National Security

'A Whole New Era'

In an exclusive interview with FP, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sounds off on the U.S. embassy attacks, al Qaeda, and what Americans need to prepare for.

In his Pentagon office last Friday evening, a smiling but tired-looking Leon Panetta drank a Sprite on ice and sat for an extensive interview with Foreign Policy, in which the defense secretary spoke publicly for the first time about last week's remarkable, unexpected protests across the Middle East. Even as wall-to-wall media coverage showed angry young men scaling U.S. embassy walls, setting cars and buildings aflame, and hoisting al Qaeda's fblack flag, Panetta called the demonstrations "convulsions" related to the political tumult in a region that had cast off dictators for democracy. The protests, Panetta argued, were as unreflective of popular Middle Eastern opinion as "a Ku Klux Klan demonstration" in the United States. 

But the prospects for more unrest are widespread, Panetta acknowledged, saying the military was positioning forces to respond to as many as 18 sites of concern -- far more than the two embassies in Libya and Yemen that 100 Marines have so far been hurriedly deployed to protect. Just a year ago, Panetta hailed the impending "strategic defeat" of al Qaeda; in the interview, he clarified to say he was talking about "the al Qaeda that attacked the United States of America on 9/11," while its affiliate groups are in fact now growing in Yemen, Somalia, and across North Africa. 

In a normal week, the top national security news would have been the public row between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama administration officials over whether to set "red lines" that would trigger military strikes to halt Iran's nuclear program. But Panetta dismissed Netanyahu's heated rhetoric, repeated on this weekend's U.S. talk shows, about the need for such "red lines" in the effort to pressure Iran: "The fact is, look, presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country -- leaders of these countries don't have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions." 

On Afghanistan, where another deadly insider attack struck Helmand's Camp Bastion on Friday, Panetta acknowledged that some of the toughest fighting is yet to come in the East, before security in the final sections of the country is handed over to Afghans by the end of 2014. As for whether the White House will leave a robust enough post-surge force for two more years of fighting, Panetta said, "My view is that the president of the United States will rely a great deal on the recommendations of General Allen as to what he needs to accomplish the mission."

The next day, Panetta departed for Japan and China, where he said he expected to present himself as a mediator in the dispute that has once again heated up over islands that both nations claim. Interestingly, Panetta said that he had had a good intelligence relationship with China when he was CIA director, which gives him hope that he can continue to thaw relations between the Pentagon and the People's Liberation Army. When asked if that meant that China was not America's top geopolitical foe, Panetta coyly replied, "I'm not going to get into the Romney game."

Below, the edited transcript of Panetta's interview with Foreign Policy editor in chief Susan Glasser and national security reporters Kevin Baron and Gordon Lubold.

LEON PANETTA: Let me just say a few things. As I've said before, I think we're at a turning point, certainly after 10 years of war, but I also think that the world to some extent is at a turning point in terms of, you know, transitioning in many ways to a whole new era out there. What that era will look like I guess we'll be asking questions. But clearly there's a sense that things are changing. For us obviously, having confronted after 9/11, confronted terrorism, and they were our principal enemy, we've gone after them, and have in fact weakened them and weakened their leadership and, I think, impacted on their ability to exercise the command and control necessary to plan a 9/11-type attack.

We brought the war in Iraq to an end, we're in the process of doing the drawdown in Afghanistan, with a plan that we think has us on the right track towards completing that transition. NATO in many ways was tested in Libya and actually did a very good job there and is doing a good job in Afghanistan, as well. It's an alliance and partnership that is working effectively for us. And in addition to that, you know, I think I sense that we've had to as a result of those changes plus the budget constrictions we're facing have had to develop a new defense strategy here that in many ways has to adapt to that changing world that I just discussed.

At the same time that we have in fact moved in the right direction in some of these key areas, there remain some very serious threats in the world that we're in, an array of threats that is very different from the past. Most in my 40 years in this town we were confronting the Soviet Union, and today we're confronting a myriad of threats that haven't gone away even as we face budget constrictions. Normally, when you reduce the defense budget, it's a period where the threats that you confronted in some ways have gone away or have been reduced.

We're going through a period where we have some very real threats out there, still confronting terrorism, still fighting a war in Afghanistan, facing North Korea, the threat from North Korea, facing the threat from Iran, facing turmoil in the Middle East as we've seen over the last few days, facing cyber-threats in a very new world in what I call the new battlefield of the future. When you put all that together, combined with rising powers like China, Brazil, and India and how we confront that kind of transition, we have some real issues that we have to confront.

The defense strategy we designed was trying to -- how do we develop something that is agile and flexible, allows us to deploy quickly, allows us to be able to move, allows us to be able to be on the cutting edge of technology because frankly all of that will be necessary as we deal with these threats. Yes, we have to focus our force protection to the Pacific and the Middle East. Yes, we have to develop a new presence in dealing with the rest of the world that is innovative. But at the same time we're going to have to invest in the future. What is it that we have to invest in that will make us agile, that will make us flexible, that will make us capable of dealing with the myriad of threats that we're going to face as a nation. I think we did that in the defense strategy. I think that we at least got the right elements. It's a work in progress, but I think we have set a foundation for what the defense of this country needs to look like as we confront these challenges that I've just described.

FP: It's a daunting list isn't it? Well, let's start with the week's events in Libya, Egypt, and around the region. How much of this is a surprise to you and how much did the U.S. know before this? There are questions now, already, about intelligence, and whether the U.S. knew any of this was coming or could have done more to prevent it. What's your assessment of that and the current security situation?

PANETTA: It's something that's under assessment and under investigation, to try to determine just exactly what happened here. There's no question that the video has played a larger part in igniting a lot of demonstrations that have taken place. I think clearly that was the case in Egypt. How much of a role it played in Libya is something that I think is currently under investigation, to determine exactly what happened. And it clearly is impacting in all of the other areas that we're dealing with now -- Tunisia and Khartoum, some 17 or 18 places that we're focusing on.

FP: Seventeen or 18 places?

PANETTA: That's right, that we're playing particular attention to as areas that we have to be prepared in the event that these demonstrations get out of control.

FP: So, so far, you've already sent troops or assets in some way to Libya, Yemen -- any others? Or we're just looking?

PANETTA: No, what we have to do here at the Defense Department is to make sure that we've positioned our forces so that, if we're asked to respond, we can do it quickly and are prepared to act to protect our personnel and people. That's what we do. That's what we've done in the past, and that's what we're trying to do now. But it does mean that we've got to deploy our forces so that we're in position to be able to respond to any of those areas, if in fact they become a situation in which our personnel and property are jeopardized.

FP: Are these events evidence that the U.S. somehow misread the Middle East? Misread the [Arab] spring? Should have perhaps left troops in Libya after Qaddafi was killed? Do you think that's fair criticism?

PANETTA: You know, I really think that before we draw, you know, big, big conclusions about all this, we really have to take the time to analyze what's happened. We have seen videos and commentaries and burning of Qurans that have instigated demonstrations and have instigated situations where violence occurred, and I don't think it necessarily represents that somehow the wrong policies were put in place.

What it represents is that we are still dealing with a lot of the elements of extremism that want to use those kinds of events in order to demonstrate against the United States. I mean, al Qaeda has been doing that, other extremists have been doing that for a long time, this is nothing new. What we have done, our response to that was basically to confront al Qaeda directly and to go after their leadership and to confront other extremism as well. And I think that, as I said, overall I think that we have been successful at weakening that threat.

At the same time we have seen dramatic change in the Middle East. We have seen a number of dictators who have come down, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, and a strong possibility the same thing may happen to Assad in Syria. And that, that, frankly, has been a good thing. And giving people in that region the opportunity to kind of shape their future and hope that they can move in a better direction than they have in the past, I think, has been an important opportunity for them and it has been an important opportunity for us.

I do not think that a particular event like this should derail the efforts of a Libya or a Tunisia or an Egypt or others to try to establish a democracy for the future and a government that responds to their people. I think we're gonna have ups and downs. This has been a major change that has gone on in the Middle East. I think you're going to see convulsions as we go through it, I think you're going to see ups and downs as we go through it. But if, in the end, they can continue to move in a direction that allows their people the opportunity to better govern their own future, then I think it will have been worthwhile.

FP: But on al Qaeda, so does this change your calculation -- last year you said they were nearing "strategic defeat." But since then all of these things have happened as you mentioned. In your 9/11 speeches you say al Qaeda has now spread in Yemen, Somalia --


FP: [House Intelligence Committee] Chairman [Mike] Rogers says there's al Qaeda elements in Libya. So are they still near "strategic defeat" or has something changed?

PANETTA: I think the elements that were involved in 9/11, the leadership that was in involved in 9/11, I think that they have been seriously damaged, and that, you know, we are continuing to target them but I think we have eviscerated their leadership. But, having, so --

FP: -- that sounds like a qualification, though.

PANETTA: No, no. Clearly al Qaeda, the al Qaeda that attacked the United States of America on 9/11, we have gone after in a big way. And I think have badly damaged their leadership and the capability to conduct these attacks. We always knew that elements of al Qaeda still existed in other areas. We knew we had AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] in Iraq, AQAP [al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula] in Yemen, we had AQIM [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] in North Africa. We always knew we would have to continue to confront elements of extremism elsewhere as well. And we have. I mean, we have successfully gone after AQAP in Yemen. We're doing the same thing with regards to al-Shabaab in Somalia. And we're in the process of being able to put together a strong effort against AQIM in North Africa. So, we have in fact made tremendous progress in going after those arguments. As a matter of fact, I think of something -- in my mind, when they resort to demonstrations as a result of videos, it is an indication to me that in fact they are trying to strike out from a position of weakness, not a position of strength.

FP: It was shocking though, wasn't it, to see the black flag of al Qaeda flying at the U.S. embassy in Tunis today?

PANETTA: Yes. They're still -- they will still try to do that. Just like the Taliban in Afghanistan makes use of insider attacks, makes use of IEDs, largely speaks to their inability to regain any of the territory that they've lost. So they resort to those tactics. And the same thing is true for al Qaeda, they're going to resort to these kinds of tactics, because in many ways I think they have lost their voice in the Middle East. And one demonstration of extremists, any more than a Ku Klux Klan demonstration in the United States, is not necessarily reflective of what the rest of the country feels.

FP: Can I ask you about another challenge in the Middle East, which would have probably been the big news this week if it weren't for these events: red lines.

PANETTA: [laughs] Where are those damn things?

FP: I'm sure you know exactly which ones I mean. Should we have one? Do we need them? And what do you think about your friend Prime Minster [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who I know you visited with and I'm sure this subject must have come up in your conversation?

PANETTA: Look, the fundamental issue is whether or not we agree that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. And the United States, Israel, the international community, I think, is pretty firm that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon.

The issue then becomes -- if the world community is unified on that position, as I'm sure Israel is, in that sense, unified with us in opposing that -- then the issue becomes, all right, what are the factors that would tell us whether or not they've made the decision to go ahead and build a nuclear weapon? And to that extent, you know, intelligence, my whole shop, basically looks at a number of factors to try to determine whether or not Iran has in fact made that decision. Now what intelligence basically tells us now is that they have not made that decision. And that while they continue to do enrichment, they have not made a decision to proceed with a nuclear weapon. And I have to tell you that I think the intelligence community, whether it's Israeli intelligence or United States intelligence, has pretty much the same view. And they also have the same view that if we got intelligence that they made a decision, that there's a timeline here that involves anywhere from a year or a year and a half, depending on who you talk to, before they would in fact be able to accomplish that.

So, if what I said is the case, then the question becomes how can we continue to make sure that we are paying attention to the intelligence, that we continue to look at Iran to determine what they're up to, and yet at the same time, you know, use our capability and the unity in the international community to bring as much pressure as possible on Iran to not move in that direction, but move in a direction that would allow them to be able to abide by international rules when it comes to enrichment?

That, I think, is how we view the challenge here: Make very clear to them what they can't do, make very clear that this is not about containment it's about prevention, but at the same time, give them a door so that we ultimately could hope to resolve this peacefully as opposed to having to take military action.

FP: But, sir, a decision and the one-year timeline that everybody says to agree on -- that sure sounds like a threshold, if not a red line. Isn't that a point of no return?

PANETTA: But the fact is -- the fact is, look, presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country -- leaders of these countries don't have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions. What they have are facts that are presented to them about what a country is up to, and then they weigh what kind of action has to be taken in order to deal with that situation. I mean, that's the real world. Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner.

FP: Well that's what I was going to ask, if you feel that that's what's going on this week, if for whatever reason, that there has been a serious rift in the relationship between Israel and the United States, or that there is politics being used to put you and --

PANETTA: Let's just say, when you have friends like Israel, you engage in vigorous debates about how you confront these issues, and that's what's going on.

FP: An unusually public version of that.

PANETTA: [chuckles] It sometimes, in democracies, plays out in the public.

FP: Can we go to Afghanistan? A couple of weeks ago we spoke with General Allen and he's very confident that things are on track. The surge troops are coming out, and he will make a recommendation to you and up to the president about troops into the fighting season next year. What's your report card on the surge, how do you see how good it's been, and how confident can General Allen be in keeping a big of fighting force there as possible to make sure you don't squander the progress that he says he's made?

PANETTA: Look, as part of the Allen plan, he presented kind of clear path towards the end of 2014 that would get us to that point and the key right now for this year is to complete the transition, the third tranche of areas, and by the time the third tranche is completed, which should be sometime this fall, 75 percent of the population will be under Afghan security and control. At the same time, obviously, we wanted to complete the drawdown that the president requested, and we will achieve what sometimes people forget is a huge logistical challenge, which has been accomplished pretty effectively.

Now the challenge is to continue that momentum, continue the transition, and ensure that we have a sufficient force in place in order to complete the fourth and fifth tranches, which are going to be the more difficult ones, and reach a point sometime in the fall of 2013 after completion of the last transition, where we will turn over combat operations to the Afghans.

We'll be there, we'll continue to obviously be engaged if we have to, but they will be in charge of combat operations. And then that last year, make sure that we keep them on track, strengthen the governance mechanisms, complete the election, and then obviously draw down at the end of 2014. What we look for from General Allen is his best advice to the president. Having now completed the drawdown as to what exactly is going to be needed to reach these other goals that I talked about. I think the president has tremendous confidence in General Allen as I do, so that is going to be the next step to look at that. And then obviously, at the same time, discuss what are the elements of the enduring presence beyond 2014 that we're going to have to put in place.

FP: Let's just pretend that he's going to want as big of a fighting force as possible, can he feel confident that to get through the fighting season next year and really cement this ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] sustainability issue and to get maybe the rest of the bad guys...

PANETTA: My view is that the president of the United States will rely a great deal on the recommendations of General Allen as to what he needs to accomplish the mission.

FP: Conventional wisdom is that before 2014, there's still a big fight to come between Kabul and Pakistan, so that is the real trouble area, that this is not going to be sitting it out for a couple of years like the end of Iraq. Is that fair to assume?

PANETTA: Yeah, yeah. In terms of?

FP: That this is still going to be heated fighting to come...

PANETTA: Oh yes, especially in the east. The east is being able to transition those areas, being able to make sure the Afghans are in fact capable of maintaining security in those areas, is going to be something that we're going to have to work hard at. This is going to be some of the toughest areas that we've gotta deal with. Having said that, one of the things that represented a turnaround in 2011 was the fact that the Afghan army was becoming much more effective operationally at doing their job and that they'd become much more capable and we're continuing to see that not only in battle, but we see it in special operations as he probably pointed out.

When something does happen there, when a terrorist strike occurs or an IED goes off, it is the Afghans that immediately go in and provide security. But that's the test, is to make sure that they have the capability. That will tell us a great deal. If they provide good security, then I think good governance can follow.

FP: It's striking to hear this conversation, which is about the Middle East, about Afghanistan of course...

PANETTA: You're just making my point I made at the beginning. All hell's breaking loose [laughter].

FP: Well, what's so striking, right, is that the other big headline news of the week, if we weren't talking about the Middle East, and we weren't talking about Iran and Israel, would have been what's going on between China and Japan, and it seems like something that's escalated. There are questions about the Chinese leadership and who exactly are you going to get to meet with and where is the heir apparent... maybe you can have the first interview with Xi Jinping. 

PANETTA: One of my challenges is to find out where he's at [laughter].

FP: So first of all, how is it possible for the U.S. to think about rebalancing toward Asia when there are so many security threats outside the region, number one; and then, number two, give us a little bit of a sense of how concerned you are about what appear to be rapidly escalating tensions between China and Japan as well as some of its other neighbors.

PANETTA: One of the things about the United States military is we have to walk and chew at the same time. The fact is that we have to deal with threats around the world and have the capability of doing that. I think that's a test of whether or not we are a strong military power is our ability to be able to do that. And in many ways that's exactly what we're doing.

At the same time we're talking about rebalancing to the Pacific, we have deployed a large force to the Middle East. That force, two carriers, plus all of the other elements that we've deployed out there, are for the purpose of being in position to be able to respond should there be a conflict with Iran. Now, fortunately, those forces are now responding to these other events that are taking place.

At the same time, when it comes to the Pacific, we have a significant naval presence; we have a large number of troops -- how many do we have in South Korea now? About 20,000 plus, almost 25,000 in South Korea, plus a large Marine contingent in Okinawa, and now we are also developing other deployments there in Darwin, we are looking at developing a deployment to the Philippines as well, and try to pursue these kinds of rotational presence approaches that we've made as part of our strategy.

So we continue to focus on the Pacific. I do [video teleconference] with Sam Locklear [commander of Pacific Command] in the same way that we do [video teleconference] with Jim Mattis in Centcom to really look at that area, you know, how are deployments going, how can we strengthen our position there, and at the same time, what are the issues that we're confronting there.

One of the areas of concern that Secretary Clinton pointed out that we are all concerned about is the whole issue of the South China Sea and these territorial disputes that are creating the potential for conflict between these nations. Now the good news is that the nations of the Pacific, specifically the ASEAN nations, have recognized this problem and for that reason tried to develop a code of conduct to try to deal with these territorial disputes. We are still waiting for an enforcement mechanism, still waiting for them to put teeth in the process, but the fact that they've been able to do that is an indication that they want to try to resolve these issues peacefully. What we've urged both China and Japan to do is to resolve these disputes as peacefully as possible as well, and that will be one of the things I will urge Japan to do, in the stop in Japan as well as China. These kinds of disputes have to be, we have to find a way to resole these peacefully. There are a lot of concerns in that area, issues dealing with nuclear proliferation, issues dealing with the whole question of maritime navigation rights, issues dealing with trade that have to be dealt with. The challenge for the countries there is to be able to develop a mechanism that allows all of these countries, China as well as others, and the United States to come together in a peaceful way to try to resolve these challenges. That's what I'm going to try to urge.

FP: So you see yourself as a mediator?

PANETTA: In many ways that's what I think the United States can do.

FP: Are you sticking around for a second term?

PANETTA: I do these damn jobs day to day [laughter].

FP: Maybe that's why you've been able to do so many.

PANETTA: That's right, I've never kinda said, "OK, I'm going to do this at that time in the future." I always do these jobs day to day and try to do the best job I can and then see what fate brings me.

FP: I was on [former Defense Secretary Robert] Gates' trip to China and a big concern is how much the U.S. knew about their strategic forces. Are you going to go there as well and what concerns does the department still have about what the U.S. knows about their command?

PANETTA: One of the keys to a better mil-to-mil relationship with China is transparency. That's one of the things that I'm going to urge. I suggested to [Chinese Defense Minister] Liang Guanglie when he was here, that we try to look at -- people didn't think I should broach the issue -- but I said, let's talk about cyber, let's try to see if we can have greater transparency on cyber. Let's talk about some of our military capabilities. On the intelligence side, I had a very good relationship with China on the intelligence issues. Even though relationships would go up and down, there was a good relationship because we had very good communication and exchanges with regards to intelligence information. What I'd like to do is try to take that same approach and apply it on the mil-to-mil basis. You know we're going to have differences, and policymakers will have differences, but if we can maintain a steady relationship, a transparent relationship -- what are the capabilities, what are the areas we can work on, you know what can we do together, can we do exercises together, can we try to improve that knowledge and communication -- that I think would be helpful to both countries, so that's what I'm going to try to work on.

FP: So China is not our geopolitical number one foe.

PANETTA: I'm not going to get into the Romney game.  


National Security

The Air Up There

How Sec. Michael Donley sees sequestration and the future of aerial warfare.

Foreign Policy sat down on Sept. 12 with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, who took office four years ago after his predecessor, Michael Wynne, was fired over the service's mishandling of nuclear weapons. Donley took over an Air Force that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates had accused of mismanaging the way it bought weapons and of not providing enough intelligence planes to the counterinsurgency fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the years since, the United States military has pulled out of Iraq, is preparing to leave Afghanistan, and will slash defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade. Meanwhile, Pentagon planners are worried about high-end weapons, seemingly designed to keep U.S. forces at bay, that are being fielded by nations such as Iran and China. Donley is now in charge of a service that is revamping itself to face the challenges of 21st century warfare -- and budget reductions.

In fact, one of the biggest short-term challenges is the uncertainty of whether the service will have the money to buy and operate 1,763 stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 100 or so new stealth bombers, and 179 new KC-46 tankers that it had planned to purchase, should U.S. lawmakers fail to reach a deal on deficit reduction in time to thwart further massive cuts in defense spending that are scheduled for January. Donley warned that the across-the-board cuts to defense under a process known as sequestration will be catastrophic: "It is not possible to take that much money out of the defense program and not have an impact on units, on states, on businesses, on communities -- the dollars will come out somewhere."

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation, in which Donley offers his thoughts on sequestration, the Air Force's plans to buy new weapons, the shift to Asia, and the meaning of Air-Sea Battle.

FP: You've been in office for four years, what are your top priorities for the rest of your time as secretary?

MD: Obviously we're focusing on making sure we address all the issues we have that were of concern regarding the nuclear enterprise, and we're continuing to focus on that work, which is very much a zero-defect environment, so we always have an eye on that. Certainly partnering with the other services and coalition partners in today's fight remains a very, very high priority for us. Air Force capabilities remain very much in demand by combatant commanders, especially in the [Central Command area of responsibility] and attendant areas. Modernizing our inventories and making sure our significant modernization programs remain on track also is a priority for us.

Also, developing airmen; we rely on an experienced, highly trained cadre of airmen to do what we do and making sure that their requirements, their needs with respect to training, readiness funding, and support for their families are also attended to.

Also, continuing to improve our acquisition process. Those five are things we continue to work on.

In the near term, in terms of how we package these issues in the context of the strategic and budgetary constraints we outlined at the end of last year, and as we made strategic decisions going into [fiscal year 2013] informed by the Budget Control Act and the new strategic guidance that we got, if you sort of package up our issues in the context of those two major pieces, [the priority is] really focusing on our strategic choices that we made, which were to be a little bit smaller, to trade size for quality, but to be a ready Air Force that will continue to improve in capability over time. We will leave room even in a constrained budget environment for continued modernization of the Air Force, making sure that even though we're smaller going forward, we continue to get better and that we're always ready for whatever contingencies are right out in front of us.

I think the overarching challenge right now is to sustain those strategic priorities in the context of a lot of budget uncertainty going forward with the conclusion of [fiscal year 2013], the preparation of fiscal year ‘14, and the sequester overhanging all of that.

FP: Are you moving ahead as normal with your planning for FY-14 and beyond?

MD: The [Department of Defense] is reviewing the services' [five year funding plans -- known as POMS -- for fiscal year  2014] but there's a great deal of uncertainty because the Congress has not resolved the sequester problem and all of that overhangs DoD's planning right now.

FP: But you're not officially planning for sequestration?

MDNo, but the closer we get [to the January 2013 deadline for Congress to reach deal on national deficit reduction] the more interested we get in understanding the details and the potential impacts not just to the Air Force but to the rest of the department, and they're significant. We need and expect the Congress to address this overhanging challenge of sequester before the end of this year.  

FP: I've heard you say time and again that sequestration would be catastrophic for the Air Force.

MD: It would be for all the services including the Air Force; it would have an impact of at least 8 to 10 percent in most of our accounts, in some cases a little bit more, [and offer] very little flexibility in how it's implemented. It would affect the readiness of the Air Force, the accounts that support our operations and maintenance, potentially flying hours, maintenance of aircraft, civilian personnel. On modernization programs once again, [there would be] very little flexibility on how it would be implemented. Each program, project, activity would be decremented and this is extremely disruptive to existing contracts and to program management and execution. It's very much a negative and disruptive process if it's implemented.

FP: What are the long-term security challenges that you're trying to position the Air Force to meet?

MD: I put them into two contexts. First is the geostrategic context -- the guidance we received from the president and the secretary of defense to put additional focus on the Asia-Pacific region -- but we're doing that at a time when the Centcom [Central Command] area is still very much in demand. Even though we're out of Iraq and we have a plan to draw down in Afghanistan, our experience is that those draw-downs often involve a continued requirement for Air Force resources. Often the combatant commander, as the ground combat force footprint shrinks and becomes thinner in a geographic area, wants more or continuing levels of overhead presence from airpower resources, they want the continuing ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] availability, if not a bit more to cover uncovered areas on the ground.

In addition, we have the overhanging issues in the Centcom [area of responsibility] of Iran and how the U.S. and its partners in this region will respond to the instabilities and potential threats from the Iranian government, and then also, the instability in Syria and the migration of al Qaeda and its affiliates, if you will, from contested areas that we've been fighting them in the Af-Pak region to places like Yemen. Those are the challenges I think, in geostrategic terms; to put a little focus on the Asia-Pacific region, but as we do that we're still quite busy in the Centcom area.

FP: Can you elaborate on the Air Force's role in the shift to Asia?

MD: Of our overseas permanently based forces, about 60 percent of that is already in the Pacific for the Air Force. The region really highlights the importance of range and speed and the attributes of airpower, given the vast distances that are involved. It's for this and other reasons that the Air Force and the Navy have collaborative approaches, through initiatives like Air-Sea Battle, to work issues of common interest and concern. It applies to other regions as well, but especially in the Pacific there's a great deal of synergy between air and maritime needs and interests. In addition, some of our high-end capabilities [are in the Pacific]. About 60 percent of our non-training F-22s are positioned toward the Pacific theater, and certainly we have new capabilities coming on board that will be applicable to the region. And different from a COIN [counterinsurgency] environment, they will be more applicable to potential higher-end threats that we face, not just in the Pacific but elsewhere. Probably the first overseas basing of the F-35 will occur in the Asia-Pacific region; obviously the new tanker will be useful in that region; the long-range strike bomber, when it comes on board, will be obviously applicable to this region where you're working long distances.

FP: How is the F-35A -- the Air Force's version of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- coming along?

MD: F-35 is the department's largest acquisition program ever; it's actually largest Air Force acquisition. It accounts for 15 percent of our total [modernization] investment, so it's a significant program. It's obviously a joint program for Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps. It's an important international program already and of growing importance as we have a number of partners involved in this work, so it's a must-succeed program; it's going to be a very capable platform. We continue to work through the concurrency issues. ["Concurrency" refers to efforts to simultaneously test and field an airplane. Aircraft are usually thoroughly tested before production and delivery.] And some of that testing and working kinks out is taking a little bit longer than we would like, but we're working through that. We already have 22 aircraft delivered, 13 in the test program, nine aircraft have been delivered to Eglin Air Force Base, which is the first training site. In the conventional Air Force version, we have 1,000 sorties under our belt in the test program and 2,000 flight hours. We are undertaking what's called an operational utility evaluation, which is a brief but independent assessment of where we stand to help inform certification that we're ready for training. So we're getting close to the point where we will begin F-35 training at Eglin. We're not quite there but we're working up to that, and we've been flying the F-35 at Eglin for the past several of months. Again, there are remaining technical issues to be resolved -- it's a highly concurrent program -- and some producability issues. We'd like to get the costs down even as we need to resolve some of the technical issues. But at the same time [the program is] delivering aircraft and we're not far away from beginning training, I hope.

FP: do you have an estimate for when F-35 flight training will begin?

MD: No. Again, we're taking a conservative approach to it but slowly building up the hours, the experience with the aircraft . . . we're working up to it. [The start of training] will be the next important milestone.

In addition, we're making decisions on where the F-35 is going to be based. We're putting more focus on maintenance and sustainability, the infrastructure that will support F-35 operations. The program is turning in many respects from just an acquisition program into a program that is being fielded, and we're addressing the broader issues of sustainment and supportability going forward. So the Air Force is quite active right now in working all of those issues, apart from the program office which is focused on building airplanes and working through the test program.   

FP: How is the family of next-generation, long-range strike systems, particularly the new bomber, coming along?

MD: It's progressing as planned. I can't talk about it in detail but it's, again, a very important capability for the Air Force. I think the strategic review from last winter demonstrated the importance of long-range strike and ended up reinforcing the capabilities that long-range strike brings to the combatant commander -- the range, the payload, the flexibility. It's very much needed in the context of modernizing the long-range strike fleet because obviously the B-2s are 20-plus years old, they're the newest of the bombers, and they're the only stealthy capability in the existing fleet. Replacing the B-1s, replacing the B-52s is going to take some time, but it's very much necessary to meet the modern threats that are out there. The bomber program is intended to get after that and to start delivering capability in the mid ‘20s. I think we've benefitted from the B-2 and other related programs that are underway. Our focus on this program is to make sure that it is undertaken with cost in mind so that we can build them in numbers. Between 80 and 100 is the target number for procurement, and it's important to maintain cost control in the program, as [then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates] highlighted for us as he put together the framework for governance of this program just prior to his departure. I think the program is on track and I think we have the right sight picture of cost-consciousness, not trying to put too much capability into a single airframe but taking advantage of the operational flexibility that goes with [having the bomber operate as part of] a family of systems that involves not just the bomber but recognizes the importance of communications systems, electronic warfare, ISR, and weaponeering that is connected not just to one platform but is connected to a variety of systems with which the bomber will interact.

FP: Are those joint systems?

MD: There's joint work in that mix.

FP: There's still a lot of confusion out there regarding Air-Sea Battle; what is it?

MDIt's an organizing concept, if you will, for how to marry air and maritime power in a way that helps us address contested environments where threat capabilities have grown in a fashion that can endanger or threaten global commons. I think it just brings into sharper focus, at the operational level, those [areas] in which the Navy and the Air Force have common issues -- airspace management, for example, missile defense kind of issues, ISR issues, common weapons that the Air Force and the Navy have developed for many years, electronic warfare -- all these areas that are pertinent to how one operates in a contested environment are very pertinent to Air Force-Navy cooperation to our joint development of not only technologies but operational concepts which develop synergies between the air and maritime domains.

[Air Sea battle is] all about sort of identifying opportunities for collaboration in that world and to get the best thinking on both sides of this equation.

FP: Can you elaborate on the Air Force-specific challenges that remain in the Middle East?

MD: I remind folks that of the nearly 30,000 or so airmen in the Centcom [area], only one-third of those are in Afghanistan, the other two-thirds are elsewhere throughout Centcom supporting the needs of the combatant commander and contingencies or presence or ISR or other work in support of the Centcom [area] that's not Afghanistan. The U.S. has always had a presence in the [Persian] Gulf of one kind of another, and that's likely to continue going forward, especially given the instability in the region.

The other thing I would mention in terms of threats, I mentioned the geostrategic [threats], but the other is the functional or technical issues that our military needs to address that represent new challenges. Missile defense is one of the more obvious [things] that has grown in importance over the last 20 years or so as ballistic missile technology has proliferated in the Centcom [area], for example, and other places as well.

Obviously, the cyber domain is growing in importance as both an area of opportunities, but also of growing threats. The proliferation of information technologies and the importance of the cyber domain is a new area for the military -- in relative terms -- where we'll have to progress and we'll get better at even though defense resources are going to be constrained.

Another is space situational awareness. There are now, I think, 59 space-faring nations, and the space domain is now more congested than it had been, say, 30-years ago, and it's more contested as well. We have requirements for space situational awareness just to know what's going on in space just for safety of flight issues if nothing else. So we have new requirements in that area that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago.

In these new technology areas . . . there is growth and need to continue to evolve our forces, even as we potentially get a little bit smaller given the budget constraints going forward.

FP: Can you talk about political resistance to the Air Force's cuts in everything from aircraft to the realignment of Air National Guard units as it tries to become a smaller but stronger force?

MD: In relative terms, we're still at the front end of the defense reductions that are now being discussed. So the Budget Control Act from last year caused us to make commitments to $487 billion dollars in defense reductions over the next ten years and this was the first [budget] cycle where we actually had to go to the Congress and say these are the kinds of things we're going to have to do to meet the requirements of the Budget Control Act and these are the kinds of strategic level decisions we're making. There will be give and take going forward, I'm confident.

In the larger context, it's important to take into account that this was the first opportunity for Congress to really see and understand what it meant to take $487 billion dollars out of the defense program and what it might mean going forward if additional reductions in defense need to be considered depending on how the national leadership works through all those issues between Congress and the president. This is not easy, and it is not possible to take that much money out of the defense program and not have an impact on units, on states, on businesses, on communities -- the dollars will come out somewhere.

Again, this is the first cycle where Congress got to see some of those things, and not all of the proposed reductions were well-received. But again, it's the normal course of our democracy that there will be give and take on these issues but there's certainly more [cuts] to play out to implement the requirements of the Budget Control Act . . . and whatever comes from future deliberations between the Congress and the president.

Editor's note: Donley's spokesman emailed FP the following statement on unmanned aircraft.

MD: We've clearly seen the value of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the joint fight, and we've made the institutional commitment to this important capability within our Air Force. For example, we've created career fields for Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilots and sensor operators, and over the past two years, the Air Force has provided initial qualification training to more Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilots than bomber and fighter pilots combined.

Although almost every area of our budget faces constrained resources, we have taken care to protect the distinctive capabilities on which our teammates depend. So we have minimized reductions, or in some cases increased our investments, in areas such as Long Range Strike, Air?Sea Battle-related programs, and special operations, but also in Remotely Piloted Aircraft because they are clearly a part of our Service's future.

As you suggest, they do currently have some vulnerabilities, to include flying in hostile air environments. The RQ-170 is a low-observable Remotely Piloted Aircraft being developed, tested and fielded by the Air Force, and we also are looking at how we can capitalize on the benefits of remotely-piloted platforms in non-Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions. A good example of that is our work on the Long Range Strike bomber, which will be designed to accommodate manned or unmanned operations.

So there is no question that Remotely Piloted Aircraft will be a permanent part of the Air Force inventory, and we will continue our work to maintain the right mix of remotely-piloted and manned, high-performance aircraft for the joint team.

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