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TRANSCRIPT – General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. AEI engagement April 28th, 2021
Elaine McCusker: Just under two weeks ago, President Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by this September. Also, earlier this month, the White House Office of Management and Budget released a short summary of its FY22 discretionary budget request. Of not the FY22 number of seven hundred and fifteen billion for the Defense Department is 27 billion below, just three percent real growth recommended by the National Defense Strategy Commission. Its seven billion below the soft lock from last winter. It does not keep up with inflation. The request also proposes to put all of the overseas contingency operations spending, which supports most of the activities in the Middle East, including direct war cost into the base budget. General McKenzie: did somewhat of a marathon of congressional and press engagements last week. I know we will hit on topics covered last week, but also expect to hit on something that were not. General McKenzie: brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table on a range of subjects and most especially on the Middle East. In just the last 10 years he was the CENTCOM director of Strategy, Plans and Policy, the MARCENT commander and director of Strategic Plans and Policy on the Joint Staff and the director of the Joint Staff. He has been the CENTCOM commander for just over two years although maybe he can tell us about how long that feels. General McKenzie, thank you again for being here and over to you for some comments.
General McKenzie: Thanks, Elaine. Let me just begin by saying what a pleasure it is to share this virtual stage with you and to speak to AEI today. I get a lot out of exchanges such as this, but they're even more enjoyable when they're moderated by old neighbors and friends. So, thanks very much for the invitation. As a former director of its Resources and Analysis Directorate, you're well aware there's never a dull moment at U.S. Central Command, neither in the headquarters or certainly in the area of responsibility. CENTCOM is the only combatant command that is in routine kinetic contact with America's adversaries. This will not change following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Our operations to defeat violent extremism will continue across the area of responsibility, as will our efforts to deter Iran from further destabilizing the region. As I testified to Congress last week, CENTCOM's area of responsibility is the world's most contested electromagnetic battlespace, as well as the proving ground for an array of unmanned weapons systems. On a near daily basis, we witness attacks by unmanned aerial systems, that I believe portend the future of armed conflict. In more than one regard, I think it's fair to describe the CENTCOM AOR as a fulcrum. In an older sense, its geostrategic importance is historically obvious and enduring. 50 percent of the world's oil and natural gas originates here, and the recent accidental closure of the Suez Canal highlighted the importance of the region's waterways to global commerce. And it's no surprise at all that we're seeing accelerated efforts by China and Russia to establish bases and expand ties in the region. But it's also a fulcrum in the sense that it illustrates better than any other AOR, at least in my opinion, the opportunities to balance the requirements of the present with the needs of the future. At CENTCOM, we operate under the theory that operational deployments are not sunk costs that come in expense of readiness for other missions. In fact, what we've seen at CENTCOM is that deployments into the region have often enhanced readiness for the simple reason that our challenging, contested operational environment offers opportunities for realistic training that frankly exist nowhere else in the world. Our air and maritime components have been able to develop and test new concepts for the agile combat employment of aircraft. While our ground forces component has been exploring innovative concepts for expeditionary basing that improve the survivability and sustainability of the force. And thanks to the contributions of allies and partners in the region, we're able to pursue these innovations and learn these lessons in a coalition framework that enhances interoperability and capacity. It's a point of pride with my component commanders and myself, for that matter, that units outchopping from the CENTCOM AOR are often at a higher state of readiness than when they arrived. The most important consequence of these efforts is that they accomplish our assigned mission of deterring adversaries and countering rivals in the region in support of whole of government initiatives to protect vital U.S. interests and enhance regional security and stability. But the insights we gained about the evolving character of armed conflict are invaluable byproducts of our day to day operations. Not too long ago, complex attacks by unmanned aerial systems designed to overwhelm air and missile defense networks. Highly mobile, precise ballistic missiles and fifth generation electronic jamming capabilities were all the stuff of future war games. These are daily challenges in the CENTCOM AOR, which provides hard data and important insights about future force requirements. It's therefore possible, I believe, to achieve balance. A balance that allows us to deter today and win tomorrow. The harder problem to solve across the joint force is how to allocate limited resources to the various combatant commands in a manner that maintains this balance while allowing the combatant commanders to accomplish their missions. We have a very good process for doing this, and what it is, is a global force management allocation plan, what we call the GFMAP. Inevitably, not all of the services and combatant commanders are going to be happy with the results of the process. But I will tell you, as a former joint staff, J5 and the director of the Joint Staff itself, that the process is sound. The GFMAP is a plan, a plan to allocate forces in alignment with strategic priorities and based on the department's anticipated operating environment. When combatant commanders find themselves in a different operating environment, we make requests to adjust the plan. Over the past several years, the Joint Staff has enhanced the secretary of defense's ability to do so with concepts such as global integration and dynamic force employment. But the fact remains that the forces are going to have to come from somewhere, and someone is likely to feel that they're getting the raw end of the bargain. Oftentimes it's the services, and I'll acknowledge that a natural tension exists between them, the force providers and the combatant commands that employ their assets. I understand and empathize with the service's position, but at the same time, it's worth remembering that combatant commanders do not generate the missions assigned to us. They are assigned to us by the secretary of defense and guided by the National Security Strategy of the United States and subordinate documents. In the present case by the President's interim national security strategic guidance. Based on these directions and guidance, I determine and request the forces required to accomplish the missions assigned to me. The Joint Staff and the chairman will weigh these against the request of the other combatant commanders and make recommendations to the secretary. But in the end, it's the secretary advised by both the Joint Staff and his senior civilian leadership who makes the final decision about allocation of forces with a full view of global force requirements, the health services and policy implications. As a geographic combatant commander, my preference may well be to receive additional resources that fill identified capability gaps. And that's the preference of every other combatant commander as well. Another source of friction in the process is the fact that challenges to our national security don't always accommodate themselves to our unified command plan or UCP, in shorthand. The document that establishes the mission's responsibilities and geographic areas of responsibility for commanders of the combatant commands. We've recently updated this plan, moving Israel from the European command area of responsibility to that of CENTCOM. This change brings the department more into line with the State Department's delineation of responsibility for diplomacy in the Middle East and it presents new opportunities. Opportunities for enhancing regional stability and security cooperation. This is a case in which, when it comes to working with friends and allies, it's relatively easy to make the UCP work for us. But strategic competitors with global reach don't confine their activities to one region of the world or another. This is especially true of Russia and China, which follow the EUCOM and INDOPACOM areas of responsibilities on our maps, but which in reality are exerting influence around the world and increasingly in the CENTCOM area, which is key terrain in the global sense. They each have their own goals, but neither of them are aligned with U.S. interests or the international rules-based order. Russia is in the region because it perceives opportunities to challenge this order while gaining warm water ports that allow it to contest freedom of navigation in the Middle East. China is playing a longer game that involves economic deals that are very enticing up front but carry substantial costs down the road. Ultimately, China hopes to supplant the United States as the partner of choice in the region and is making inroads wherever it sees opportunities, whether with the sale of military equipment, the provision of COVID vaccines or offers of debt trap development contracts. The president explicitly cited the need to shore up the nation's competitiveness against such challenges from China and to confront a broader array of challenges that are global in nature. When he announced his decision to redeploy U.S. forces from Afghanistan as a result of this decision, I and my staff in Tampa are developing concepts that will preserve our ability to ensure Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorist attacks against the United States while enhancing our ability to strike terrorists and capitalize on partnerships elsewhere in the region. Meanwhile, my headquarters are working closely with that of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the NATO led Resolute Support Mission, both of which are commanded by General Scott Miller, our NATO allies and other elements of the U.S. government, all to ensure that we withdraw our forces from Afghanistan in a deliberate, synchronized manner that protects our personnel and responsibly redeploys, or gets the correct disposition of our equipment and property. The resolute support mission will at some point sunset and DOD will continue to provide Title 10 security assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces on a bilateral basis. The department is working through how we will manage this effort without personnel in Afghanistan to manage security assistance. We're also steadfastly supporting ongoing diplomatic efforts to resolve Afghanistan's long war while holding the Taliban to their part of the February 2020 commitment that they will end their relationship with al-Qaeda and prevent the use of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies. CENTCOM will do its part to guarantee this. As I testified to the Congress last week, conducting over the horizon counterterrorism operations and Afghanistan will be hard, but not impossible due to the distances involved. The point I'd like to emphasize today is that such operations are and will remain possible because of our presence and partnerships elsewhere in the region. Thanks to these, we retain the ability to base assets within range of those who would strike the homelands of the United States and our allies and partners. In some cases, redeploying us to other bases in the region may offer opportunities to enhance existing security cooperation initiatives. In others assets will be positioned where they can contribute directly to CENTCOM as other priority missions in the region. These include the ongoing efforts to eradicate ISIS in Iraq and Syria, defeat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and deter Iran from further destabilizing the region. Working closely with our partners, the Syrian democratic forces or what we call the SDF in Syria, and the Iraqi security forces, the ISF in Iraq, the coalition forces of Operation Inherent Resolve have eliminated the so-called physical caliphate of ISIS, but now contend with the thornier problems of a persistent ideology, a dedicated core that retains a global cyber reach and the ability to conduct local attacks in vulnerable populations in communities ravaged by conflict and swelling camps for displaced persons against whom ISIS praised and they spread their toxic worldview. This is one of the most urgent problems I confront today, but it's one that defies a purely military solution. There are no forces I can request from the secretary that will help here. Stabilization programs in northeast Syria, implemented by USAID and the State Department, have responded to the need for basic services. But current resources from all international donors are insufficient to meet demand, presenting opportunities for ISIS to reemerge. Meanwhile, foreign fighters in detention centers, along with foreign women and children in displaced persons camps, need to be repatriated. What's needed is a commitment and action on the part of the nations of origin of these families to repatriate, rehabilitate and reintegrate them into their communities. In the meantime, the United States and coalition partners continue to work closely with the government of Iraq and the Iraqi security forces to expand their capabilities to defend their nation against external and internal threats. A recent signal of the progress on this front was Operation Ready Lion, a 14-day counterterrorism mission conducted last month to clear ISIS remnants from mountain strongholds in northeast Iraq. Assisted by coalition air power and other enablers, Iraqi security forces planned and led an operation that eliminated nearly 200 ISIS hide locations in light of this kind of progress senior Iraqi and American officials recently held a strategic dialog during which they discussed the evolving nature of a relationship that has served the interests of both countries, and enhanced the stability of the region. But in the long term, regional stability will be affected by the role Iran chooses to play. To this point, Iran has engaged in a range of destabilizing activities in pursuit of regional hegemony. Its proxy militia groups undermine the sovereignty of Iraq, attack logistical convoys supporting coalition forces, and regularly fire upon Iraqi military bases that are hosting U.S. and coalition personnel. And while Iran itself has avoided state on state attacks on U.S. forces since the January 2020 strikes on al Assad in Erbil, it continues to menace regional partners and the free flow of commerce through the use of proxies, affiliated groups and the proliferation of armed unmanned aerial systems and other munitions. While diplomatic efforts are underway to address Iran's nuclear program and other destabilizing activities, we should be very clear that we remain in a state of contested deterrence with Iran, which continues to play a dangerous game by supporting. Proxies and affiliated groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. And these groups are often willing to take risks that Tehran is not. So long as Iran continues its material support for these groups, the region will not know true stability and security. With that, I'd like to reiterate my appreciation for the invitation to speak with you today. I hope my opening remarks have given some insights into how I see the CENTCOM area responsibility. And with that Elaine, I'm happy to take your questions and look forward to the conversation.
Elaine McCusker: Great. Thank you for those very educational comments and for participants please email your questions to (inaudible email address). Before we get into some of the issues that you raised on the GFMAP, Russia and China in the region, Afghanistan and Iran. I'd like to start with just a few questions geared towards strategic context and threats in the Middle East and kind of the global impacts. Given your history and experience in the Middle East. You've seen the evolution of threats, operations and requirements. I'd like to talk for just a few minutes, if you can, on what trends caused you the most concern? And as we used to discuss this when I was at the command, from your time as the CENTCOM J5 to now as your time as commander, what keeps you up at night?
General McKenzie: Sure. So, I would tell you, strangely, two very disparate things of what keep me up at night. Something that really concerns me is something I touched about in my remarks. It is the future of refugees and displaced persons in this area of responsibility. And here's why Elaine. I'll begin by just citing one example, the example of Al Hol camp, which is an IDP refugee camp in northeast Syria under control of our SDF partners. About 60,000 people are there, predominantly women, predominantly children, very young of age. So, they're provided a subsistence level of life there by things our USAID does, as well as other NGOs that help the people stay alive. Here's the problem, though. They are uniquely vulnerable to illness, cholera or coronavirus, because they're in a physically debilitated state. The conditions aren't good. Think of that as a tactical problem that could kill a lot of people very, very quickly. But the more strategic problem, though, is this. These children in particular are being radicalized. And unless we find a way to repatriate them, reintegrate them and de-radicalize them, we're giving ourselves a gift of fighters five to seven years down the road, and that is a profound problem. And as I noted, there's no military solution to that. What we need is a whole of government, but really a whole of nations approach to it. And it needs to be combined in many things. Nations need to take back their citizens, bring them back in. We need to find and develop ways that actually allow you to achieve de-radicalization. And that's a very hard task and it's best performed, I think, by nations in the region rather than by nations external to the region, because there are certain cultural things that I think will help as we approach that task. So that's one big problem. And it might seem kind of strange for a commander to worry about that. But I do, because it will be a military problem in a few years if we don't fix the nonmilitary aspects of it. The other one is really the small scale UAS's is that we see in the theater. I kid with my Air Force friends all the time that the future of flight is vertical and unmanned and nowhere is that more manifested in the theater right now where we see a proliferation of these tools. And the United States is going to great lengths to prepare to defend ourselves and our partners and allies against these types of threats. But we're still largely on the wrong side of the cost imposition curve. Iran operates these systems and invested a great deal of time and resources into it, but also entities as disparate as ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have all sort of gone into this area because it's easy to do. It's very cheap to train someone to use a system like this. And you can do it with a very relatively low level of training, a relatively low expenditure of money. But you can have significant results, on the other end, when it gets to its target. So, there are lots of things that worry me. Those are the two things that I cite, that get a lot of my time and attention, Elaine.
Elaine McCusker: Thanks, I think, related to the first issue, as you mentioned, it's not a military solution. I think that there's probably something we can do at AEI and also across the community to call attention to the need for solutions to these issues and have them not just be looking to the Combatant Commander to solve these problems in his AOR. And since you brought up the counter UAS issue and particularly the issue of cost and the fact that we, I think are often our own worst enemy in getting ahead of the technology curve and adapting to things. I think. as former Secretary Mattis used to put it, we need to operate at the speed of relevance, and we've been looking at our planning, programing, budgeting and execution process for a while. And right now, I think it is hindering us in winning the technology race. You've given one great example from a COCOM perspective on the challenges you see in the current way that the department goes after these things, such as acquisition and budgeting. You also mentioned in your opening comments about CENTCOM being a proving ground for one of the things that we need to work on, and we've kind of seen that evolve over the last 10 years or so. What changes would you recommend to the PPE process and what concerns do you have about the move of OCO into the base budget, including the direct war cost? And do you think that the POM and PBR processes are responsive to the COCOMS?
General McKenzie: So I'll take the last question first. I support the movement of OCO into the base budget, and I think we can accommodate that. I think we've got to make sure we advocate for what our requirements are as that process continues. But I believe there's adequate systems in place to protect us as we do that. So, I'm actually okay with that. And I think we spend a lot of time looking at it at CENTCOM because much of our funding comes from that. But we believe that is something that we can actually do. So, the PPBS project process is in fact a very clumsy, long term process, it's almost like a command economy, but some things have happened here that have given me some positive indications about it. So, we'll talk of acquisition, for example, the mid-tier acquisition category has greatly sped us to pursue several solutions in a more collaborative effort with industry. So that's a very good thing there, and it's new, but we think it gives us the opportunity to sort of iterate back and forth and is very helpful. The (IPIL?) is another way that we were able to inject things into the process. The capability gap assessment, that you're very familiar with, that allows us to get our requirements in there. Look, it still takes long. And I know that nobody feels that more keenly than the services who actually work very hard to attack these issues as they happen. So, I'll close by saying the process is cumbersome. There are a couple of things that are out there that that give me hope that we're getting better at it.
Elaine McCusker: That's good to hear, and I guess it's reassuring to hear your views on OCO and the base budget I think that there's been an attempt to get the base budget to fully reflect what the enduring real base budget costs are for national security. While at the same time, having direct war costs be something that is transparent and doesn't have to compete with base budget requirements. So, I think that's something that we're interested in and kind of watching as we go forward, that we don't have a situation where someone like you is in a position where you're running contingency operations to get back to the program of record funding within the base budget. So, we're very interested to see how that is going to work out and you did mention some reforms to acquisition, I think it helped the department and we're looking at additional lines to try to get increased flexibility while also giving Congress the information that they need to do their important oversight role. And so, moving to one of the favorite topics of today and realizing you provided a lot of information related to Afghanistan and the planned withdrawal for one of your many engagements last week. I'd like to give you a chance to talk about a couple of them in a little bit more depth if you can. You mentioned during your opening comments that you're developing concepts. And I guess I'm interested in what sort of specific policy guidance and planning orders do you have? Or are you offering options and accompanying assumptions that has been the case so many times in the past. And second, how will the U.S. continue to support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and the Afghan ministry without our presence in the country? Have there been discussions about moving the support to the Department of State? And it seems like there's a possibility that over the horizon (strategy?) and this type of support can actually cost more than it does now. That's the way we kind of solve these problems going forward, so I'd be interested in your comments on any of those topics.
General McKenzie: Sure. So, let me just begin by sort of sketching overall where we are in the planning process to try to withdraw ourselves responsibly from Afghanistan. We're in constant iteration inside the department and with the interagency about how everybody is going to fit into this plan. But we think we have we've actually got a very good backbone of a plan that will go into operation formally on the 1st of May. I'm not going to go into the exact dates or timelines, as you will appreciate, I wouldn't want to do that. But I think we have a plan that will allow for us to get out in a protected manner, that will bring our partners out. Our NATO partners that came in with us, will leave with us. We'll also bring out elements of the Department of State. It is our intention to maintain an embassy in Afghanistan going forward and we'll have a very, very minimal military presence there, that which is strictly necessary to defend the embassy. And as you know, defense of a nation's embassy is the responsibility of the host nation. So, we would expect the government of Afghanistan would live up to that responsibility as we go forward, which would allow us to perhaps get very small. Those things are still working out. As to the question about how we'll be able to continue to advise, assist, do technical consultation on maintenance and things like that, look Elaine that's a tough problem, and I don't want to minimize it. We're looking at ways that we may be able to do it remotely. The one thing I can tell you for sure is we're not going to be on the ground doing it. I'm confident of that. So that's just something that is not a course of action that we are exploring. But when the president says zero, he means zero. So, we're going to zero. So, we will look at ways to do that from over the horizon and we'll see how those work out. General Miller said a couple of days ago in a press conference, and I can't improve on his remarks, it's hard but some things the Afghans are just going to have to do when we leave if they expect to survive. And we'll see if they're able to do that. I don't want to make it sound easier than it is. But we are looking at those things right now. And I don't want to go into any more particular details on them as yet because they're not yet finalized.
Elaine McCusker: I appreciate that and I guess we're talking about how to do this kind of thing remotely, what would be handled by various elements of the government? I think there may be a misunderstanding out there and that there is going to be a huge cost savings associated with this change. And just given your comments and trying to think through how to turn that guidance into reality. It seems like we actually could end up spending more in order to do the same kind of thing from a remote environment, but I won't labor that longer or ask you to comment further on that. Just kind of a suspicion on my end that that might be the case. I'd like to switch for a minute to a question from a participant. Different CENTCOM commanders have viewed operations in the AOR differently as it relates to air, sea and land forces. How do you assess the need for forces across these domains? And I would actually add cyber and space to that going forward.
General McKenzie: Well, actually, you got the first part of my answer when you said cyber and space. We never think about anything here at Central Command without consideration of cyber. We look at it at the very beginning. It permeates all phases of planning for every operation and the same thing with space. I'll just note on space before I begin to talk about air, land and sea. For most of my career, space was a domain that was uncontested. I could look up there and expect to get all kinds of good things from space. That domain is now contested. And so, we have to plan and understand that. Those are two things that are very important. And that's changed markedly just in the last 10 years in our approach to this kind of problem. But you're right to call it out, because we completely fold all those in as we make plans, as we look at options and contingencies, we talk about that from the very beginning, and it's embedded in all our planning. So, air, land and sea. Really at a combatant command headquarters, at a Central Command level headquarters, I think in terms first of all, my theater is functionally designed. I think in terms of the air domain, the land domain and the sea domain. So, you have commanders that command within each one of those domains. But at my level, the responsibility is to integrate those capabilities to fuse it into a single weapon. And there might be times when I emphasize the air domain, there might be times when I emphasize the sea domain, sometimes the land domain. But really, I don't have the luxury of being domain-centric. It's just not possible for a joint force commander today to take that approach. Some of it is driven by the topography of the theater. Some theaters are going to be more land or sea oriented. But, actually in Central Command, it would be wrong to think of CENTCOM as a land centric domain. It would be wrong to think of CENTCOM as a naval maritime centric domain, because actually all three domains interplay, all supported by what you talked about, cyber and space operations. I would like to think, as I consider a problem, I'm completely fused in my thinking about the interplay between these three domains. And while we might emphasize one in a particular scenario, in a theater this large, you really don't have the luxury of just focusing on a single domain. You've got to be able to spread effects across all of them.
Elaine McCusker: So this next question continues that theme of forces. Over past 20 years, we've increased both the use and size of special operations forces to the point that some believe this has caused some systemic problems and stress. How do you assess the challenges our special forces have faced and how does this impact your AOR?
General McKenzie: So the demands on SOF have been significant within CENTCOM over the last 20 years. We've certainly been the greatest consumer of SOF forces around the world ever, and I recognize that. And SOF as a result has played a significant bill both in loss of life, but also just effects on humans that transmit that come in and out of the theater so much under very difficult conditions, undertaking very high-risk missions at the very cutting edge of our engagement with our potential foes. So as a result of that, is recognizing the systemic pressure that has been placed on SOF. General Clark is undertaking a comprehensive review to look at the right balance of SOF. What would he need to do internal to the force while at the same time as part of a global posture review, we are examining SOF contribution to the theater. And that will undoubtedly change as a result of that. So, you can reduce the demand, you can reduce the mission or you can accept the risk. What we will try to do is find some combination of those things that will allow us to get to a sustainable posture on SOF. Look, I'm a believer in the NDS. I believe the pacing threat is China and Russia. And I believe we need to help SOF reorient to those threats because for a long time they've been reoriented uniquely to threats in the Central Command AOR. Now there is still going to be a need for SOF in the Central Command AOR. But I do think we have we are in the middle of an opportunity now to sort of rebalance and take a more global look at what we want SOF to do and not to.
Elaine McCusker: OK, thanks. Okay so I'm going to go into a topic that you covered pretty well in your opening comments about the GFMAP and the request for forces and how that process works. But I'd like to maybe take it back a little bit to you know some of the philosophy behind the GFMAP. And look at what foundational school of thought do you think currently governs decisions on assignment, of (portion?) and allocation of forces? So, in other words, keep them home or push them out? And how does this impact the annual GFMAP process and also then as follow on the COCOM RFF process?
General McKenzie: Sure. So, if you don't have a plan, if you don't have any direction to sail then, any direction will do so. The GFMAP is the operational manifestation of the national defense strategy. So, the NDS says, China is going to be the pacing threat we're going to orient against China, we're going to orient against Russia, and other threats, while significant, are going to be of lesser priority. Iran is one of those threats. VEOs is one of those threats. And of course, North Korea is also one of those threats. So, what the GFMAP attempts to do is place forces against these various weights given by the NDS. Now, the problem is, it is a projection of the future and any projection of the future has to take into account the interplay of human wills, that's sort of the nature of conflict. You won't always get exactly what you want, but you've got to begin with something. And I was there in this iteration of the GFMAP when we designed it, how we wanted to use it. So, I'm actually very comfortable with the GFMAP. And the GFMAP, as you know, not only puts weight against these threats, it also weights the future in that it directs services to retain readiness. So, everything we do really comes out of some examination of the NDS. The fact of the matter is, though, sometimes things emerge that you can't account for, a crisis with Iran that was not contemplated when the NDS was written, for example, has caused us to focus on Iran, probably to a greater degree than the authors of the NDS thought when they wrote when they actually wrote that document and signed it. So, the secretary then, in consultation with the president, has got to make decisions about whether or not we're going to change some of the force allocations in order to more appropriately prepare for things that emerge that could not be foreseen because they were in the future when the GFMAP was written. And I think the process we have for that, the RFF process, to a degree, the dynamic force employment process, those are all things that recognize no plan... Moltke said no plan survives contact with the enemy's main body. And that's an important phrase because most people paraphrase it to say no plan survives contact with the enemy. That's not what he said. He said enemies’ main body, which means that you stay with a plan as long as you can. Not when the first shot is fired, but rather you can play through friction for a period of time with the plan. And the GFMAP is a plan just like any other. So as assumptions change or modified based on observable reality, sometimes you're going to have to change the allocation of forces. And so CENTCOM has gone into that process. Sometimes I've gotten the forces that I needed, sometimes I haven't. It all comes down, though, to a decision by the secretary of defense. So really when the secretary is confronted with a with a delta between what the GFMAP says and what our observation of reality is, that he can do several things. He can change my mission. He can say do less. I want you to do less. Aye, aye, I can do that. He can say, I'm going to give you more forces or he can accept risk. All three of those things are reasonable decisions from the secretary of defense. And I'll just emphasize again that, you know, this is made in an atmosphere of complete, CIV-MIL collaboration, as you know, Elaine from your time on in the building. When an RFF goes up to the secretary, it's going to get what we call top five cord. All the senior stakeholders in the Department of Defense, not military, are going to get an opportunity to weigh in very heavily on that. So, the process is weighted toward actual civilian decision-making, civilian advice, informed by the technical representations of the joint staff and the combatant commanders.
Elaine McCusker: Thanks for that answer. I think just based on your history, it's really useful to get your perspective on how that process works and I think that increasing our understanding of how those decisions are made and how that risk is moved around the globe is very useful. I'd like to go and switch and talk about Iran for a second. You have described Iran as the number one regional threat. I think in your opening comments, you just said we're in a state of contested deterrence. I'd like to ask you about the JCPOA and I won't ask you to talk about the future. I'd like to ask a question looking back. When it was first implemented, it was characterized as flawed, but better than nothing. With the benefit of hindsight. Is this still accurate?
General McKenzie: So Elaine. Yes, I think it is still accurate. And the other point I would make is when you deal with a security issue or a security problem or a malign actor in the family of nation states, you're always better if the response is a collective response from a group of nations that bind together. That always gives you more strength. It's always been a hallmark of the way America has approached its foreign problems. So, we gained that. That was a good output of the JCPOA. As I look back on it, and again I'm not the best guy to talk about it because essentially, it's a diplomatic not a military instrument. I would say that was one thing that was very good that came out of the JCPOA. You were aligned with a lot of other nations that had an interest in seeing that the JCPOA was executed, as flawed as it was and I agree, it was a flawed document.
Elaine McCusker: Thanks, sticking with Iran for a minute. Can you talk about the concerns you have in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf in terms of maritime security? We just saw reported today that earlier this month there was an unsafe and unprofessional incident between a group of IRGC boats too close to our ships that were patrolling in international waters. And while you're talking Iran, if you could also talk a little bit about their use of proxies and any trends you see there and ways to impact that?
General McKenzie: Sure. Let's begin with maritime security. So, the United States does not rely for our national survival on the free flow of passage, free flow of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz or the Bab al-Mandab. But the larger global economy does. And what happens to the larger global economy is inevitably going to have a second order and profound effect upon the United States. So, it's in all our interests that we have free flow of commerce in and throughout the region. We have a variety of mechanisms that do that. One is the international maritime security construct, which we established in 2019 to actually ensure that malign activity would be exposed should it occur in the Strait of Hormuz and to a lesser degree down in the Red Sea. That's proven very effective. And we think it has prevented some irresponsible behavior from occurring as a result of that entity being there. Another element that's out there is what we call the coalition military force. Which is 34 nations... Maritime force, I should say, not military force... But what it does, it's actually antipiracy and a lot of other activities on the high seas. 34 nations are in that. A lot of different ships come in and out of it. It's been commanded by a variety of international commanders. And it's been a very effective tool for us. The greatest threats probably to commerce in the region would be the IRGC Navy, doing something that was not sanctioned by higher authority. And I'll just say that the activities we typically see from the IRGC Navy are not necessarily activities that are directed by the supreme leader or from the Iranian state, rather irresponsible actions by local commanders on scene. So, we're very careful to ensure that we don't get into a provocative cycle as a result of that. Luckily, our guys are pretty good. Our sailors are very well trained, they're very capable, they're very mature, and they're able to de-escalate the situations, which is what you always seek to do when you do that. So, your last part of your question Elaine, talking a little bit about proxies. Yes, we are concerned about Iran's use of proxies. We see that principally in Iraq, where I would argue that throughout most of 2020, Iran sought to force our departure from Iraq through a political track. When that became obvious that it wasn't going to be successful, they've begun to shift a little bit more to low level kinetic harassment of our forces and our Iranian (misspoke, probably intended to say Iraqi) partners and our coalition partners. That continues. And so, we watch that with great concern and we try to attribute responsibility when those attacks occur. But it is a very concerning development that we look at very closely. Another one that is a little broader, perhaps, are the Houthis in Yemen who are consistently lobbing missiles into Saudi Arabia. They threaten the Red Sea on occasion, and they're pushed by their Iranian sponsors on these kinds of activities. That's an example of behavior that's just not good for the region. And we would prefer to see a more mature, level headed approach there. I actually think there's a chance for a peace agreement in Yemen. I think the Saudis are interested in doing that. I know our representative, Mr. Lenderking, Martin Griffiths, the U.N. representative, are both trying very hard to get into some form of a ceasefire that would allow us to move forward, get humanitarian assistance in and sort of extract Saudi Arabia from the war. I think Saudi Arabia is interested in doing that. And I believe they're behaving with good faith. And I would hope that the Houthis would do the same.
Elaine McCusker: OK, thanks. So, I've got some questions, additional questions coming in from participants so we might jump around a little bit here.
General McKenzie: Sure.
Elaine McCusker: First question is, you've talked about the threat from Iranian mines and mentioned this again last week. So why is the U.S. so dependent on the old the AVENGER class vessel? Wasn't the littoral combat ship supposed to be doing counter mine patrols in the AOR by now and what has happened?
General McKenzie: So I think we've had some trouble bringing the mine countermeasures module onto the LCS, I defer, a better question to be answered probably by the Navy rather than me. I'll use any capability that we have out there right now. We are in fact dependent on the old AVENGERS we're dependent on our British partners for the minesweeping that they provide. And that's an area of significant concern to me, given Iran's number of mines, their proximity to the Strait of Hormuz and the difficulty of minesweeping in a congested waterway like you'd see there in the Strait of Hormuz. It is very worrisome to me.
Elaine McCusker: OK, thanks. I won't make any editorial comments about the littoral combat ship, we'll leave that to the Navy. A couple of questions, again, backing up to the National Defense Strategy. Can you describe CENTCOM's strategy for countering Russia's growing influence and military footprint in CENTCOM's area of responsibility. In your opinion, which tactics are most and least effective in this effort and what threats do you see to U.S. interests from this influence and footprint? Before you answer that I'll tag on a question that's related. How do you perceive increased Chinese influence in the CENTCOM AOR? And how can the U.S. maintain current lines of effort while addressing China in the theater?
General McKenzie: Sure. So, let me actually begin with Russia. So, we see Russian combat forces in Syria, we're up adjacent to them, and we've had a generally professional relationship with them. They're responsive to us when we have an issue. We don't do any kind of coordination with them. We do conduct deconfliction against them. So, I think Russia is in the region, first of all, they wanted a warm-water port. I think they wanted to have an opportunity to prove they're still an actor on the world stage. And I think they're very opportunistic. In that sense and if given a chance they would sell military equipment in the region if they have the opportunity to do that. So, I don't see a grand design on the behalf of Russia. Again, I would emphasize it's opportunistic. They do want to compete with us across the region. So how we respond to that is in a couple of ways. First of all, we have significant advantages. We have security cooperation agreements with most of the countries in the region. We have the ability to work with them on their weapons systems, to sell them weapons where appropriate and allowed by law. We have the ability under IMET, which is international military education and training, the ability to bring their officers and NCOs back to the United States so that they have an opportunity to see how we operate. IMET is a fantastic capability. Another thing that is very significant in the theater that sort of helps us against the Russians -- and I'll come to the Chinese here in a minute -- is our exercise program. Everybody wants to exercise with the United States and we want to exercise with as many people as we can, as often as we can, certainly in a bilateral environment, but also whenever possible in a multilateral environment. That's another thing that builds strong ties. So, there are a lot of things we can do in terms of competition. And of course, I'm strictly talking now the military element of power. There are other elements of national power that can and should be applied as well with the Department of State, the Department of Commerce, Department of the Treasury that we can do to help across a broader whole of government approach. But I'll just focus on the military element. So, if we shift gears and talk about the Chinese. The Chinese has a small military presence in the theater, they keep a naval expeditionary task force in the theater that's been in and out for years, it's very small. Putatively working antipiracy, but we see it there. Their entry into the theater is largely economic. And we see they're very interested in theater because they get a lot of their hydrocarbons from the theater out through the Strait of Hormuz. So, we are seeing the leading edge of that One Belt, One Road Initiative, all the other things that we've seen in other parts of the world that are beginning to come into the Central Command AOR. And I think that Chinese presence is only going to persist and expand over time as they look to see how we manage our force levels in the theater and what we do. So, if I were going to summarize, Elaine, I would say this. The long-term designed effort is probably the Chinese. A shorter-term effort, one more opportunistic and less nuanced, really, is the Russian effort. Both are of concern to us. We have tools to respond to both those efforts, and I've listed some of them already when I was talking about the Russians. Those are the same things that we would apply to use against the Chinese as well. It is a competition and we need to recognize that, just like we need to recognize that competition against Russia and China simply doesn't only occur in the Western Pacific or in the Baltics. It occurs in places like the Middle East where they are expanding and coming in. We have the opportunities to outreach to our partners and neighbors in the region here. We need to continue to do it.
Elaine McCusker: Right. Thank you. Moving around again, looking at places like Yemen and Syria, where there are civil wars, and elsewhere, where there are also low-level conflicts burning and also increasing IDPs, as you mentioned as one of the things that kept you up at night earlier. How do you assess the prospects for escalation of these conflicts? What should the U.S. be doing to diminish and prepare for such escalation? And how are you measuring progress?
General McKenzie: Sure. So, in the case of Yemen, we actually have a way forward here. There's an international, a U.N. process. And as I said, one of the parties, I'm confident, wants to actually de-escalate the situation and get to some form of a cease fire. And that would be the Saudis. The Houthis need to undertake those same steps. Right now, the Houthis and the Republic of Yemen forces and their Saudi sponsors are locked in a battle for Marib, which is in northwest Yemen. And that's a pretty significant ground engagement right now. And the outcome of that will certainly be a factor on the way ahead. But I come back to the point that I believe the Saudis seek a way to end the conflict responsibly, but it takes two people to do that deal. And the Houthis have not yet committed to doing that. So that's sort of the Yemen picture. In Syria, again, we recognize there's a U.N. process here. There's a U.N. Security Council resolution that should be the basis for whatever long-term way we go forward in Syria. Right now, we're a long way from getting into a serious approach to that. It looks like Bashar Assad is consolidating in the West, you know, with his Russian sponsors behind him. I expect over time they may want to push back out against the Kurds in the east where we sit in the eastern Syria security area, largely up and down the Euphrates River and to the east. We are still looking for the right political formula to go forward. We sort of know what you want is an end state there. But the actual political formula to go forward is still in the process of being worked. And I know that a lot of people, our special envoy and other people in the U.S. government and the new Biden administration are working very hard to get people together to find a way to go forward in Syria politically. Because the military situation is pretty clear. The political and diplomatic situation is a little cloudier. And we need to get those two aligned in order to get to a final solution.
Elaine McCusker: OK, thanks. I'm tempted to launch into a little bit of a discussion with you about the campaign assessment process, but I'll put that on hold for now in case we have time at the end and switch gears again to talk a little bit about the impact of the Abraham Accords on regional security and stability, as well as mil-to-mil cooperation. And specifically, how the new relationships under the Accords enable the creation of a common operating picture of our partners about the nature of the threat from Iran.
General McKenzie: Sure. So, let me just talk about the normalization relationship with Israel that we see with UAE and other nations. That's a good thing. I think it's an idea that can only add to security in the region if other nations follow suit over time based on their own interests and the way they want to get into this. Because I think in the long term, particularly vis-a-vis Iran, a common or collective security approach is going to be the best way to ensure their malign activities don't become terribly harmful in the region. So, you asked about IA, integrated air and missile defense, common operating picture. That is a great example of a way that we might be able to move on that. And what you would like to see is, particularly the nations in the Gulf states, be able to share a common threat picture against Iran. And the threat from Iran is not a ground maneuver. It's not maritime particularly. It's a fires thing, it's missiles, it's ballistic missiles, it's land attack cruise missiles which fly low and its UASs that we've already talked about. Those three things and the latter two, the UAS's and the land attack cruise missiles are relatively new additions to Iran's arsenal. But one of the things that we work very hard to do is each nation has its own organic air defense capabilities. They will be better if they can pool those resources. That doesn't mean you're moving firing batteries to someone else's country. What it means is you're going to have a much better common operational picture. You see what Iran is doing. You can share that information. We're working with all our partners in the region to move forward on that. Israel would have potentially a role to play in that as well. Too early to tell, yet, what that would be. But particularly in the case of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two nations that are directly across the Gulf from the threat that is Iran. There are things we can do and will continue to do to improve their ability to defend themselves, particularly in the missile and air defense domain.
Elaine McCusker: We talked about counter-UAS a couple of times. We spoke last week about your deep concern about drone swarming. I'm wondering what have you seen being used by other military (inaudible) hostilities that could help us better understand that threat and maybe as you mentioned get on the better side of the cost curve in addressing that threat?
General McKenzie: Sure. So, you know, when you talk about UASs, Elaine, really what you want is the capability to detect them in flight, to detect them at the moment of launch, if you can, either by radar or by other means -- signals intelligence if you have that capability. You want to be able to see them while they're in flight, then you'd like the ability maybe to engage them electromagnetically so that you can knock them down with a non-kinetic burst. Then, of course, ultimately you do have to have a kinetic capability, something that will go in there and knock it out of the sky, whether that's a bullet fired from a gun, whether that's another UAV, all of those things are out there and we work actively with our partners, although I think the United States has probably got as good an approach to this as anybody else. But we actively share ideas with our neighbors, with our partners in the theater, but also our NATO partners as well. Israel, everybody. It's an open market right now. What we're doing is there are probably 10 or 15 good promising programs out there. Eventually you'd want to shrink those down, come up with an integrated approach. The only danger of an integrated approach, though, is that it's too slow to need. I know that everyone involved in this process is keenly aware of that. I have no doubt of the energy and desire to move quickly on this with everybody. We're still on the wrong side of the curve, but I do think we've now defined the problem pretty well, which is one of the first steps. And as I said, there are a number of promising systems out there that are being used. And we'll let them bloom and just see which one... pick the best to show.
Elaine McCusker: As you mentioned, using CENTCOM as kind of a proving ground for some of these of capabilities. So, switching gears yet again, given the U.S. plans to sell the F-35 to the UAE and its apparent closeness to China, do you have tech transfer concerns that need to be worked out or production contract assigned? And are you providing input to State and the Defense Technology, Security Administration on technology transfer issues?
General McKenzie: Sure. So not really a strictly COCOM issue on that. DSCA and the other agencies that you mentioned sort of have the lead on that. I am concerned about that, but I believe that we're working hard, both internal to the United States and with our UAE partners, to ensure that's resolved satisfactorily as the buy goes forward.
Elaine McCusker: OK, while we're talking about potentially sensitive issues. In the past 18 months, Turkey has demonstrated increasing its military capability with its drone campaigns in Libya and Syria. How do you see that shaping up regional dynamics? And are you concerned about their role in potentially destabilizing the region with their capabilities?
General McKenzie: Sure. So, we begin by recognizing that Turkey is a long-standing and valued NATO partner and they're an ally. We have an Article 5 relationship with Turkey. Turkey has a legitimate national security concerns associated with Syria and Iraq borders. And we also recognize that. So, what we try to do with Turkey is we maximize the areas where we can find agreement. You can still be friends, even if you disagree. There are some areas that we disagree on. So, I think a good sign is the fact that the two presidents are going to talk at the NATO summit, I think, coming up in the next month or so. And I think that's a positive step forward.
Elaine McCusker: So speaking of people who we work with and also disagree with, we haven't talked about Pakistan. As a kind of final question before we go into your closing comments. Is there anything we should be watching with regard to Pakistan? And I know that the nature of the of mil-to-mil engagement with Pakistan has always historically been very strong, does that continue with your relationships and contacts today?
General McKenzie: So I have a strong mil-to-mil relationship with General Bajwa in Pakistan. I talk to him frequently. I get out to see him probably about once a quarter. It's our intent, you know, regardless of the perturbations of the larger Pakistan-U.S. relationship, we want to make sure that we keep that mil-to-mil channel as open and as solid as we can. So, we're committed to that and I believe they're committed to it as well.
Elaine McCusker: Perfect, thank you. So, we've kind of wandered all over the AOR which is I think what typically happens when we talk about the CENTCOM region. Some key questions upon the hot topics of interest on Afghanistan and how that's all going to play out over the next several months. I know that your planning team is probably peddling very fast to try to make that work and carry out the direction that they're given or standing by to both help and probably opinionate on what takes place as we move forward in the future. I'd like to offer you a chance to make any closing comments before we close out and do our final round here. Over.
General McKenzie: Thanks. First of all, really enjoyed the opportunity to join you here today. It's important to talk and it's important that what we do is exposed and is transparent to the American people. So always happy to do that. I would just say we are completely focused on Afghanistan. We're focused on getting our people out, getting them out in a safe way, a responsible way, turning over what we can turn over, bringing out what we can bring out, and we're going to do it in a responsible way. That has the attention of all of us here at U.S. Central Command. I talk daily to General Scott Miller, our commander on the ground in Afghanistan, to make sure he's got everything he needs as we prepare to come out. As you know, we've also repositioned some forces in the theater that would allow us to protect ourselves should that become necessary in Afghanistan. I hope it doesn't become necessary, but if it does become necessary, we're certainly prepared to take any action necessary to protect ourselves and our partners as we pull out. So, Elaine, thanks so much for the opportunity to talk today. And I'm just glad I was able to join you.
Elaine McCusker: Thank you for this. This is incredibly helpful and educational. I appreciate all the participants sending in questions as well. That we tried to get to you, if not all the specific questions, all the topics that were raised. And I hope everyone got what they were looking for. And thank you again for joining us. And we're out here.