A U.S. Navy surface warrior, Adm. Michael Mullen rose to the military's top uniformed job amid two land wars.Having commanded three ships as a midgrade officer, Mullen finishes his careers as one of the rare admirals to have held a quartet of four-star posts, including chief of naval operations, vice chief of naval operations and commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe.
His final year as CJCS - he retires Sept. 30 - has been marked by the start of yet another military campaign over Libya, debates over the timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan, and a Washington debate over whether and how fast to cut the federal - and Pentagon - budgets.
Q. With Osama bin Laden dead, Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanding foreign forces leave his country and relations with Pakistan fraying, Americans, including those who have served in Afghanistan, say the best course is to withdraw as soon as possible. How do you measure progress there? And is the mission still achievable?
A. As you said, bin Laden is dead [and that] had a huge impact on al-Qaida, but it didn't eliminate al-Qaida. Their leadership still lives there, and they still threaten and plot to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. We need to, from my perspective, continue to press on al-Qaida to defeat them, strategically defeat them, and that can only be done there.
With respect to Afghanistan, we are working our way through a long-term strategic agreement now, to which President Karzai has indicated very strong support, and all of that's tied to a long-term partnership there. The idea that President Karzai wants us to leave is one I just don't sign up to. We've certainly had our challenges with respect to being there and dealing with the Karzai government. That said, we've worked our way through an awful lot of that. [Gen.] Dave Petraeus, in particular, [has addressed] the civilian casualty piece [and] the private contractor piece.
We've, with the Afghans, developed an Afghan National Security Force that has got increasingly better, and that really is the long-term answer to the security challenges.
Q. And their buildup has been sufficient?
A. When you look back over the last 18 months in terms of what they had, with respect to training infrastructure, trainers, schools, they had virtually nothing. We were recruiting people off the street on a Friday and putting them in the field on Monday. That's just changed dramatically. We've got upwards of 35,000 Afghans in training this week in the various schools. We've focused on improved literacy rates, and we've made significant progress there.
We will have fielded by the end of this fiscal year, in the next couple of months, a force of ... a little over 300,000 Army and police. They're also in the field. They're leading in some operations. They're with us on all operations. So we've seen an awful lot of progress there.
We talk about the gains being fragile and reversible, and their gains have been significant, particularly in the south. They only become irreversible through the Afghan National Security Force and the Afghan people. That's been our main effort. So, with what we have achieved over the course of the last 18 to 24 months in terms of improved security, governance in those areas is starting to improve, the growth of the Afghan security forces. I do think it's doable.
Q. You were among the first to label the growing U.S. debt as a national security problem. If the debt limit isn't raised by August and the nation defaults, how will that affect the Pentagon? What's being done to prepare for that possibility?
A. We went through a period of time, as I know everyone is aware, where we almost shut the government down and the preparation that we had for that certainly was instructive on what we had to do. I certainly don't hope we get to that point again. One of the first questions a spouse asked me was ... if she was going to get paid [while] her husband is deployed. And that becomes a fundamental question. Some of our families really are living paycheck to paycheck, so we have to be really careful with that.
At the strategic level, with respect to the debt challenge, I actually do still consider our national debt to be the biggest threat we have with respect to our national security. We've got to solve it. From my perspective, it's really pretty simple math. The more significant that debt becomes, I think the smaller the budget at the Pentagon is going to be, which will reduce our capability over time fairly dramatically.
Q. The president is calling for a $400 billion cut in security spending by 2023. Some say that number could rise. How much is enough for defense?
A. [Defense] Secretary [Leon] Panetta and I have sat down and talked about this being a top priority to figure out how to get at the $400 billion reduction. Right now, that's the target. That's what the president ... gave [former Defense Secretary] Bob Gates, and that's what [we] are working on.
Clearly the immediate focus is on '12 and '13. I have said from the beginning that I think defense has to be on the table. We all have to participate in this. We have to be very careful about it. My priority is to make sure we fund these wars, that we take care of our people and their families, and it's my view that when you look at cuts like this or changes like this, we're going to have to slow down in certainly some areas, to include very possibly some programs that just have to be eliminated if they're not performing as they should be, from my perspective, or slowed down fairly dramatically.
We've been through this before. We're fighting two wars. We've also got a significant level of hostilities in a place like Libya. We also still have the terrorist threat. We have to be very careful as we look at how we make these adjustments and do so in a way to make sure that we can continue to sustain ourselves and meet the national security requirements that are out there. I think this is doable within the confines of the challenges, the requirements that we have right now. I think [if] there are additional cuts that come after that, we're going to have to get to a point where we're going to have to do less.
Q. What are some of the tough decisions you're advising Panetta on? Where are you going to cut?
A. Those decisions, obviously, have not been made. We're going through that now. What is very important is that we work our way through this, what we call comprehensive review, which will lay out a strategy so that we all understand the strategy we're trying to adhere to and execute, and then make decisions about programs and people that get to the $400 billion in a way that supports that strategy. I think a haircut, or everybody just taking a little off the top, isn't going to work. I think we have to be very precise and focused in where we do take cuts, and they will come.
I think when you go through a decade like we've been through, when you've had the money and you haven't had to make hard choices, we have lost that. Secretary Panetta, the president, myself, the service chiefs, the ser-vice secretaries have all said: "We'll make hard decisions." One of my goals is to make sure that we make them together.
Q. Where can you take risk?
A. That's really going to be tied to the strategy. It's going to be something that we will look at in terms of areas [that] create opportunities for potential savings, but I'm not prepared to say where that would be right now because we haven't worked our way through that.
Q. Is the military ready for fundamental personnel reform?
A. Coming from the mid-'90s, where we were not a well-compensated force and we did not have the kind of programs that we have now for our families in terms of the support and their readiness, family readiness has become an integral part of our overall readiness. We are a well-compensated force right now, and I think, as we look at these reviews everything is on the table, including pay and benefits. I think we have to be very careful with that kind of thing.
When I was the head of the Navy, somewhere between 60 to 70 percent of my budget was people costs. That's active, Reserve, military and civilian. And for a predominantly ground force, like the Marine Corps, like the Army, it's actually higher than that. In order to make some changes, you have to go where the money is, and that's where a significant amount of the money is. We have to do that carefully. I would certainly not advocate deep cuts in that area. But we need to look in that area as well as our procurement accounts, as well as our operating accounts. And those are three big buckets, and we're going to have to make some changes in each of those.
Q. What are the threats that keep you awake at night?
A. The single biggest existential threat that's out there, I think, is cyber. I think we're going to have to focus a lot more on it. We're going to have to put more resources against it. We're going to have to train people better. Because cyber actually, more than theoretically, can attack our infrastructure, our financial systems, etc. It's a space that has no boundaries. It has no rules, and there are people who are very good at it. There are countries who are very good at it.
Q. What do you hope to achieve on your visit to China?
A. One of the things I've tried to focus on in the last decade or so has been those countries whose economic engines drive the world. China is one of those. We're another. There certainly are others. And so having a military-to-military relationship is, I think, really important. I'm returning to China visiting my counterpart there, Gen. Chen Bingde, who was here just a few weeks ago and invited me to come.
The whole idea is to establish a relationship that can withstand some of the differences, to talk about some things that we agree on, the counterterrorism world, the maritime domain, piracy - and also be able to discuss some difficult issues. And between his visit and my visit, hopefully establish a pattern where these become routine. It was seven years since his predecessor was here, and too often this military relationship gets broken off. Under any conditions, whatever they might be, I think we have to have the ability to talk to each other.
å Born: Oct. 4, 1946
å Education: U.S. Naval Academy, B.A.; Naval Postgraduate School, M.S. in Operations Research; Harvard Business School, Advanced Management Program.
å Selected commands: The tanker Noxubee, guided missile destroyer Goldsborough, guided missile cruiser Yorktown; Cruiser-Destroyer Group 2, U.S. 2nd Fleet.
Source: Defense News research