On Mullen's Mind

The president's top military adviser reflects on war and bureaucracy.

This year marks the first wartime presidential election in 40 years. For Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it's a particularly challenging time. Ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to take a toll on ground forces as the services try to balance today's needs with tomorrow's potential threats. Recently, Government Executive's editor in chief, Timothy B. Clark, and National Journal Staff Correspondent James Kitfield sat down with Mullen at a Government Executive Leadership Breakfast to discuss some of the issues he faces. An edited transcript of the interview follows:

Q: Let's start with Defense Secretary Robert Gates' recent complaint about getting the military services to focus on winning today's war.

A: Clearly, his frustration centers on the fact that we have been unable to move rapidly enough to provide what is certainly one of the top critical enablers to fight these two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that is the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Being able to get to a target to take the kind of action we need as rapidly as possible is a very real requirement. There has been a tremendous amount of progress in support of the current fights with respect to use of unmanned vehicles, small ones to big ones. And we invest heavily in that now, and I think we will in the future. That said, I also believe that the resurgence of human intelligence is a really important part of what's going on. And you can't get it all from manned or unmanned vehicles. I'm encouraged by the resurgence in human intelligence, and I think we need to continue to invest there as well.

Q: Afghanistan, Pakistan-you were recently there. You said al Qaeda is there plotting new attacks on America.

A: The leadership of al Qaeda is clearly in the [federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan]. And that, of course, creates great tension. The leaders I have talked to in Pakistan understand [U.S. concerns]. The question is how we will continue to work together in order to address those concerns. Q: There is concern about losing midcareer officers. You have all these obligations around the world, plus you are trying to expand the force. What are the key pressures?

A: My first priority in Afghanistan is to get a brigade's worth of trainers in there. I am generating Afghan national army forces and I need to have trainers to assist them. And then I need to have more forces available to stay at home longer. [We're] increasing the size of the Marine Corps and increasing the size of the Army, but I am not going to achieve that for the next two to three years, so I don't have those forces available. Not just available, but trained and ready to go. And in addition, I have got requirements globally to put forces in other places in small numbers, but there is pressure there as well.

Recruitingwise, we continue to do well. As far as retention is concerned, all the services are achieving their numbers. I sat down with about 15 to 20 captains yesterday and talked to them about their careers and their expectations, and most of them indicated they're going to stay in. But they're concerned about the pace, the number of deployments. We're watching this very carefully. If we start to really hemorrhage [junior officers], we'll be working our way out of that hole for 10 or 15 years.

Q: You have said you're worried about conventional capabilities "atrophying" because of ongoing operations. Gates has been saying we must focus first on winning the wars at hand. Can you put that tension in perspective?

A: I think we need to continue the focus on irregular warfare and counterinsurgency, and we're not far enough down the road on that by any means. Irregular warfare and all aspects of it will be with us for the foreseeable future-out the next couple of decades for sure. We've also got to make sure we don't take our eye off the ball for the long term. We've got to continue to evolve and invest in [conventional capabilities]. That's the big challenge.

Q: And in terms of the conventional capabilities, does that imply a commitment to the full scale of weapons programs that we are now undertaking?

A: It certainly applies to a significant number of them. Without getting into specifics, there are many who believe we are not as far out in front technologically as we used to be. [But] I am extremely concerned about the spiraling cost of these programs. If that continues, they will collapse of their own weight, and we can't afford that.

Q: Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised the flag quite publicly that Chinese military investment made him nervous. Secretary Gates seems to be intent on calming down some of the rhetoric. Has China changed its behavior?

A: My perspective is we need to continue to develop the military-military relationship, and actually it is evolving. I do have a concern about the amount of [Chinese] investment in defense, and it's not just the amount, it's where it's being invested. Some of the stuff's pretty high-end; it's the ballistic missile piece of this, the warhead piece of it. The strategic intent is not clear.

Q: The Iraq war is a huge issue in this presidential election. We have what seems like a stark choice between Sen. John McCain, who is saying we are going to stay in this until we win it, and Sen. Barack Obama, who is saying, 'I want our major combat forces out in 16 months.' When I look at what has happened in the last year, the difference between those two positions may be smaller than people realize.

A: I think clearly, based on [improved security in Iraq], that the potential to narrow that gap is pretty significant.

Q: How concerned are you about the fact that it usually takes four to five months for administrations to fully stock their staffs in all these different agencies?

A: It is really important that we be vigilant in this time of transition and change, given the world that we're living in. I'm working hard to try to understand what the range of [potential threats and] possibilities are to be able to advise the senior civilian leaders in our government. The Joint Staff is standing up a transition team to try to focus on these issues so we can make this transition as smooth as possible and as rapidly as possible.

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