Stress Test

From war to WikiLeaks, Gen. James Cartwright has one of the most complex portfolios in government.

In December, Government Executive Editor at Large Timothy B. Clark and Senior Correspondent Katherine McIntire Peters spoke with Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss challenges the Pentagon is facing. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion, part of Government Executive's ongoing leadership briefing series:

On the stress of two wars:

What we're trying to understand here is what is it that keeps you able to refresh your engine, so to speak. Each of the services seem to find a norm in a different way. The naval services have all centered around rotations that occur on about a seven-month [combat rotation] with at least twice that at home, and that seems to keep the balance in your life. We asked the most challenged of our services, the Army, to come to that equation in war because they were really not a rotational force. [The Army has] wandered from 15-month tours to one-year tours; now we're starting to look at nine-month [tours] and trying to bring the infrastructure in line with that so that during that training period when they're home there is time to actually be home. We're trying to do that in stride. That's difficult at best.

On a recent Armed Forces Surveillance Center report that 767,290 active-duty military personnel have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder in the past decade:

We're working our way through it. What we're learning is that there is a period of recovery that can occur and in some [cases, individuals] cross a threshold where that recovery either has to be aided, or it has to be strengthened, or may have to [involve] treatment that is lifelong. What are the conditions that contribute to going across one of those thresholds? We've got basic data. Now we need to find the data and parse it in a way that we can actually act on it.

On whether the military is painting an overly optimistic picture of progress in Afghanistan:

We are making adjustments and have been making adjustments and always will make adjustments to what has been a predominately counterinsurgency strategy. But it's balanced by a counterterrorism strategy. The challenge that emerges in Afghanistan is that of the phenomenon of safe havens across borders. We needed to reduce those lines of communication, stop that flow to the best of our ability, and that's been one of our bigger challenges. So the balance of the force that was really more weighted toward counterinsurgency now is starting to shift and has been shifting, under Gen. David Petraeus, to have an element of counterterrorism larger than what we probably thought we were going to [need] when we started. That is to cut off those lines of communication, cut off the resupply, stop the enemy from maneuvering. That shift now has started to take effect.

Are you winning the battles and losing the war? Or are you, in fact, understanding the strategics inside this equation and trying to bring the tactical and the strategic in line with each other so that the objectives tend to be the same in reinforcing each other? That's the question we're trying to assess our way through.

On operations in Pakistan:

I believe that if you just stepped back three or four years, we probably never would have expected the Pakistani government and military to have been as aggressive in working through this problem as they've been. Is it where we want it to be? Is it good enough? That's part of the assessment. This issue of sanctuary has probably been the most significant tactical issue that we have struggled with. That's a major part of the problem.

On controlling information in the wake of WikiLeaks:

We're trying to do the triage as quickly as we can to make sure that it doesn't happen again. Our IT systems tended to follow the commercial model; you know, just get it out there and get it ubiquitous as quickly as you can. Now the question is how do you, at least for the military, redesign these networks to be defensible, to be manageable, to carry very sensitive information that has competitive advantage in it in a way that is not just an increment better but is an order of magnitude better than what we have today?

We're starting to put those networks together that know that Pfc. Cartwright is Pfc. Cartwright when he logs in, that it's Pfc. Cartwright no matter where he is in the world, and he has certain identity criteria and he has a certain role. All of those things are the types of information that need to be now associated with that identity- role-based and identity-based. Get that into the system so that we know who is there. And the system is instrumented so when anomalous behavior occurs . . . somebody will stop and they will say, "Wait a minute, is this really you?" How do we get that kind of technology into the networks as soon as we can?

On the seriousness of WikiLeaks' release of a list of key sites deemed critical to U.S. national security:

The critical infrastructure piece is important. It basically is: Here are the throughput nodes to move people and equipment; here are the throughput nodes to move information. The issue is if [terrorists] know that, then that becomes a nice target. But [during the past three years] we have moved aggressively to distribute and defuse and move out on those nodes. I think if you're a terrorist, you'd look at it. I'm telling you that we have tried to mitigate that to best of our ability. And most of that mitigation has, in fact, been put in place.

On whether the recent WikiLeaks release is a setback for information sharing across government:

It could be. My job is to make sure that it isn't [a setback] in areas where it is absolutely necessary to maintain competitive advantage, and in areas where we can afford to take a little more time, to slow it down and make sure that we don't do anything stupid while we do the forensics of what happened.

On how the military would implement the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy:

If the law changes, we will lead implementation. It's really a question of, are you going to try to do this in the field, in combat? Or are you going to give us the time [to implement the change through normal training rotations]? I tend to believe that the promise of a future when it is going to be convenient is a promise that we can't really wait for. I think we can come up with an implementation strategy that we can start on whenever the law is repealed, and we'll have a reasonable period of time and a reasonable set of circumstances that will allow us to implement this now rather than on the promise of some ambiguous future.

On Defense Secretary Robert Gates' directive to cut $100 billion from overhead programs:

If we don't go through that drill internally, then we can't articulate to the Congress and the president what it is we really need, nor do we have the credibility to have that discussion. There is no doubt that the economic challenges we face as a nation are going to have an effect on the military- none whatsoever.

The question, though, is can we identify with a greater precision than we could in the past what is going to be essential and what is going to be nice to have. And how do you calculate that risk?

If we don't go through these drills, we really don't know. It gets masked in the money. I mean, the numbers and dollars associated with running Defense are staggering.

On recapitalizing the ground forces after two long wars:

The first thing that you want to make sure is that you don't recapitalize for the last fight. It's easy to say that. It's next to impossible to actually do that, because what you're basically asking everybody to do is get a crystal ball and guess.

On cybersecurity and the role of Cyber Command:

Let's start with the defensive side. The system was not designed to be defended, it was designed basically to be out there and anybody to plug into it that wanted to go any place they wanted to. And we've got to change that construct to one that gives us a layered defense, gives us a nonhomogenous surface, so to speak.

On the offensive side of this equation, people who watch television believe that anybody can do it. But it is incredibly difficult, and it takes incredibly detailed planning in order to operate in offensive cyberspace.

On tensions with North Korea:

What concerns me are weapons of mass destruction and the thought that that could emerge there on the peninsula and how destabilizing that would be in the region. This is a regime that certainly is not unwilling to take you up to that point of who's going to blink first. But it is a regime, over the years, that has been very calculated about their violence, very calculated to not do it in such a way that it could easily run off to war. The South Korean side of this equation is trying to understand what an appropriate response would be-how to de-escalate the activity but not to appear that they have just caved. A collapse of North Korea is not in anybody's interest. War is not in anybody's interest.

On China's influence with North Korea:

Both [China and the United States] are third parties. The principals are the North and the South. They make their own decisions. The key, in my judgment, is to ensure that there is a good and honest dialogue between those who are not the direct participants. Can we find consensus on those things that will stabilize the situation, and then is there a way forward? Is there a way to change this pattern of violence?

On the relationship between Russia and NATO:

To look at Russia only from the standpoint of the military is probably not getting the whole picture. The energy side of that equation is pretty significant when it comes to Europe, and how that interface will work and how that relationship starts to mature. Russia could be such a significant contributor to the stability, to the economy, to everything else and vice versa. My hope would be that those realizations start to come to pass.

We had challenges and have challenges in areas like deterrence with missile defense in our relationship with the Russians. We need to work through that and get to a level of transparency and trust that comes with a deterrent strategy that is beyond mutual assured destruction to something more realistic to the threats that we're facing in the 21st century. I think that opportunity's in front of us. I hope we can grasp it while we've got the chance.

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