May 28, 2008

An Interview with Gen James Conway, Commandant, USMC


This Week In Defense News, 11:00 AM

VAGO MURADIAN: Good morning and welcome to “This Week in Defense News,” I’m Vago Muradian.

We have a very special show today. For the first time, we’re welcoming a service chief to the program. It’s an honor to have with us this Memorial Day Weekend General James Conway, the 34th commandant of the United States Marine Corps. He’ll be with us for the entire show talking about the war, modernization and the tougher, more agile Corps he envisions for the future.

First, a quick look at the evolution of the United States Marine Corps. It was founded in Philadelphia’s Tung Tavern on November 10th, 1775 as America’s naval infantry. Today, it’s the nation’s 9/11 force, a self-sustaining, quick reaction unit operating from Navy ships and equipped with its own ground forces, strike aircraft and cargo helicopters. But since 2001, the Marines have been land-bound, America’s second army. This spring, 3,200 Marines deployed to Afghanistan, pushing the number of U.S. troops to more than 30,000, the most since 2001. But can the Marine Corps sustain large forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for extended periods?

To help ease the burden, the Corps is growing to 202,000 Marines by late 2011. That means adding some 27,000 more Marines, and unlike the Army, which has struggled to meet its recruiting goals, the Marines are ahead of schedule, exceeding goals.

But the Marines are also at a crossroads. The nation continues to depend on the Corps for war needs in Iraq and Afghanistan as the commandant wants his Marines back at sea, fully equipped to fight from it in the future.

Marine Commandant James Conway, thanks very much for joining us.

GENERAL JAMES CONWAY [Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps]: Vago, thank you very much for the opportunity to be aboard. Congratulations on the increasing popularity of your show.

MURADIAN: Thank you very much, sir. That’s what we like guests who give us compliments. Thank you, sir.

What is the condition of the Marine Corps right now in terms of manpower and equipment?

CONWAY: Well, it’s good. It’s stressed. But I continue to be amazed at the resiliency of the young Marines, their willingness to fight the nation’s wars. Their willingness to accept seven months deployed and seven months home as a matter of routine and do it again and again. I am concerned about our families. They’re very proud of what they’re doing, but they’re also probably the most brittle part of the whole equation. And so we’re taking special efforts to see after their needs while their Marine is deployed and try to enhance or make it even better their quality of life.

In terms of the equipment, it’s being ridden very hard. We have opted to leave major portions of our equipment in the theater. We were concerned initially that there could be sort of a precipice where that gear would really start to show the wear and tear, and what we found actually is that putting the mechanics in on a routine basis, a very good supply line, in some cases, they actually run better when they’re run hard.

We’ve been able to keep what we call an amber green board, which means it’s staying at roughly 90 percent or more availability. So we’re very pleased with that.

MURADIAN: Your forces, the most combat experienced since Vietnam, yet you say you want your Marines to be tougher than they already are. What have you learned in six years of continuous combat that brings you to that conclusion?

CONWAY: Well, tougher is a relative term. I want two things of our Marines. I would say, first of all, one, is that we need to get back to our expeditionary mentality. Right now, our Marines are living on cots pretty much have three squares a day. When you move on to an austere environment, such as we are prone to do in our past; you’ve got to accept that. You’ve got to adapt to it. You’ve got to make something out of it.

So we need to make sure that we maintain the expeditionary mentality. The other thing that we’ve got to get back is our ability to do many more things for the great nation. Right now, we are a very tough, counterinsurgency force, but that’s what we train to do. That’s what we do when we’re deployed. We’re not doing amphibious exercises. We’re not doing combined arms, live fire maneuver.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: We’re not doing mountain training or cold weather training, and those traditionally have been our core competencies.

So those are the things that given time and given a better rotation that gives us more time at home, we need to get back to it.

MURADIAN: You’ve campaigned to get out of Iraq and take over the Afghan mission. Why is that something that’s so important to you?

CONWAY: Well, things in the Anbar Province where the Marines are almost exclusively assigned are very, very good these days. I mean there was a time when it was the deadly, the volatile al Anbar, but towards the fall of ‘06, that changed dramatically. The Sunni sheiks came to us and said we’re tired of the al Qaeda. We now know that they are our worst enemy, not you and if you would join with us we will help you slaughter them, their term. And that’s what’s been happening ever since.

So today, some time after that, we find ourselves in a nation building kind of role and the Marine Corps is not manned or trained or equipped to do that. So at some point in time, we would like to turn that over to forces that do have a better capability in that end, and either move to another fight or start expanding on that dwell time so that we can get back some of those core competencies.

MURADIAN: Do you think that some of those capabilities that you honed in Anbar would be particularly useful though now in Afghanistan given the situation there?

CONWAY: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. We have honed again our counterinsurgency skills over and above where we were, say, in 2003, and we learned a great deal about tribalism, about how decisions are made and what those key decision points are.

We have done a good bit of nation building, and that’s going to be a natural part of any counterinsurgency force. So although the languages are different, there are cultural differences of course. There are still lots of overlap and lots of carry over that were we to be assigned to Afghanistan in larger numbers, we think it would be very valuable to us. Yes, sir.

MURADIAN: Each one of the services have changed dramatically over the past years since the war on terror, yet Secretary Gates has still occasionally criticized the military for not having changed enough or sometimes being too whetted to old time operational concepts, saying that the future is going to be much more like today than it has been.

Is the Corps changing as fast as he and you would like? And where do you think that you do better?

CONWAY: The answer – it is changing, to the degree that we need to change to be very competent in the environment that we face. But it’s my belief and the Secretary and I have had this conversation fairly recently that those rounds that he’s firing right now are going over our head. He’s not necessarily talking to us because Marines have broad applicability, either in a counterinsurgency environment or in a major contingency op.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: And he and I had the dialogue that we are primarily in play at the tactical and the operational level.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: We don’t do strategic much at all. We don’t get involved in space. We don’t do ballistic missile defense. We don’t have a strategic reserve.

MURADIAN: You’re not developing the satellites?

CONWAY: No. No. I assure you that. And so we have a flexibility that is applicable in virtually, again, any kind of an environment and the things that we’re buying are, again, focused to be able to go both ways.

MURADIAN: You are increasingly, obviously, the size of the force. But do you have enough people to handle Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as start to put more people at sea? The reason they haven’t been going to sea is in order to lighten the load on the deployed force?

CONWAY: Well, we’re gaining more people. We have been given, Vago, the authority to grow 27,000 additional Marines and we’re in the process of doing that very rapidly. Those additional units are going to help with regard to our numbers of Marine units able to deploy, ultimately, then our deployment to dwell. But right now, again, we’re pretty well taxed. If there should be a decision to move more Marines to Afghanistan, there must be a reduction of the 26,000 or so Marines that are in Iraq for us to be able to do that.

Unfortunately, we routinely have to say no to some of the other combatant commanders who would like our forces out there engaging as part of a naval force or just an independent Marine force with some of the nations that they’re trying to influence.

So we will have more Marines, but we don’t have enough right now to satisfy all our requirements, I think it’s fair to say.

MURADIAN: We’ll be right back with General James Conway about the Marine Corps modernization priorities. You’re watching “This Week in Defense News.”

(Commercial break.)

MURADIAN: The operational heart of the Marine Corps is its Marine air ground task forces or MAGTAFs. One of those MAGTAFs is the Marine Expeditionary Unit or MEU. If you parked a MEU at sea just off Baltimore, you could project 2,300 Marines and their equipment hundreds of miles north, south and inland and sustain them in continuous combat operations for 14 days, enough time for reinforcements to arrive, and with V-22 Osprey tilt rotors, those Marines can get there twice as fast and go three times farther than with conventional helicopters. But money remains the biggest challenge. The Marines want the Navy to buy more amphibious ships. They want to buy more joint strike fighters and expeditionary fighting vehicles to ferry troops quickly from sea to shore. That program, however, is behind schedule and over budget.

Once again, we’re joined by General James Conway, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Sir, are you growing the force too late? There’s a school of thought that says that as the budgets come down, as many say it’s sure to happen, that you’re going to have to cut modernization by several billion dollars a year in order to keep people around?

CONWAY: Vago, my answer may surprise you. But I think for a garrison type of environment, 202,000 Marines are too many. We’re better disposed at about 175 (thousand) to 180,000 perhaps.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: But right now, the nation is at war. We did not for whatever combination of reasons grow our forces – Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines at the beginning of this war, and so I think there is a necessity to have a larger Marine Corps and Army. We are under stress, and I would simply say that this may be a generational struggle, and in that period of time there can be a lot of uncertainties out there.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: That the nation needs to be able to deal with. So until such time as we’re through that and we see our way clear to the other side, I think it’s simply wise to have more Marines and soldiers.

MURADIAN: Do you – we mentioned the V-22 there in a little intro piece. What advantages has the V-22 brought the Corps in Iraq? And when does it go into Afghanistan?

CONWAY: Yeah. Well, let me answer the first part of your question with facts. The first squadron has just recently come home from Iraq, a seven-month deployment with 263. We were very pleased with the first combat deployment of that aircraft and that squadron. I’ll be honest; we purposefully downplayed the success they were having throughout the seven months because we wanted to finish the deployment. We wanted to make sure that our initial assessments were correct, and that the airplane was going to be everything we wanted it to be in replacing the venerable old CH-46 and our CH-53 Deltas. It has done that. The availability rates – the mission performance, the way that all Marines, both aviation and ground are attracted to the new capabilities of the airplane is just incredible and we’re delighted with the success that we’ve seen.

We’re now open to the media and to the congressmen on the Hill, the success of that deployment.

Let me give you one example of the capability of the airplane. When we crossed the line in ‘03, I said to my boss, General McKernan, let me make sure that you remember that if you need 1,000 Marines anywhere on the battlefield within 100 miles of where we’re located, we’ll come out of our tracks into our helicopters and be there for you in 12 hours. Today, if a Marine commander were to make that same promise it would be anywhere 300 miles on the battlefield.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: That’s the tremendous additional capability that this aircraft gives to us.

MURADIAN: On a vehicular side, you said you don’t want additional – any more MWRAPs than you absolutely need in order to do the current mission. EFV, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle has been on the drawing boards for about 20 years and it’s costing billions of dollars, but it’s still not ready and the language has changed a little bit from saying that EFV is critical to the capability is critical.

What do you mean by that? And what do you do for mobility to replace some of your other vehicles?

CONWAY: Yeah. The EFV is absolutely critical. As an anecdote let me tell you, I just got back recently from a trip to China where I rode aboard their EFV. So theirs is already functional –

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: And in the fleet. We need one dramatically because with anti-excess systems that exist really throughout the world now, you saw even Hezbollah use them in the dust up with Israel in ‘06, and now the Navy does not intend to take its large and expensive ships and their sailors and my Marines closer to than about 25 miles to the beach. Our current vehicles move through the water at about eight knots.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: That is a long swim in potentially some very heavy water. We’ve got to be able to close that distance in a much faster way than that EFV getting above the water and planing across it at about 30 knots, gives us that capability. So it’s absolutely essential to us as both a means to close the beach and then it transitions into our armored fighting vehicle.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: For purposes inland.

MURADIAN: You’ve said, you’re seeking more amphibious ships. The Navy has balked a little bit at that. Critics, however, point to your recent deployment to Afghanistan by saying that your Marines flew. Their equipment went on sealift ships and Nassau sailed alone, the Nassau ESG. Why did that happen? And do you really need as many amphibious ships in the future?

CONWAY: Well, I would say that those things you just described more talk to our adaptability to go into a landlocked country than it does the need or the value of amphibious ships, and I guess I would also correct one thing. The Navy has lots of shipbuilding requirements right now, amphib ships are one of them, but last year an amphib ship was their number one unfunded priority, this year, it’s their number two unfunded priority. So I’m working with CNO, and the Secretary of the Navy in order to try to be able to gain, say, more amphibious ships for our needs.

America needs a forcible entry capability, and we and our brothers in the Navy are essentially it and we need to maintain that at a minimal level of capability, and right now, that represents two brigades of Marines. That’s not a lot.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: If you’re going to go across someone else’s shore, that’s not a lot of Marines when you know that that adversary is going to be reacting quickly to where you do go in. Now, the other thing that I’ve got to say is that when you say amphibious operation and amphibious assault, most people visualize Tarawa or Iwo Jima. Today’s amphibious operation looks nothing like that.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: And so it’s a whole different tactical and operational evolution that depends on sophisticated things like the EFV and like the Osprey.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: To take down an enemy force.

MURADIAN: We’ll be back with General Conway, Marine Corps commandant in just a moment to talk about the future of the Corps.

(Commercial break.)

MURADIAN: We’re back with General Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps.

Sir, very quickly. What is the Marine Corps going to look like in 2025? And what are some of the terrible choices on the way to the future forces?

CONWAY: Vago, what I’m shaping it to look like is a two-fisted fighter, able to move quickly to a major contingency operation with the force necessary to be successful, but also able to fight these counterinsurgency fights that may be necessary in a counter-insurgency somewhere. We think we can do that.

The terrible choices that we’ve got to make have to do with our deployability needs. We go aboard ship. We go aboard the aircraft at Transcom. Right now, we’re two heavy. Right now, we’re serving very much in a second land army role in Iraq, the heavy MWRAPs, the additional rolling stock, the additional weapons and communications equipment.

We have got to shed in order to be able to meet those transportation means.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: Along the way, we give away protection for our Marines, and we’ve got to get that right and that’s the terrible choice that we’ve got out there is how light is too light.

MURADIAN: And so that balance, in your mind, it’s not inconsistent to say you want to be lighter, more agile, but still maintain the 30 ship, deploy 30,000 Marines and their gear requirement? Or are those two things incongruous?

CONWAY: No. I don’t see them incongruous at all. We can deploy as many as 30,000 Marines. We can deploy less. But again, if you’re going to conduct a forcible entry operation, it is a race for time. You put a force to shore and you establish a beachhead, it’s only a matter of time before you receive a counterattack.

MURADIAN: Right.

CONWAY: So you can be too small if you’re talking about forcible entry across another nation’s shore.

MURADIAN: What are the specific kinds of threats that you’re building the force for in the future? Is there any specific scenarios that are guiding you or are they more generalized?

CONWAY: Well, that’s always been our dilemma as Marines; go anywhere, do anything on behalf of the nation. That’s why we teach adaptability and flexibility. That’s why we have various weapons systems – sampling of high-end things, but with emphasis on the qualities of our great young Marines, so that we can face whatever foe may be there.

MURADIAN: We’ve got a little bit of time left. JSF, are you convinced it’s going to be okay? The Navy has balked a little bit on the program.

CONWAY: Well, its got to be. We have not balked a fighter aircraft now in ten years. We have skipped a generation of aircraft to get to this fifth generation kind of capability. It is a very high priority for the United States Marine Corps.

MURADIAN: DDX. The Navy is building this ship to support your need for precision persistent fires. Does that requirement still stand?

CONWAY: The requirement stands. It’s an asymmetric advantage that we have. I asked two things for the CNO, one, give us those kinds of fires from the sea, and secondly, be able to protect our Marines in the sea base through its lead defense systems.

MURADIAN: One last, quick question. You’re going to be commemorating the 90th anniversary of Fellowwood, where the name Devil Dogs was founded. Where do you stand on this debate in the Marine Corps about being called Devil Dog or not?

CONWAY: Devil Dog is traditional. It’s a historic title. It’s one that’s awarded to combat Marines and everyone should be proud to be a part of it.

MURADIAN: Sir, thanks very, very much.

CONWAY: Pleasure to be aboard again. Thank you very much for the opportunity.

MURADIAN: Next up in my notebook, French military power plans clash with its economy. You’re watching “This Week in Defense News.”

(Commercial break.)

MURADIAN: After months of suspense, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government finished a draft strategic review that makes clear that France’s lofty military ambitions had finally collided with financial reality. There was no choice. The European Union wants Paris to balance its budget and curb its debt as Sarkozy drives to refresh the French economy. It starts with more realistic planning constructs like planning to deploy 30,000 troops in a crisis instead of 50,000.

Consider that France’s last major combat operation was during the first Gulf War with 10,000 troops. The draft report recommends the French army be cut by 10,000 to 120,000. The Navy’s second aircraft carrier likely will be delayed and purchases of multi-mission frigates cut from 17 to 11 ships. In a contingency, the air force would be asked to deploy 70, rather than 100 combat aircraft and purchases of the Rafael fighter from DASO would be slowed from 18 to 12 a year. But intelligence gathering, which should mean good news for space programs and higher research and technology spending are new priorities.

These are big moves for a Marshall country that prides itself on being a European defense and security leader and a global power. But as bitter a pill as it is, Sarkozy realizes that he has no choice if he’s going to make good on his campaign pledge to reinvigorate the country’s stagnant social and economic systems.

Thanks for joining us for “This Week in Defense News,” I’m Vago Muradian. You can watch this program online at defensenewstv.com or you can e-mail me at vago@defensenewstv.com.

I’ll be back next Sunday morning at 11. Have a great week and a happy Memorial Day.


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