn’t the human talent and there isn’t enough dollars.  So how do you give the civilian side of the government access to that in a way that protects privacy and civil liberties?  

              And the way we have done this is that this summer, this past summer, Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano and I signed a memorandum of understanding that actually puts a separate Department of Homeland Security unit in the leadership structure of the National Security Agency.  

              So the DHS with its own lawyers and with Department of Justice representation and all of the protections for privacy and civil liberties can in fact use the – task the National Security Agency to help DHS fulfill its responsibilities for the “dot gov” and “dot com” worlds.  

              So I actually think – and that went through the interagency and the president approved.  And I think it is a good practical way to move this ahead in a timely way because the risks to the cyber networks are growing every single day.  And until we did this memorandum of understanding, our bureaucracy, frankly, was just tied up in knots because of the issues that you raise.  

              And this seemed like a good, practical way to make this happen in a way that there are protections for privacy and civil liberties. 

              Q:  Secretary Gates, I just wondered if you could comment for me -- yesterday, Secretary Clinton reaffirmed that the United States intends to start drawing down troops in Afghanistan in 2011.  For yourself, what are the markers that you would see as a successful phase that you can begin such a transition?  I mean, in this sense, I guess how do you deal with the sort of cynical question which would be the response from Vietnam – let’s declare victory and get out? 

              SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, we’re not getting out.  We’re talking about probably years long process.  It will be conditions based and those conditions will be evaluated by the ISAF commander and his staff, by the civilians from NATO and our partners and the Afghan government.  And I would not be surprised if there are some recommendations as early as next spring in terms of districts and perhaps provinces that might be candidates for transition to Afghan security control at that time. 

              Q:  Could you elaborate on the conditions? 

              SEC. GATES:  Well, it has to do with obviously security, governance, civilian capacity.  There are several metrics that ISAF working with the Afghans have put together against which they will evaluate the situation.  Obviously, primary among those will be security, the security situation, and the ability of the Afghan national security forces, including the local police, to maintain security once our forces begin to thin out. 

              And the idea – again, the word “transition” was chosen very carefully.  When the debate began a year ago on this, we used the word “transfer.”  But transfer connoted – today you have all this support structure, including our troops and everything else, and tomorrow you have nothing, so you’re completely on your own.  

              So transition was the word we agreed to use because it described a process where what you will see is – you’ll see a thinning of the foreign forces in a particular district or province.  And so there’s a bit of a safety net under the Afghans as they see how they can do and as they take charge.  And so I think that this makes a lot of sense.  

              And in truth, there are already places in Afghanistan, most notably Kabul, where the Afghans have taken the lead in security. 

              Q:  Can I ask you just to clarify – 

              (Cross talk.) 

              MR. MORRELL:  Let’s go to Dan next. 

              Q:  Just to clarify a little, you talked about that we’re not getting out obviously immediately.  You talked about it’s a year’s long process.  Can you just explain exactly what you mean by that?  

              SEC. GATES:  Well, let me just say that people say, well, you pick July, 2011, and that lets the Taliban know that there is an end date.  Well, I hope the Taliban think that’s an end date because it’s not and they’re going to be very surprised come August, September, October, and November, when most American forces are still there and still coming after them. 

              NATO is looking at – one of the agenda items for the Lisbon summit is to embrace President Karzai’s goal, completing the transfer of security responsibility to Afghanistan by 2014, so I think that’s the time – that’s the kind of timeframe that we’re talking about.  

              But the other piece that I think is important is that we’re all convinced that we have to stay in Afghanistan in – and remain a partner of Afghanistan, even after most if not all of our troops are gone.  We walked away from Afghanistan in 1988 and we saw the consequences of that in 2001.  And so I think we and our international partners are determined that we will remain and continue to help on development; continue, if the Afghans want us to, to do training.  We undoubtedly work with them in terms of equipment for their forces and so on.  So we don’t see this as a relationship that ends when the security transition is completed.  But the balance changes over time.  Right now, it’s very heavily weighted towards security.  And that will change as the security forces come out over time and as conditions permit, and as the development efforts are able to expand because of increased security.  

              Q:  Mr. Secretary, there’s a tension, isn’t there, in there – 

              (Cross talk.)  

              MR. MORRELL:  Gentlemen, I’d just remind you also, we do have Admiral Mullen here for you to take advantage of as well, so, Greg, avail yourself of him as well. 

              Q:  Admiral Mullen, if you’d like to comment on this as well –

              ADM. MULLEN:  It depends on the question (laughter) –

               (Laughter.)

              Q:  A lot of folks in Asia and some in Washington say that there’s a tension between the American commitment in Afghanistan and the ability of the United States to have the budgetary resources to do everything that it needs to do in the Asia-Pacific to maintain its traditional presence and forward deployment and security here.  I notice that you said in the press conference you were looking at an enhanced military presence in the Asia-Pacific.  Are you really confident that the U.S. can sustain this in a budgetary way?  Hasn’t the U.S. already lost capabilities like the F-22 that it would have had for the Asia-Pacific if it had not been for the resources needed for Afghanistan and Iraq?  

              SEC. GATES:  I didn’t cap the F-22 because of budgetary considerations.  I capped it because we had as many as we needed.  For three years running, we had told the Congress 187 F-22s is enough.  And we finally were able to prevail. 

              We have not, in my view, either over the last 18 months, or as I’m looking ahead to the decisions that I’ll be making going forward, looking at any cuts that would affect our presence or capability in the Pacific.  And indeed, as I talk about cutting overhead in order to strengthen capability, that capability may include more aircraft.  It may include more ships and obviously this region would be one of the beneficiaries of that.  And those are the kinds of things that our services and the rest of the department are looking at right now. 

              But this is – this is a process and I’ll turn to Admiral Mullen in a second – this is a process where our military leadership has been deeply involved in all of these decisions every step of the way.  And the programs that have been capped or cut – programs that have been capped are those where we say, like the C-17s, where we say we have enough.  And in fact, we have more than enough.  Stop, so we can spend the money on something that we need more.  Same thing with the F-22.  

              Other programs have been cut because they were so far over budget that it was unacceptable.  Some were cut because they were so far over schedule – one had an original development time of four or five years and it was in its 14th year. 

              And so we weren’t cutting capability.  We were cutting programs that weren’t working so we could focus our resources on those that are and on investing in future capabilities.  And so I think that the outcome of the process that we’re going through is that I do not see circumstances under which our presence – budgetary requirements would lead us to reduce our presence in the Pacific. 

              Mike?

              ADM. MULLEN:  We’ve been very focused, obviously, and rightfully so on the budget requirements.  I would say – and the secretary’s guided this – and one of the principles of guiding this was to make sure – basically to be able to support our force structure.  So I sort of come at this two-way.  One is the force structure that we have and the efficiencies the money that we’re generating will be put into more capability across the board, very committed to continued engagement and presence globally.  Certainly today’s meetings reemphasize the importance of the region. 

              And the other aspect of this is as we continue to transition out of these wars over the next years, we will – that will free up resources, which have been heretofore very much tied down in the Central Command to do other things.  So I see it – I see it within our overall force structure.  And you heard about the commitments to this region.  In our future, we will certainly be able to stay committed very specifically to this region and other places as well. 

               SEC. GATES:  I would just add – I would just add one other thing and that is most of the – almost all of the war costs have been covered in supplemental appropriations, not by our base budget.  And what we’ve been trying to do over the last couple of years is identify those things that have been funded in the supplementals that we think need to be a part of our base budget going forward.  So, as an example, Special Operations Command has mostly been funded in the past years through these supplementals.  We are – we have worked over the last two or three years to move more and more of the SOCOM budget into the base budget so those capabilities can be sustained.  All of the family programs and wounded warrior programs that we have that have been funded by the supplementals in the past have been moved into the base budget. 

               So the wars have taken a toll in terms of what it will cost us to reset on equipment, certainly a toll on our people.  But in terms of the war costs itself, they’ve been principally funded through the supplementals.  And when the supplementals go away, everything I’m trying to do is that we will be able to sustain our current force structure. 

               (Cross talk.) 

               MR. MORRELL:  Let me just do this.  We have time for four more questions – two a side.  It’s Anne, its Phil, its Ian and John Kerin. 

               Q:  Can I ask you both to revisit the Lisbon and Karzai’s 2014 goal just a little bit.  Does the United States support the 2014 calendar as a Lisbon agenda item and as a program and do you think that 2014 is a realistic end date for that transition process? 

               SEC. GATES:  Speaking personally, I would say yes to both questions. 

               ADM. MULLEN:  Yes, and that’s the way I see it as well.  When you look at what is laid out for Lisbon and what General Petraeus and others have looked in terms of transition, both in the near term and the far term, it’s – there’s an awful lot that’s been flushed out along the lines that the secretary’s talking about before, obviously greatly tied to security and the Afghans being able to take the lead.  I mean, we’ve accomplished a lot with the Afghan National Security Forces over the course of the last year in terms of their structure, their training, their curriculums, et cetera.  We’re clearly not there.  But as a target at this point that – that makes sense.  And so I’m comfortable with it at this point. 

               MR. MORRELL:  Phil?  All right, let’s go to Ian – mixed it up, sorry. 

               Q:  I’m just wondering if you could comment on the political process that would be required in Afghanistan and on the idea of engaging with the Taliban or what moderate elements of the Taliban can be identified in this process of drawing down militarily. 

               SEC. GATES:  Well, there are clearly a lot of threads associated with this thing.  There is broad agreement that the end game in Afghanistan must involve reconciliation to some degree.  Our view is that it needs to be on – basically on the terms that the Afghan government can accept.  And my personal opinion is that the Taliban need to clearly see that the prospects for success have diminished dramatically and that in fact they may well lose for them, at the most senior levels, to seriously engage in reconciliation. 

               My view is that – and it’s just a personal opinion because things could change quickly – but I suspect that that would be difficult.  It would be difficult to achieve those circumstances before next spring.  And – but I think the fact that people are beginning to talk has merit, but I think that for the Taliban to be serious about it, they have to recognize that the circumstances have changed pretty dramatically.  And I think we’re moving in that direction. 

               Now, I would differentiate that from reintegration, which is the lower level coming over of the Taliban fighters and local commanders to rejoin their local communities, to acknowledge the role of the Afghan government, to put down their arms in terms of resisting the government.  And we’re seeing that happen in still relatively small numbers in a variety of places around the country. 

               Q:  By that you mean that – by them losing you mean ISAF and NATO and the coalition winning.  Is that how you see it? 

               SEC. GATES:  Well, I think they have to see that they are not ultimately going to be successful in retaking the government by force, taking control of the country by force. 

               MR. MORRELL:  Phil? 

               Q:  Pakistan: what is – what more can be done to put pressure on the militants in the safe havens?  Clearly there was a report to Congress recently that said there was a lack of political will as well, to a little after that, a combination they don’t need to do that.  Is there anything that can be done to change that political calculus? 

               And the second part of the question is – the second question is about WikiLeaks.  I don’t think either of you responded publicly since that latest leaks, 400,000 documents – (inaudible).  Can you tell me a bit about whether concerns that were voiced manifested?  Were there any really kind of compromised national security interests in that leak? 

               MR. MORRELL:  I think that is two questions. 

               Q:  That’s it.  I’m done. 

               MR. MORRELL:  We’ll take one of them.  Which one do you want? 

               SEC. GATES:  Why don’t you go ahead on Pakistan? 

               ADM. MULLEN:  I just think we have to continue to stay engaged in Pakistan.  As you know, we had the third round of the strategic dialogue two weeks ago, and it was – it was broad based from certainly financial to security and we also talked about the floods.  And we, in those engagements routinely discussed the necessity – their ability to continue to fight the fight that they’re in with respect to their extremists. 

               And the premise of your question is getting them to change their calculus is certainly – the importance of that continues to be primary.  That said, that calculus is based on their own security, their own views of their own security.  Not only did we leave Afghanistan in 1988, we left Pakistan not too long after that.  And so we’ve worked hard to try to rebuild that trust.  We’re not there yet.  It’s going to take a considerable more effort. 

               That border area houses the – we’ve said –I’ve said it’s the epicenter of terrorism in the world and it’s something I think we all have to continue to work together to continue to focus on that.  And they certainly recognize that.  But it’s going to take time and it’s not – we’d all like it to move more quickly.  That said, we continue to stay engaged, support them in training, and work toward the strategic partnership, which I think in the long run is the answer which solves the problem – to make sure that it doesn’t continue to thrive as a safe haven and in fact continue to support killing our people in Afghanistan.  And we’re just not there yet. 

               MR. MORRELL:  Ian?  I mean John.  Sorry.

               Q:   Can I just ask about the corruption issue in Afghanistan, how much that’s holding efforts back?  If you’re making progress on the security front, on the training of forces – not least the corruption situation – gaining public trust in the government. 

               SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, we have to realize that corruption is not a problem unique to Afghanistan.  And so I think we have to deal with it in a way that advances our mission.  We need to do what we can with the Afghan government to get rid of the predatory corruption that turns people against the government or recruits them for the Taliban.  And we need to go after corruption that is so blatant that it becomes an impediment to achievement of our mission there. 

               Dealing with the problem of corruption in a society is a long-range problem.  And so I think we need to triage, if you will, and focus on the corruption that is so bad that it gets in the way of our being able to accomplish our mission and we’ll keep working at a larger problem over time. 

               I think the one thing that perhaps I was one of the first to identify, and I did so in Kabul, is that when it comes to the corruption, we are part of the problem.  Our contracting and the tens of billions of dollars we are pouring into the country in one way or another.  And both we and the Department of State have taken – and I would say especially General Petraeus in recent months – have taken a number of steps to try and tighten up our own procedures and our way we contract to try and minimize the contribution we’re making to the problem that we face?

               MR. MORRELL:  So I think we’ve run over.  Dan was trying to push us to go longer because he has a question for Admiral Mullen, so he could answer –

               Q:  We would feel bad if you could only doodle on the paper and not answer questions for us. 

               MR. MORRELL:  What’s your question, quickly?  What have you got? 

               Q:  I just wondered whether or not you would like to say the Australian SAS have a base in Kandahar, rather than transiting out from Tarin Kowt – in order to participate in operations there. 

               ADM. MULLEN:  No, I mean we – and that’s something that we talked about today, but also have worked very hard over the course of the last year, year and a half, as the Dutch transitioned – looked to transition out of Uruzgan and the Americans – the U.S. has taken a lead there.  And I – I mean, in discussions I’ve had with Air Chief Marshal Houston, how happy he is and how happy the Australian forces are with that transition.  And Uruzgan is a critical place.  The training mission in particular that Australian forces have executed has been terrific.  And obviously the Special Forces aspect, the SAS has really been critical as well. 

               I’ve never – General Petraeus has told me this, I get it from the field – they’ve never been – both the Australian leadership and the ISAF leadership have never been more pleased with the way it’s going right now.  So having worked that hard over the last year to transition to what we have, we’re in a good place right now.  And I certainly wouldn’t change that. 

               MR. MORRELL:  Thank you all for coming.  I appreciate it.