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General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. interview with Bloomberg during a recent tour of the region

Press Operations

July 9, 2020 PRINT | E-MAIL

Tony Capaccio I'm actually pretty good. I've not been to the Pentagon since early March, so maybe that's a blessing.

General McKenzie Maybe it is a blessing. I've been up there several times in and out for meetings with just flying up and back the same day. But I'm in the AOR. In fact, I just finished a visit to PSAB, where I had the opportunity to visit our THADD and one of the Patriot batteries. So, that's on my mind right now. And I understand that's what you want to talk to me about?

Tony Capaccio Yeah. So I've been following this issue for like a decade now on and off in terms of the division of the integrated air defense system that combines. And so where are we now today? I was looking at it in 2016, a speech in the UAE from a State Department official who said the ball basically is in your court GCC in terms of this ballistic missile, early warning vision. So what would be the optimal kind of architecture there now and where are you now in terms of reaching that architecture?

General McKenzie Sure. So, what you really want ultimately is the ability to commonly share an operational picture across all the GCC states for them to share that information. And for them to be able to act based on threat, threat input. So we are not there yet. And I'll tell you, I'll go further. Tony, when I was there when I was the J5 at CENTCOM from 2010 to 2012, this was a goal of ours at that time. So I think though that things in the last year have sort of helped us a little bit move toward that goal. So, you know, multilateral architecture requires us really to begin with multiple, multiple bilateral sharing architectures. And so we got that between, you know, the U.S., the number of individual nations in the region. And over the last 12 months, I think we've done some really good work at that. And I think the natural interlocutor for that is the United States, because everybody has a certain trust of us and our intensions in the region. And we're the partner choice across most of the region. On the plus side, as you know, countries out here, buy a lot of high end U.S. systems and they're only capable of linking to and integrating with our systems. So based on the threats that we've seen over the last year or so, there's a lot of motivation from regional nations to share and link data with the U.S., which is a very positive sign. So because of the high operational security that we have on our systems and the data our systems provide, we have a difficult process to evaluate, ensure the security of each partner system before we can truly link those together. So we're moving in that direction. We've got a ways to go yet. But I am I'm probably more positive about it than I've been in a while because I think the motivation is there from the nations now.

Tony Capaccio Because of Iran, obviously.

General McKenzie Oh absolutely. Those the guys are the guys that are firing ballistic missiles.

Tony Capaccio What would the architecture look like if it was optimal? Would with each REOD in the UAE and Qatar, would they would they be shared screens that would show, you know, icons or imagery over Iran? What would it look like?

General McKenzie You know, in a perfect world you'd like to get to a point where you have a common operational picture and everybody sees that common operational picture, because, you know, Tony, that is the huge advantage of the U.S. approach. You know, I was in a I was in a battery today and looking at the look at what they're seeing in the batteries. If I went and look at a battery in Saudi Arabia, then I went into a battery in Jordan or a battery in it, you name a place. I would see the same image across the theater because, you know, we're very good at moving that data across and that that is a that is a hallmark of the United States and our allies way of war, that we are in the process of working with our partners out here to get them acculturated to that approach, because that really is what you want to be able to do, because once you have a common operational picture, then you can decide how to place resources, who's best positioned to engage. But you begin with the flow of information and knowledge. That's the foundation upon which everything else follows.

Tony Capaccio OK, well, in your posture statement this year, that's where I got the tip. You talked about our GCC partners contribute to interoperability. And you say Link 16 provides a combined integrated air picture. Are they starting to buy Link 16 as a technical bridge to pull things together?

General McKenzie We are beginning to work Link 16 with them. There are high hurdles for Link 16 very high hurdles because we always have to protect our network first. So as I said, you know, it started when we began talking. There is an arduous process to be certified outside of CENTCOM to make sure that information is safe and can be it can be treated appropriately. But yes, we're moving in that direction. They have the capability to do you know, they have the nascent capability to do it now. We're working with them and really sort of leading with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia first to demonstrate their capability. And they're making some strides in that in that direction. We're helping them a lot. But they recognize because, you know, Saudi now faces a dual axis threat, if you will. You know, they're getting hit all the time from Yemen, from the Houthis with both balistic missiles as well as air breathing systems, and then they have a very significant threat from Iran. And of course, last last fall, they got hit by air breathing systems from Iran. So they're very much aware of the multi axis threat that they face. And that requires that you handle your assets in the most efficient way possible and to handle it efficiently you've got to have situational awareness, and that means the ability to transfer data rapidly, to make decisions and to have redundancy in the way you do it. They recognize that because they have an object lesson in it. They also see the way that we do it in the fact, you know, our patriot systems that are in Saudi now are also work very closely with, you know, with our Saudi friends and helps share that information as well. So there are a lot of initiatives that are underway to beginning with Saudi, but other nations as well out here to make sure that we have the ability to develop that common operational picture and all that flows from it.

Tony Capaccio If we were using a baseball analogy, what inning are we in in terms of a GCC common operating picture at being in operation?

General McKenzie Yeah, we're not in the seventh inning stretch yet, Tony. You know, but we're probably we're finishing in the early innings. You know, I say we played three and and we like where we are. We think we're a you know, we've got a pitcher with a low pitch count since you want to use a baseball analogy. And we kind of like where we are in the game. And I think there's opportunity because here's the thing, they see the threat. Everybody sees the threat. And that that is a powerful agent for focusing people's attention.

Tony Capaccio What equipment needs are there? What do they need to buy from either the U.S. or European countries companies to further the integration.

General McKenzie Sure. So, actually, you know, Saudi Arabia has a very healthy number of Patriot systems right now. There's some technical things that we can work with them on to improve their ability flow data through these systems. But they've gotten most of those systems now. So it's not so much necessarily purchasing new systems as it is optimizing information flow and using the full capacity of some of the systems that they've gotten now. Again, I'm confident Saudi Arabia would like to have more Patriots if they can have it. They have a lot of targets and foes that are very close, but they have a good number of Patriots. What they really need to do is improve, and they are doing this, improving the processes for moving and sharing information to make the systems that they've got more effective.

Tony Capaccio Okay, this is moving and sharing the information within their own nation or with Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE?

General McKenzie So what you would do is you would begin with single nations and then what you'd want to do is move from there. As I said, the way we do it is bilateral, bilateral. And then we go multilateral. And so, you know, so you go Saudi Arabia, you go UAE. You know, there are other obviously other Gulf states that would be players in that as well. And that, you know, that also requires them to trust each other and they've got to be willing to share that information. And those are ultimately national decisions. And those aren't decisions that are going to be made by uniformed officers. Those are natural political decisions that are going to have to be made. You know, the other thing that is very hopeful in this domain is early warning. And that's actually where we are very helpful with them because we you know, we have systems and other capabilities to give early queuing and tipping that's very helpful to them. And we try to do that when we can.

Tony Capaccio So what I'm trying to get at here, there's been political impediments over the last decade to try to do that, to pull together a common operating picture among all the nation's sovereignty issues. Do you see those sovereignty walls kind of dropping?

General McKenzie I think we're at. I think I look, I've been doing this for now 10 years. And I know that, as you know, you've been following this for a long time yourself. I think we're in the best place we've ever been to get to a to a multilateral shared information environment here. I just think we are because here's why the threat is now very real. You know, the Iranians have attacked. They have launched ballistic missiles into Iraq. They have launched an attributable large cruise missile attack in Saudi Arabia from Iranian soil. And not daily, but certainly weekly and sometimes more than more than weekly attacks are being launched into Saudi Arabia from Yemen. So those things all together tend to make you concentrate on a threat in a way that perhaps wasn't evident 10 years ago. That combined with just the aggressive build out of the Iranian ballistic missile program, and they are aggressively building new systems and deploying as rapidly as they can. All of those things, I think that have had ever have had a affect on the psyche of the various nations out here. They realize that a collective approach is best. Look, I'm not going to oversell it. There are sovereignty issues. There are issues that are unique to each nation. And we're not through all of those yet. But I think we're the best place we've been.

Tony Capaccio Okay. That's pretty good but since the attack, the Aramco attacks, what progress has Saudi Arabia made internally to improve its air defense systems?

General McKenzie A couple of things. First of all, you know, there are a lot of extenuating circumstances with a lack of success here in the Aramco attack. And the other thing is. The Saudis are actually very effective at defending against ballistic missile and other attacks from Yemen. So, you know, last last summer the the Iranian attack was a surprise. We were not we were not expecting a state launched attack against against Saudi Arabia. They were not expecting it. And they came in, you know they did it a couple of clever things in the way they attacked it and that made it and that made the attack very effective. I would say it would be harder for Iran to generate that kind of surprise this time. Now, meanwhile, the Saudis are getting shot at very frequently by a combination of ballistic missiles and other air breathing threats from from from Yemen. And they're effective against those attacks. They're very effective, actually. They are set the majority of those strikes and very recently, the success with those. Now, look, missiles get through because it's the nature of the game. You know, but they're they're having good success against them. So I'm actually I think the Saudis are actually doing pretty good work using their systems when we work with them on that. You know, we talked about better ways to do it. As I've noted before, share information. The fact you've got to be able to, any battery has got to be able to fire on a multi, have a multi axis approach. The Saudis are working that now. They're actually quite competent at that. So a lot of things are a lot of things are going on. So I am actually impressed, frankly, with the Saudis, with the Saudis ability to, you know, to react to the new threat. And they've opened up the design of their system to consultation with us. And that's where we've had a chance to talk about them, of how you share information, the way you want to do that. And so they've been very open to us. And I've got a lot of people that are working with the Saudis to, you know, to provide fixes to their systems.

Tony Capaccio Well, I want I want to I'm a techie in some of this. Do they have tech 3s in the new MSE missile or do they rely on the old tech 2s?

General McKenzie You know, Tony, I don't know the answer to that. I'm not a techie and I don't have that information. But I'll tell you what I'll add if I can get it for you. I'll get it for you, OK.

Tony Capaccio It would be useful to know. The MSE is the current, is the latest model it would be useful if they had some of those. What about counter drone technologies? Are they in light of the attack? Have they beefed up? Are they beefing up their counter drone air defenses?

General McKenzie They are as we are. And I will tell you, you know, Tony, I think you might have heard me say this. I think I said it's the Middle East Institute. The thing that worries me the most right now in the theater is not necessarily the ballistic missiles. It is the small drone. It is the you know, it's the it's the Costco purchase drone. It's the quad contra drone, because if you could see it with a larger radar cross section, we can engage it with traditional measures. But what worries me is the one that's much smaller, that is really cheap, relatively cheap to buy. It's going to be launched relatively close to the target. And it would be a precursor attack for a follow on attack, one that, for example, might be designed for missile radars and take out a critical link. So of all the technical threats I face in this theater, Tony, the one that actually worries me the most is the small U.A.S. drone attack or either a swarm attack or a highly precise single strike. And that really worries me. And so, you know, we're investing in a lot of technology to solve that problem. I do not believe we have solved the problem yet. And it's not you know, I think making the Army the executive agent is a very good step because I know they are keenly focused on it. And, you know, the threat, certainly not just in CENTCOM AOR, although in several areas where we see the most kinetic, lethal use of it. But the threat is global and we've got to get ahead of this. And I still think right now we're on the wrong side. The cost imposition curve when it comes to this kind of war. You know, look, there are all kinds of techniques out there. You know, when when when the Boxer came through the Strait of Hormuz. Well, I guess late last summer and we had success with a drone there. Well, that was good. And you'd like to be able to replicate that everywhere. You know, I just don't know that we can do that everywhere. And I think there's a there's a ways to go on this. And we haven't yet cracked the code on it. And again, it's not a lack of spending. It's not the lack of organization, because I think we've got the organization right. We're just not there yet.

Tony Capaccio Well, this begs the question would a common operating picture in the Middle East, the GCC nations, not only include ballistic missiles, but also the ability to pick up drones.

General McKenzie So, yeah. So you're common operating picture would give you, it would give you anything your sensors could see. You know the good news is in the partner network, we'll be able to filter that. But but theoretically, you'd want to be able to share as much information as you can. So it becomes less a problem of what you put in the Link 16 to share and more a problem of what can your sensors have the granularity to pick up? And, you know, there all kinds of sensors out there. All of them are not necessarily, you know, skin paint sensors. So we all kinds of data and we try to fuze that. And so we're working that way. Again, I am not you know, I'm pretty confident I can see a large UAV coming across. I'm less confident I can see a very small, you know, very small RF signature drone at low altitude. You know maybe its coming from a direction we did not anticipate because it's been brought in circuitously or surreptitiously into the country that they're going to get after some direction we were expecting.

 

Tony Capaccio So I have to ask you this question, do you have any new ones in the works for counter drone technologies or have any been introduced to the theater in the last month or two?

General McKenzie I think we've got all kinds of stuff that are working. Tony, I'll have Bill get with you on that. Tell you what we've got. I take a brief on this frequently. And I examine all kinds of emerging technologies. They push them out for us to test. They're very good about that. So I'll have Bill dig and see if we can get you something.

Tony Capaccio Hey one thing on The Patriot, you remember they're running narrative last year was that the Patriot system. The Saudis had invested billions in failed. What's the bottom line here in terms of how well it performed?

General McKenzie I don't agree with that. I think the Saudis I think the Saudi Patriots perform well frequently, frequently against against Houthie attacks. I mean, last week or within the last two weeks, they intercepted a ballistic missile. So I think they actually perform well and not only against ballistic missiles, but also against air breathing targets as well. So I think Saudi Patriot system works pretty good. So I would reject this. I would reject that the system failed. If there's a failure, it's a failure of sensors. You know, Saudi Arabia is a big country that can be attacked for multiple access, multiple axes. And you don't always have sensors where you want to have them. So, you know, a smart guy like like Iran can sort a game where you aren't where you aren't and find a way to enter, you know, then the smart defender. You've got to reposition. You know, we've helped the Saudis. We brought in some radar assets to help them as well. So you sort of reposition. But I will tell you, I think the Saudi patriots actually are a success story. That is my assessment.

Tony Capaccio Alright so it would be unfair to blame them, any Patriot failures, for the Aramco, the attack, in terms of the success it had.

General McKenzie Yeah you would never know if you're if you're if you're the United States of Saudi Arabia, you never want to say there's a good news story associated with a Aramco. But I don't think it was a failure or the Patriots. I think it was a failure. Well, first of all, you know, the bad guy occasionally has a good it has a good idea, you know, and has a good way to get in there. And so censors didn't get it. And maybe when they did get it, it wasn't acted upon in a timely enough manner. And I think the Saudis are good at learning those lessons. And I think they're very attentive to make sure that, you know, if you see anything out there at all, you need to investigate. You need to be ready to take a look at it. And so I think there they've actually taken that lesson to heart. I think it would be a lot harder to pull that kind of attack off now. Not impossible, certainly, but a lot harder to have that kind of attack twice.

Tony Capaccio OK. Could you do a round robin in the region here in terms of we know Saudi's capability, UAE, Qatar or Kuwait, do they all had the hardware? Did they have the necessary SADS and Patriots in place to be able to benefit from a common operating picture? I know UAE has got like SADS and Patriots.

General McKenzie I mean, I guess, you know, the highest other high end partner, of course, would be UAE, you know, they're very capable, as you noted, they have THAD, and that gives them great capability.

So I think they have all the capabilities they need. It's a matter of procedures. It's a matter of becoming comfortable sharing that information and we're moving in that direction. I think Kuwait has great capability. We're working with them to share that information as well. And, you know, the third state there, look, as you know, the Gulf Rift has had an effect on relations with Qatar. and there's not much I do about that. That's unfortunate because that's a hole that you'd like to be able to fix, because they purchased a lot of Patriot systems and they have a lot of very good high end systems. And it would be good if we can integrate them. That's an example of a natural natural, a national issue that we're just going to have to work here in the theater and in the you know, the United States is not going to have a lot to do with that, the partners here in the region are going to have to come to a solution on that.

Tony Capaccio I need to ask too, is Israel, I know they're not in your AOR, but what's Israel Israel's role in terms of a common operating picture for the Gulf? Do don't have any.

General McKenzie At the unclassified level, we certainly are interested in Israel, as you noted, though, they are not in our AOR.

And they're not really part of the architecture that we're discussing now. You know, that would be something perhaps at some point in the future. But for right now, they are not part of that architecture.

Tony Capaccio Bloomberg caters to, well not caters too, but companies read us, investors read us. What role do you see for the Lockheed, Raytheons, L3s of the world or you British Aerospace of the world in terms of providing the command and control architecture that would be needed?

General McKenzie There is a I think there's gonna be a great market in this theater for systems and capabilities that are going to allow multilateral collective action, because that's the future. I mean, the geography demands it. The threat demands it. If we're gonna if we're going to prevail. Against Iran, should it come to that? And I hope it doesn't. Everybody's got to be able to cooperate. Everybody's going to be all play together. And you're going to have to have the systems in place to do that. So I think there's got to be a great requirement for that.

Tony Capaccio Do you see any one or two systems types of systems in particular over the next year or two that companies may have an opportunity to sell?

General McKenzie I'm not going to do that, Tony. I'll pass on that. Thank you.

Tony Capaccio I got a couple of things about Iran itself. There's a general quiet in the region right now. What do you attribute that to? I know. I know you've talked to Ignatius and others about the effect of COVID. But, you know, just two weeks later, things seem to be quiet. What do you attribute it to?

General McKenzie I think that we you know, we're we're in a period of what I call contested deterrence, where Iran recognizes that we have the capability in the theater to make it very painful for them to launch a direct or an indirect attack against either us or one of our partners or allies in the region. And so I think as a result of that, they're still processing what they want to do here at the same time. Iran is still pursuing, in my view, a long term vision of ejecting the United States from theatre and our allies as well. All of the Western nations that are in here, and I think they seen the main battleground for that being in Iraq. And early this year, I think they thought they had a political solution to make that happen. I do not believe they no longer recognize that they have a political solution. So I think Iran is going through some decision making about are they going to try to apply kinetic force to get us out of Iraq, because that's the main battleground where these things play out. Is it going to be, you know, attacks on our bases there through through their proxies, the SMGs? So I think that's one of the things they're looking at right now. But in the meantime, because of the force posture that we have in the theater, because these additional systems that we brought in, because of a variety of things we have, we have reestablished deterrence. And obviously part of that also is the disarray that Iranian decision making is in because of two things. First, the loss Sulimani. And secondly, the penetration of COVID at great levels all throughout all of Iranian society.

Tony Capaccio Well, what are you on the alert for in terms of the indications that this period of quiet may be ending?

General McKenzie I'll tell you, first of all, you know, I remember well the lesson of last fall where we were in a relative period of quiet and bang they attacked Aramco. So I draw no confidence from periods of quiet. You know, that's when I actually begin to look very hard at what the Iranians might be up to, because I think they still have they still have long term goals to eject us. So I think that, you know, they are deterred because in the mind of the opponent, the Iranians, they believe that the goals that they desire, ejection of the United States from the theater will be more painful than the possibility of attaining it, the value of attaining it and that's classic deterrence theory. So I think that's what we're operating under right now is sort of that model. However, I do believe that they still hew to that line and they like to do it. So I don't think I don't think it's over yet. I think right now you're correct. It is. It is kind of quiet and. But I think part of that is just they're still on their heels a little bit from January. And and I think there's still sorting themselves out and what they want to do as a result that.

Tony Capaccio So I need to ask you too, the president's message or tweet from a few weeks, a month or so ago about U.S. troops, U.S. ships which would shoot small boats out of the water. Rhetoric aside, has that had an impact on Iran's behavior.

General McKenzie Well, OK, so, first of all, I have enormous confidence in my commanders here in the theater. Jim Lloyd, the Fleet Commander and then the ship captains that are out there. They have a robust, very good ROE. And and so we're you know, we're we're the U.S. Navy. We're the best navy in the world. We operate anywhere that we go. We're very good at it. The Iranians, Iranian and the IRGC Navy are two different elements. The Iranian Navy tries to be professional, the IRGC Navy, you know, you've got to you got to take what you get out there. They are amatuers at sea. And sometimes that can be very dangerous. But I have great confidence in the decision making ability of my commanders. And I believe we have the ROE we need to defend ourselves anywhere we operate.

Tony Capaccio OK, one quick Russia bounty question. In your interview the other day, you said that you had your people investigating the intelligence or looking into the intelligence. Where does that stand and what would you hope to gain from that additional review?

General McKenzie Well, look, any time there's a potential threat against U.S. forces. We are relentless running that down. So we do it every day. We look we look at this, we examine it and we examine many other threats as well. So this is a continual process, Tony, of going forward. As long as there is an American in Afghanistan, we will be absolutely relentless in ensuring we do everything we can to make he or her safe.

Tony Capaccio Well, this threat stream, though, that, you know, has obviously got tons of publicity here. Is it accurate to say you're asking your intelligence people to continue to run it down?

General McKenzie Oh, yeah. We run lots of streams down. We are continuing to evaluate it just like we evaluate many other streams of intelligence. We always do that.

Tony Capaccio One final question on the GCC issue. Going back to the common operating picture. Do you have a timeline here. You're thinking a year or two or even earlier than that, even though you're the you're the second or third inning now.

General McKenzie I think in another year. I think we'll see some differences, I think in a year. We'll certainly have significant improvements in our interconnectivity with Saudi Arabia. And that'll be sort of the, you know, the bell count for everybody else.

Tony Capaccio OK. So you don't see within a year that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait will have a common operating picture? That's maybe a bridge too far for a year from now?

General McKenzie So it won't be because we're not trying Tony.

Tony Capaccio OK, but within a year you'd like to see better connectivity between the U.S. and Saudi, and that could be a model.

General McKenzie That brings everybody else along.. So I don't want to put a time on it because I'll tell you, we're operating under a sense of pressure here where we could be attacked anytime. So I don't want to throw distant timelines out there because I think keeping it closer keeps my team more focused and pressurized on the problem at hand.