Gates Encourages Civilian Leaders to Gain Appreciation for Troops
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2009 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates welcomed a group of 50 civilian community leaders, scholars and professionals to the Pentagon here today as they begin a seven-day tour of America’s armed forces in Central and South America.
The Joint Civilian Orientation Conference participants are scheduled to tour military sites in the U.S. Southern Command’s sector of the world. The group will spend time in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Columbia, Panama and Miami, Fl., where they’ll meet with U.S. servicemembers and learn first-hand about military capabilities, equipment and training.
“Our goal is to give all of you, who are influential members of your communities, an up-close look and personal experience with our military, our mission, our methods and our people,” Gates said.
Gates encouraged the group to focus their attention on the individual servicemembers to learn their personal counts of dedication, heroism and selfless service. He declared today’s all-volunteer military the best the country has to offer. Every man and woman in the military today enlisted and re-enlisted voluntarily, knowing that it was very likely they’d deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, he said.
“I hope you have the opportunity to talk to as many of these kids as you possibly can and discover just how extraordinary they are,” he said. “I believe they are the best the country has to offer, and their mission is vital to our national security.”
The group was interested in Gates’ perception of today’s potential national security threats. He acknowledged that potential threat are apparent in various regions of the world as he took their. Mainly, he conceded that continued partnerships with Middle Eastern countries and the continued development of unmanned aerial systems are increasingly vital to U.S.
He explained his perception of China as a threat and why stability in Pakistan is among his biggest concerns. Iran, he said, is the world’s biggest long-term threat.
China has the potential to be an enemy, he said, but they’re not. The country is an important economic partner with the U.S., and they share many areas of common interest.
“China is not an enemy or an adversary, but we can make them into one, and they can make them selves into one,” he said, noting their military capabilities and increasing developments in cyber warfare.
Gates acknowledged that if conflict between the U.S. and China ever developed, it would be on a cyber and space battle field. “They’re not going to come at us and match us ship for ship, plane for plane, tank for tank. That’s not the way it would work.”
“They’re working very hard on anti-satellite capabilities, because they know our dependence on space for communications, intelligence, command and control,” he said. “They’re developing capabilities that if there ever were a conflict with us could be a real problem.”
Despite China’s advances, they lack strategic clarity, he said, but noted the U.S. Defense Department is equally involved in counter measures of its own.
Gates told the group he worries about Pakistan and Iran more than any two countries. He’s grown increasingly encouraged by Pakistan’s partnership and the involvement of its military against the Taliban along the country’s border with Afghanistan.
“The actions of the Pakistani army are very encouraging, and what’s even more encouraging is the political consensus that’s developed in support of their operations,” he said. “Pakistan is still a very fragile country, but I’ve been very encouraged by them over the past few months.”
Iran, however, is one of the toughest problems the world has faced in a long time, he said. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons could possibly spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and an even more aggressive Iranian government. Still, military efforts against to quell their progression isn’t the answer. Continued negotiations are the best method, he said.
“There’s a lot of talk about a military effort to take out their nuclear capabilities, but it’s in my view that it would only be a temporary solution,” Gates said. “You could buy one to three years by doing that, but they would simply go deeper and more covert, and it would unify the country and their commitment.”
Gates added that the only long-term solution is to persuade the Iranian government that “their long-term security interest are diminished by having nuclear weapons, rather than enhanced.”
The group was also interested in the U.S. exit strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates noted that the timeline has already been set in Iraq, and that continued progress by its security forces and government could lead to a draw down of forces sooner than anticipated. But he explained that according to the current agreement between the two governments that the U.S. be completely withdrawn by Dec.31, 2011.
In Afghanistan, forces are making similar progress, he said. Continued growth of the Afghan army and security forces is key to ending the war there as well. He added that the Defense Department and White House owe the American people a progress report in a year, and if the administration isn’t content, they’ll develop a new approach.
“Our exit strategy in Afghanistan is exactly the same as our exact strategy in Iraq,” he said. “And that is building the capacity of the Afghans in the security arena, so they can keep al-Qaida and other extremist out of there territory or keep them under control in the way most other countries do.
“As we train up their forces, they will take more and more of the lead, then we will recede into the background and then we will leave all together, and this is pretty much the scenario we used in Iraq.”
Gates said he expects the groups’ trip to be exhausting and exhilarating. And despite the security threats and economic issues in the world, he hopes the group understands and broadens their appreciations for the servicemembers behind the scenes and on the front lines of all the issue the group addressed.
“I’m sure many of you know men and women in uniform,” the secretary said. “But I think this week will give you a different perspective on what they do in the field day in and day out, and above all, the awesome responsibilities they have at a very young age.”
JCOC is sponsored by the Defense Department for civilian public leaders to grow their knowledge of the military and national defense issues. James V. Forrestal, the first U.S. defense secretary, started JCOC, the oldest Pentagon outreach program, started in 1948.
Participants attend briefings by military officials and observe training to enhance their understanding of the military’s mission, its personnel, facilities, equipment and programs. The program rotates among the U.S. combatant commands to showcase operations around the world.
JCOC participants are selected from hundreds of candidates nominated by military commands worldwide, and they pay their own expenses throughout the conference.