SEC. GATES: I have no announcements and I’m sitting at a table. I thought that it had been a while since I -- we’d been down here, and so thought we would take this opportunity. So we’ll go straight to questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, the situation in Libya, obviously we’re hearing reports that the British, French and the Italians are going to send in trainers. Has there been any discussion about the U.S. providing any additional military and air support over this course of time as they -- as things start to move ahead, particularly considering things appear to be at a stalemate? And whether or not you think it is a stalemate.
And just sort of secondarily, the decision yesterday to provide some aid to the opposition, does this suggest to us that indeed you now know who the opposition forces are? There’s been a great deal of concern about the fact that the U.S. felt it didn’t know who these people were and the concerns about providing any aid to them.
And just for the general, are you -- are -- (laughter) -- we haven’t seen you in so long! (Laughter.) Is the Libyan regime using cluster bombs?
SEC. GATES: First of all, I would say that the president’s strategy from the very beginning -- and it was worked out in advance with our allies -- was that we would have a significant role at the beginning of the establishment of a no-fly zone, use our capabilities to suppress the air defenses and create the circumstances in which we could then recede into a support role and our allies and friends sustain the effort over time, including the effort to prevent a humanitarian disaster, and that’s essentially what -- that’s what we’ve done.
And I think there was some precision in identifying as the military objectives the no-fly zone and preventing a humanitarian catastrophe, particularly in Benghazi.
Regime change was always a political goal. And I think that there was an understanding that regime change is complicated and that it works best when it’s done from the inside, and that it could take time. And that’s why the sanctions and the embargoes and everything are associated with that.
Now, the president has said that where we have some unique capabilities, he is willing to use those. And in fact he has approved that the use of armed Predators, and I think that today may in fact have been their first mission. So I think that will give us some precision capability.
And General Cartwright might want to say more about that.
But I think that in terms of the assistance, it is -- it’s in uniforms, canteens, things like that; it’s all nonlethal. I’m not worried about our canteen technology falling into the wrong hands.
But I think there is still a lot we don’t know about the opposition. The ones -- the only ones with whom any of us have had real contact have been the ones in Benghazi. But I think, as you say, there are others who are providing trainers and so on.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: On the cluster munitions, we’re hearing the same things you’re hearing. We’re trying to run it down right now, but we don’t have any verification of anyone using them. We’ll keep running on that one.
On the armed Predators, part of the value -- we started with armed Predators, then we -- then we flew them purely as ISR up until today. And the first flights did launch today but the weather wasn’t good enough, so they had to come back. But what they will bring that is unique to the -- to the conflict is their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility on particularly targets now that have started to dig themselves in into defensive positions. They’re uniquely suited for areas -- urban areas where you can get low collateral damage. And so we’re trying to manage that collateral damage obviously, but that’s the best platform to do that with; their extended persistence on the target -- they’re out there for a full day working the targets.
And so you have those capabilities, in addition to being able to get in targets where -- out in the open where collateral damage is a worry, for instance, around ammo depots and things like that, that you want to hit -- particularly a vehicle but you don’t want to hit the depot and have the secondaries.
So it brings some capabilities to the NATO commander that they didn’t have before.
Q: Mr. Secretary, how would you answer the obvious question, that since you’re having to reintroduce weaponry like armed Predators into the fight, that either, one, the U.S. withdrew its armed aerial assets too early, or it’s proof that NATO qutie frankly can’t do the job?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think what we’re trying to do is to, in the context of the humanitarian mission, see what we can do in places like Misurata and elsewhere with different capabilities. I don’t think -- you know, we drew down. Essentially, we actually -- we actually continued our role for several days longer than had originally been planned, our strike role. And so I think -- and NATO has shown an ability to sustain this mission. I mean, we’ve all been in touch with our counterparts, and they seem confident and seem to be fully comfortable with the notion of having to continue what they’re doing for some period of time.
So I think that, you know, obviously it’s an evolving situation, but we saw an opportunity here and recommended it to the president, and he took it.
Q: Then why specifically are these armed Predators being reintroduced?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think because of the humanitarian situation that we’re seeing -- and I’ll let General Cartwright speak to it. But I think they give you a -- for all the reasons he just cited, they give you a capability that even the A-10s and the C-130s couldn’t provide.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Right. No. The character of the fight has changed also. I mean, the introduction of the air and the capability that NATO’s brought -- things that are out in the open, know that they’re going to probably perish if a NATO bird sees them.
So you’re seeing a much more dispersed fight, people that are digging in or nestling up against crowded areas, where collateral damage is.
The other issue out there that we’re trying to struggle with is the -- now you have the intermixing of the lines, so to speak. So it’s very difficult to pick friend from foe. So a vehicle like the Predator that can get down lower and can get IDs better helps us.
Q: Are we witnessing mission creep here? Is this -- are we going to just keep doing one slice of salami at a time as the U.S. gets further and further reinvolved in this operation?
SEC. GATES: No, I don’t think so. I think that the president has been firm, for example, on boots on the ground. And there is no wiggle room in that that certainly I’ve been able to detect in his views. This is a very limited capability. He said from the outset that where we had unique assets that could contribute, we would do that. I think this is a very limited additional role on our part, but it does provide some additional capabilities to NATO. So no, I don’t think there’s mission creep at all.
Q: But if today armed Predators, why not tomorrow AC-130s and, the day after, A-10s?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the president has been pretty clear to us that the primary strike role has been turned over to our allies and our friends. And if we can make a modest contribution with these armed Predators, we’ll do it. But I don’t -- I don’t see that -- I don’t think any of us see that -- see that as mission creep.
Q: You just called it a "modest contribution." Can you just give us some idea of the scope? Are you talking less than half a dozen? Are you talking one, two, three? Did they come out of Afghanistan? What are -- what are you really talking about there?
GENERAL CARTWRIGHT: We have two CAPs, so two birds would be in the country at any given time, a max of two. They have the capability of being there 24 hours a day. So we can maintain two birds for 24 hours a day, is the capability that’s there.
They’re currently based in the theater, not in Afghanistan or --
SEC. GATES: They didn’t come from Afghanistan.
Q: Can I just follow up? NATO this week said that air strikes, air power alone, will not solve the problem of fighting in cities like Misurata, that the shelling remains indiscriminate and that there’s absolutely no sign, NATO said, that Gadhafi is going to go.
And with this killing of civilians, indiscriminate and unstopped, why not get more involved? Why -- if humanitarian is the key goal, relief, why not -- why two Predators? Why not get more involved to save people?
SEC. GATES: Well, for one thing -- and let’s remember -- well, let’s go back to first principles in terms of why the president structured our role the way he has. We have -- of all of our friends and allies, we are the most stretched militarily. We have close to 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. We still have 50,000 troops in Iraq. We have 19 ships and 18,000 men and women in uniform still helping on Japan relief. So the United States has significant commitments in places other than the Middle East.
The president agreed to participate in this and, at the beginning, take a lead role because of the worry that Gadhafi could destabilize the fledgling revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt, with Egypt being central to the future of the region; and second, to prevent a humanitarian disaster. A third reason was that while it was not a vital interest for us, our allies considered it a vital interest. And just as they have helped us in Afghanistan, we thought it important, the president thought it was important, to help them in Libya.
But there was never any lack of clarity about the limits on the U.S. role here.
And I would say two other things in terms of NATO. One is, they are very concerned about not going beyond the mandate of the U.N. Security Council resolution. And most of the opposition has said they don’t want foreign troops on the ground.
Regime change imposed from the outside, as we have seen in Iraq and in the Balkans, is incredibly difficult and works best, as we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, when it is done from within. And we are trying to provide enough space -- and in order to protect the opposition from Gadhafi’s military, to the extent we can, we are reducing his military capabilities to the point where hopefully those who rose up in many of these other towns, as well as the places that are under siege now, will have a better chance of being successful in bringing about a change there.
Q: You mentioned we are the most stressed military in the world. Against that backdrop, I wanted to get your reaction to the news last week when you were told by President Obama you’d be forced to cut as much as $400 billion over the next 10 years. Back in August you said cutting the deficit for -- defense budget for defense -- deficit reduction was among your -- was your greatest fear. What was your reaction?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the key is the way that -- the way it is structured, with the president saying that no specific budget decisions will be made until we have completed this review. Now the way I’m thinking about this review is that I -- the worst of all possible worlds, in my view, is to give the entire Department of Defense a haircut, basically says everybody is going to cut X percent.
That’s the way we got the hollow military in the 1970s and in the 1990s. And so I want to frame this so that options and consequences and risks are taken into account as they -- as budget decisions are made, first by the president and then by the Congress.
So what I hope to do is frame this in a way that says, if you want to cut this number of dollars, here are the consequences for force structure. Here are your choices in terms of capabilities that will be reduced or investments that are not made. And here are the consequences of this.
This is about -- this needs to be a process that is driven by the analysis, and where it is about risk management with respect to future national security threats and challenges, as well as missions that our elected officials decide we should not have to perform or shouldn’t -- can’t perform anymore because we don’t have the resources.
I want to frame those choices, because the easy thing for everybody is to just do a broad percentage cut, because then there are no evident consequences. And what I want to do is frame this in a way the consequences and the risks are identified so people can make well- thought-out decisions.
Q: One follow-up. Last November, you criticized the deficit reduction commission’s specific cuts as math, not strategy. Could that same criticism be applied to the White House number of $400 billion that seems to have come out of thin air.
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, it’s a target. And I don’t have that same criticism because of what the president said, that no specific budget decisions will be made until we’ve reviewed these things, and these choices and options are put before them.
Q: I’m just hoping to get a update on Afghanistan. Last month when we were there, the commanders were saying, the next few weeks were going to be among the most important of the war as the Taliban would renew their fighting for the warm weather. Has the fighting been renewed? Has -- are Taliban coming back across the Pakistan border? What are you hearing from Afghanistan?
SEC. GATES: Well, there’ve been -- there has been -- I’ll make a few comments, and then invite General Cartwright to comment. There has been some uptick in activity, but we’re still kind of in the middle of the poppy harvest. And I think that -- so I think they’re really expecting whatever return to the battlefield there is by the Taliban will be probably sometime more in May -- in May and June.
My own view is that this year is a critical year. We have driven the Taliban out of areas they have controlled for years, including their heartland. They clearly intend to try and take that back. If we can prevent them this year -- if we can prevent them this year from retaking the areas that we have taken away from them, and we can continue to expand the security bubble, I think it’s possible that by the end of this year we will have turned a corner just because of the Taliban being driven out, and, more importantly, kept out.
But that -- that’s more months into the future than it is -- than it is weeks. But I think that we are all expecting an increase in the level of violence and activity beginning in a few weeks.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: And I would just say that the seasonal issue is that the poppy harvest starts about now. It’s in full swing, goes until about mid-May. So the character of the fighting right now is probably more along the lines of the individual spectacular attack rather than groups of people, one.
Two, we’re trying to posture ourselves right now against the rat lines, as we would call them, but the supply routes that are coming up from the south and from the southeast, and to cut those off, interdict them so they can’t be resupplied or build their stocks.
SEC. GATES: Thom.
Q: Thank you. If I could return to Libya for a moment, before the decision to intervene was made, you were very forthright, warning about risks, challenges and difficulties of that mission. To be sure, once the president decided, the entire team came together to support it. But now that all of our predictions about the risks and challenges and difficulties have come true, I’m tempted to give you a chance to say "I told you so," but my real question is, what do you see that gives you confidence that NATO can sustain and succeed? And when you say NATO has to be in the fight, you know, for a period of time, how long is that going to be?
SEC. GATES: I think -- I think the honest answer to that is nobody knows. I think we have succeeded in preventing the kind of mass-casualty humanitarian disaster that we feared in Benghazi, and I would say that his ruthlessness in Misurata and the kinds of things -- the sweeps he’s making, his security people are making in Tripoli, at least in my personal opinion, make the fears people had about a potential catastrophe in Benghazi more real. And so I think -- I think we did accomplish that.
You know, this was a guy that the entire international community has essentially come together and said has to go.
The circumstances here are unique. In my whole experience, I can’t ever recall the Arab League voting one of their own members out, essentially; the resolution of the Gulf Cooperation Council, then the U.N. Security Council Resolution. So there is -- there is a desire on the part of the international community to see this guy gone.
And I think there is an understanding that the real work of that will have to be done by the Libyans themselves. But we can provide them with some cover from the air. And I think the kind of training that some of the allies are going to do and some of the assistance they’re providing will help them. But this is likely to take a while.
Q: (Off mic) -- have talked about the efficiency drive and sort of, you know, not pushing for these exquisite solutions and that there is a bit of an overmatch. And, you know, perhaps, given the budget constraints, you need to accept maybe just a little bit less than 100 percent.
Given this new push by the White House to make further cuts, are you looking at something like 60 percent solutions now? I mean, you’ve talked about the low-hanging fruit being gone. And -- but, you know, as Carter told us yesterday, that more program -- major programs may be on the line, do you have to start looking at Joint Strike Fighter --
SEC. GATES: Well, these are the decisions that I -- that I think need to be teed up for the -- for the president. As an example, there are those who argue that if you funded the department at roughly inflation for the next 12 years, that you could find this money. That may well be true.
But some of our big-ticket items are items that don’t fall within that category: health care, fuel cost. And there are others like that.
We have some investments that we have to make. We have to buy the new tanker. We have to replace some of the surface ships that will age out -- that were built in the Reagan years and that will age out during this 12-year period. The question of how many is one of the questions that has to be answered.
All elements of the triad need to be modernized. You may have to make some choices there.
So I’m just trying -- I want to frame this so that it’s not a math exercise but so people understand the strategic and national security consequences of the decisions that they’re making. And it’s up to us to do that, I think, in stark terms.
(To the general.) I don’t know if you want to add anything.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Just -- I mean, there’s another element to this in the strategy side of it, and that is, what is it you want to be able to do, and then how much of it do you want to be able to do, which gets to quantities and capabilities. And so starting with a strategy and understanding that -- I mean, historically the department has been the two major-theater war construct, et cetera. Where do we want to be on that, and then what are the implications of any changes in that, I think, are important questions to ask up front.
Q: (Off mic) -- when you look at your comments earlier about how the ideal kind of regime change would be one that came from inside rather than being imposed from outside, do you see any sign that Gadhafi’s hold on power is weakening? And short of continuing to escalate the Western intervention, what else can either the U.S. or NATO do to try bring about that kind of regime change from inside that you talked about?
SEC. GATES: I think that there are two ways in which his hold is weakening.
The first is every day, day after day, the capabilities of his military are being reduced, and we -- it’s been long enough ago, I think a lot of folks have forgotten that at the beginning of this uprising, there were uprisings in a number of Libyan cities. It wasn’t just the three or four that we’ve been talking about for the last three or four weeks.
And in each case, sort of seriatim, Gadhafi was able to use his military forces to suppress those uprisings. And the question is, if you weaken his military enough and they rise up again, are they in a position then to expel the Libyan government from their town or their area?
The other area is simply -- and again, it’s not a short-term thing -- but the embargo, the fact that oil isn’t being sold, the embargoes and sanctions that have been levied against him over time have to have consequences in terms of his capabilities. I mean, one of the -- one of the themes that we’ve been seeing in the reporting is that he’s been hiring mercenaries from Africa to come and fight. So if he begins to run short of cash, that begins to -- that begins to have an impact.
Now, again, as I say, those -- that’s not a short-term thing any more than the weakening of the military is, but the fact is it is taking place day after day, and there -- and you know, we’ll just have to -- we’ll just have to see. This is an uncertainty.
Q: Yes. On the $400 billion that the president has talked about in security savings, how much would be attributed to DOD?
And then I wonder also if you can talk a little bit more about the review process. How would -- aside from the compressed timeline, how would that compare to the QDR process?
SEC. GATES: Well -- I’m sorry. What was the first part of your --
Q: Of the $400 billion, how much for DOD?
SEC. GATES: Yeah. We don’t know at this point. And you know, my Cabinet colleagues are looking at me very suspiciously at this point. (Laughter.) But no, we just -- that hasn’t been worked out yet.
And then the second part?
Q: How would you describe the process? And how do you compare it to the QDR?
SEC. GATES: We have just gotten started on this. I’ve had one meeting to begin thinking about how we structure this.
It won’t be a mini-QDR because I think what we have to do in structuring these options -- I mean, one approach that we’ve talked about -- and I haven’t settled on which approach we’re going to take, but one approach would be to take the scenarios in the QDR and translate those into forces, exactly what forces would be required to perform that range of mission. And then if you begin cutting off mission; if you begin saying, okay, what if you didn’t do this, what if you weren’t able -- what if you decided you didn’t need to be able to fight two regional conflicts at the same time; then what are the implications of that for the force?
So it will start, probably, with the -- with the QDR and in terms of the scenarios, and then try to translate that into what are the programmatic implications as you begin to reduce the mission set.
Q: Sir, are you worried that you could leave office and Libya would still be essentially a stalemate? And what more could NATO do to change the -- or should NATO consider doing more than it has done so far?
SEC. GATES: Well, the worry will be my successor’s. (Laughter.) I think that -- I actually think that some of the things that are being done in terms of trainers, in terms of providing non- lethal assistance, are important contributions. And I talked about this in a hearing two or three weeks ago. I think one of the biggest deficiencies on the side of the opposition is that -- is the lack of training, the lack of structure, the lack of command and control, the lack of communications, the lack of experienced military people.
And so I think if you can remedy those -- I mean, there’s a lot of -- there’s a -- there are a -- is a lot of weaponry in Libya. And the opposition has been able to access some of those armories, particularly in the east. So I think the biggest need on the part of the opposition right now, particularly in the east, is what -- is what the alliance -- what alliance members are doing.
Q: In connection with that -- in connection with the trainers on the ground, you say you see the need for that. But in a sense, is that not a kind of mission creep? Because they are boots on the ground, at least in one sense?
SEC. GATES: But they’re not our boots on the ground.
Q: Right. But they are boots. And so -- are they --
SEC. GATES: Well, we’ve never made that -- we never -- (chuckles) -- made that commitment for anybody else. And I think that -- you know, the argument of the, I think, of the British and the French and the others is that giving these people a better capability to defend themselves is in fact directly tied to the humanitarian mission.
Q: Thank you. So if the opposition needs training, is the U.S. considering -- are you making contingency plans? Has NATO requested the U.S. to send trainers there?
SEC. GATES: No, no and no.
Thank you all -- (chuckles) -- very much.