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CHIPS Articles: Q&A with U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis

Q&A with U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis
NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, Commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command
By CHIPS Magazine - July-September 2009
NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation and commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command Gen. James Mattis gave military, government and industry leaders his view of the future joint warfighting force and the challenges they will face at a major defense conference in Virginia Beach, Va., in May.

Mattis discussed current and future threats to national security and stressed the importance of a joint force able to conduct conventional warfare, as well as hybrid warfare, which could be a mix of peer-to-peer conflict, terrorism, criminal activity and cyber warfare.

The general said the U.S. armed forces needed to avoid the historic experience of one of our allies, using as an example Great Britain, which kept a watch on the cliffs of Dover for Napoleon 120 years after he was dead.

"We need to stop looking for Napoleon and start looking for current threats," Mattis said.

USJFCOM produced a document called the Joint Operating Environment (JOE) which examines trends and disruptions in the geopolitical and military landscape, such as: shifting demographics; globalization; economics; energy; food; water; climate change and natural disasters; pandemics; cyber; and space. These trends form the framework for exploring the following types of scenarios: competition and cooperation among conventional powers; potential challenges and threats; weak and failing states; the threats of unconventional power; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; technology; the battle of narratives; and urbanization.

The JOE is meant to be read in conjunction with the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO), which was signed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Navy Adm. Mike Mullen Jan. 22, and developed with assistance by USJFCOM. Representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, as well as U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Strategic Command, also assisted in the JOE and CCJO development.

The JOE, currently under revision for 2009, "has influenced our Quadrennial Defense Review inputs, it has helped frame scenarios we are putting forward for what we may have to face in the future, it has helped reduce ambiguity so we have the fewest regrets … we can not get it perfect, but we can certainly reduce the scope of regrets we have," Mattis said.

After his opening address at the Joint Warfighting Conference, cosponsored by USJFCOM, the U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA International, Gen. Mattis spoke with the media.

Q: From a military standpoint, what should the elements of [national] strategy be?

Mattis: We had a grand strategy during the Cold War against communism, called containment. We need a grand strategy today. Since the Berlin Wall came down we have gone into a very complex world, but the new administration is putting together their grand strategy, as I believe they must. We will nest the U.S. military strategy appropriately within that, and then I will know what kind of forces to deliver.

In the interim, we will keep modifying the military force to make sure it meets the grand strategy, the political strategy.

Q: You talked about military history and mentioned lessons learned from past conflicts, and you said there are things that we never should have forgotten. Were you referring to counterinsurgency doctrine that we used in Vietnam?

Mattis: Yes, but that doesn't mean it would have been adequate on its own. We have to adapt because each war has its own character. Certainly, there are timeless things that we should have carried forward. Part of the cost of Vietnam and the country's dismay was that we just wanted to leave all of it behind, not just by years, but also intellectually.

Unfortunately, an enemy will spot our weakness and work against us in that manner.

Q: You think lessons were discarded by military leadership after the Vietnam War because it didn't end as well as we would have liked?

Mattis: The reality is that Soldiers get condemned sometimes for fighting their last war. We were more focused on the future rather than bringing forward the lessons of counterinsurgency.

Q: If you don't want to fight a past war then do you have to plan for any possible contingency?

Mattis: We have to look at what is most likely. In recent conflicts, like Georgia, Russia, the 2006 Lebanon War, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan, we can see how the enemy is adapting. Plus, the enemy often writes what they are going to do. I like to look at jihadist Web sites. They tell what they are going to do. They are going to make sure that no girls go to school. They are going to kill Americans. They are going to have sleeper cells. They tell all of their plans.

Q: You said something in your remarks about how the technology the troops are carrying right now makes them more vulnerable on the battlefield. What do you mean by that?

Mattis: I was talking about the radios. We have gotten so used to robust command and control networks that we think at higher headquarters that we can know all, see all. And, in fact, we have every reason to expect that in the future those networks will be broken down.

We have seen the enemy penetrating our networks, whether it be banking or stealing identities, and we have had Defense Department networks under attack. We know they can get inside, and we should anticipate that they will take these down.

I suggest we had better be ready to operate with degraded and, at times, no communications so that we don't have people waiting for orders. That's why I used the example of Admiral Nelson [before the Battle of Trafalgar] hoisting the flag and saying, England expects that every man will do his duty, because troops will have to take the lead sometimes.

Q: Has technology helped in the current fight?

Mattis: Absolutely, the technology has been an enormous help for us. We can pass information quickly and a lot faster than the enemy can. It has been a wonderful help, but we must not allow it to become our key vulnerability, which it could, if we overly rely on it and don't educate the troops to operate on their own initiative when, not if, those systems go down.

I know those systems are going to go down, so when they do, I want to have the troops say I know exactly what to do because I know what my commander wants done.

There will be opportunities on the battlefield that even today they can take advantage of much faster than technology can give them authority to do so. We are talking about unleashing initiatives, trust, harmony and those kinds of things more than pure technology as command and control.

Command and control is how do I make decisions as a commander and get troops to act on it with everybody working together. We have started believing that it is the number of data bits that we can put over a certain electronic pipe, that's not it. We are talking about unleashing command and feedback, not command and control.

Q: Could you connect the dots between the NATO Multiple Futures Project and the JOE?

Mattis: The JOE and the CCJO are focused on the operational level of war — how we mix Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and civilians. When we get a national strategy, we will have to adapt operationally to that national strategy.

In my NATO hat, the Multiple Futures Project harvested good ideas from across Europe and America, the French White Paper [on defense and national security strategy], and from think tanks. We held roundtables in Berlin, Geneva and London. The Swiss military brought in nongovernmental organizations like the Red Cross and United Nations. We got these ideas together to help inform the strategic dialogue.

The JOE was an effort at the operational level, and the strategic dialogue is where I focus the Multiple Futures and NATO. The Secretary General of NATO has invited me to speak as he starts the strategic concept dialogue in July in Europe.

Q: Will these documents have an impact on the European Union?

Mattis: The EU and NATO draw from almost the same forces. I am a NATO officer, but in many, many, many cases, it is in NATO's best interest to work with the tightest possible collaboration with the EU. It will certainly reverberate there and since we drew ideas from the same nations that are part of the EU, I think that you will find a lot of commonality.

Q: You are linking up squads for joint ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) but then also taking command and control and breaking it down and giving commanders on the ground more control. Is there tension between squads being given more comms gear and then having it taken away?

Mattis: There could be, but I don't think so. They carry the gear now. It is just a matter of translating and having the 'interware' that will allow the software to come down.

Once the Air Force came up with ROVER (Remote Operated Video Enhanced Receiver), suddenly every service could pull down every other services' UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) feeds. There are ways to do this. This is technology and where technology works, it really works.

In the future, a troop will be able to switch from his satellite phone to his FM phone, to his AM phone. He can talk to an airplane, he can talk to his squad mates, or his commander, and when the whole thing goes down he will have other ways to communicate. They may be old-fashioned ways with colored air panels on the ground.

Because we know we are going to run into a challenge does not mean we are going to surrender the technological fight. We still fight it, but we are very cautious about relying on something we know that the enemy will eventually, just like we will, exploit.

Q: What makes this conference important to you and what do you hope to achieve here?

Mattis: We have to figure out what problems have to be solved and get the right people to try to solve them. The military can't solve them on their own. Industry can't, neither can universities and academia. Americans can't do it alone.

You will notice the number of foreign officers here. We get everyone in the room and there are all sorts of discussion and understanding and cross-fertilization on problem solving. This is very useful for us.

Q: Are you training commanders to accept [decision making at the troop level]? Is it difficult?

Mattis: I am responsible to train all one-star and three-star admirals and generals and new ones in the military when they come through. The primary message is that we bring their operation to the speed of trust.

We decentralize command and control and push it down. We train to this. It is happening across the military. Some services have cultures that permit it and accept it already, and others are going to have to adapt.

They can use the models from some of the other services. This is one of the values of having different service cultures. As technologies and the characters of wars change, then a different service's command and control that might not have looked right 20 years ago may be the one that we all gravitate to.

That is why I don't want a joint culture that subsumes the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. I want them each to have their own and for us to harvest the good out of all of them.

Q: But the responsibility that goes with command and control can't be delegated?

Mattis: No, it cannot. At the same time, understand that you can't regulate everything in war. War rubs the veneer of civilization off you and leaves bare the character underneath. Bad things happen sometimes in war. The enemy gets lucky sometimes. Young guys make mistakes. The fear can be paralyzing at times.

When you hold people accountable, I would just ask that before you judge somebody walk a mile in his moccasins. I would especially encourage members of the media to walk a mile in somebody else's moccasins before you condemn them.

The pressures on young commanders, whether it is a squad leader that is 20 years old with eight guys around him, with him as the oldest guy there, or a general in combat, understand that they are all trying to do their best, and we're not perfect.

Q: You have people that have been in war eight years making decisions; they come back into organizations with the normal chain of command. How do you improve training so they don't get bored?

Mattis: We have two services that take most of the casualties — the Army and Marines. They both have the highest reenlistment rates in their history right now so clearly something is resonating with them, and it is not just the economy because this was true three years ago as well.

You institutionalize what you have learned in these wars. By institutionalizing it, in the future, instead of the decision being made by a colonel, you will leave that to the captain or to the sergeant. There are ways you can build it into your daily routine. It is already happening in many of the services. Some of the services never had trouble with this. They have always sent captains off to sea.

The commander of the British forces going to Korea in 1950 to join the U.N. forces under U.S. command and control was given one order, 'Do what is in the best interest of the queen.' That was it. Then they sent him to do it. That's trust.

The reenlistment rate shows that they are not being turned off by it. They may complain about it at times. I complain too when I have too much command and control over me. Even four-star generals complain about that.

Q: Your memo on [the flawed nature] of Effects Based Operations last summer created a bit of controversy. It seemed to be welcomed by people with ground force experience in Iraq and Afghanistan but generally rejected by air power. Are you still getting push back?

Mattis: In my experience at Maxwell (Air Force Base), where I spoke with lieutenant colonels and majors, I did not get push back at all. I have had officers from various services say they support it 100 percent, but they wouldn't say so in public because it would ruin their careers.

… It's been overwhelmingly well received, and I was surprised by how little push back it got. I was shocked. The only thing harder than getting a bad idea out is getting a good idea in.

Q: How flexible are decision makers to change the players in the [acquisition] programs as well as the equipment that is being used?

Mattis: I think we are pretty good at it. If you look at a U.S. Soldier today, and a U.S. Soldier from six years ago, his combat gear doesn't even look like the same Army. There is nothing on him that is the same. His rifle is shorter; it has sensors that allow him to spot the enemy. They have different uniforms and different radios. The Personal Role Radio, the little radio in the ear, comes from a British company and was bought on short notice when we went into the fight in Iraq.

We have British airplanes and Harrier jets. If it is a good idea, I can just about guarantee you we are interested in exploring it. People are making MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) trucks for us today that had never built one military vehicle.

Q: What steps are you taking to institutionalize knowledge gained?

Mattis: On the joint level, I look at what the joint needs are. If the Army is running a good course on ground advisers in Afghanistan, that includes how to get joint ISR, I endorse them and make sure that Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all get to have that course.

We are opportunistic. Where it needs to be joint, it's joint. We are gathering this all up in a couple of places. We have a Joint Center for Operational Analysis. We also link with NATO Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Center – JALLC, so NATO troops can get the advantage of the American lessons learned.

We have a tight bond between the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines lessons learned people who pass it around inside their own network, and it gets out rapidly to the pre-deployment training sites.

There are a number of things the services have put out — Small Unit Leaders' Guide to Counterinsurgency and the Army/ Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. It is all out there; it is just a matter of if you have time to read it all.

Gen. James N. Mattis
Gen. James N. Mattis talking to members of the media at the Joint Warfighting Conference May 12, 2009, at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.
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