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CHIPS Articles: Understanding the war on terror

Understanding the war on terror
By Adm. William J. Fallon - April-June 2006
Adm. William J. Fallon, the "silver fox," flight officer and warrior for more than 39 years, talks about the global war on terror and the new technologies needed to meet the mission challenges ahead.

Adm. Fallon's remarks have been edited from his address at WEST 2006 in San Diego, Calif., Jan. 12, 2006. WEST is sponsored by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) and U.S. Naval Institute.

The No. 1 focus area in the Pacific is the war on terrorism. It is the No. 1 issue for our nation. This war today is a worldwide challenge in which national will and perception are paramount features. This is a real problem, and I welcome your feedback.

From where I sit (or fly, since I spend most of my time in the air), I get the feeling that the majority of American people don't quite get it. This is not a slam, it is not an indictment or accusation, it is just an observation. While there is a lot of talk about the war, I don't think most of us truly understand what it is that we are involved in. I can offer that probably the No. 1 reason is that this conflict does not fit the concept and vision of a war as we have known it — at least in my lifetime.

This war is not specific to Iraq or Afghanistan, although these countries seem to garner most of the attention. It is quite understandable, since we have a couple hundred thousand of our best and brightest men and women engaged in conflict in those spots. They are in challenging circumstances every day. We are suffering some not insignificant casualties, and many sacrifices are made by these men and women.

But this is not the only place in which this war is being waged.

This fact seems to elude a lot of people. It is not just a conflict in which we have staged actors lined up force-on-force as in conventional warfare. There was that type of fighting in the first several weeks of the thrust into Iraq, but that is not the way it is now. In fact, we are facing a global, non-state terrorist threat in which our overwhelming conventional capability is being challenged asymmetrically.

We do not have a problem when we are challenged force on force. Ask any of our leaders or Soldiers, Marines, Airmen or Sailors in Iraq or Afghanistan, and I expect that you would hear that virtually in every conflict we have prevailed. But this is not traditional conflict as we understand it.

The principal weapons in this conflict are IEDs, improvised explosive devices. The intent is to maim and kill as many human beings as possible. The other weapon of choice is the suicide bomber. Interestingly, the key tool of this war is something very different than what has been used in other conflicts — the Internet. Enemy leaders have stated openly that the most important tool for them is the ability to communicate ideas and thoughts, and shape opinions using the Internet. That ought to be of high interest to all of us.

What makes this particularly challenging is that these tools, and the way they are being used in our society, which is very open, very trusting, and very much inclined to act in a free and unfettered manner, make us vulnerable. This is a real problem because philosophically we do not want to encumber ourselves with more security, more restrictions, and more things which confine and challenge us. The enemy seeks to exploit the freedoms and liberties which we cherish.

We are winning on the battlefield everyday. I just spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace, and Commander, U.S. Central Command Gen. John Abizaid, and many of our other leaders, who have been in the field the last couple of weeks. They have been to Afghanistan and Iraq, and they report that they sense a growing confidence among our people in the field and, more importantly, among the Iraqis with whom they are dealing. As the capabilities of Iraqi and Afghan security forces grow, this is beginning to have a ripple effect in Iraqi society.

This confrontation in which we are engaged is not going to be over any time soon. No matter how fast the Iraqi and Afghan security forces can pick up the burden to defend themselves, these are only two battlefields in this war.

Our enemies have a lot of patience, and they take the long view. But they have weaknesses. They make mistakes, and they have made a lot of mistakes in Iraq. I think that some of these recent desperate measures they have taken, including mass bombings of their own people, are beginning to have a very negative effect on their ability to win hearts and minds. Their own supporters are turning against them in significant numbers.

You only have to ask our people who are serving there or those who have recently returned to compare their experiences of recent months to a year ago. What I hear increasingly is that more and more of the Iraqi people are coming to our people, or to their own security forces, fingering the bad guys or the locations of IEDs.

The terrorists that we are challenged by thrive in areas of instability and insecurity. Our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are in trying to deny these sanctuaries to the enemy. But they have lots of other places in the world from which they are operating or could operate.

Let me segue into the Pacific Command area of operations. One of the key objectives of our staff, our subordinate commanders, our component commanders and all of the people in PACOM, is to work throughout the vast area. This area contains 50 percent of the world's territory, has 60 percent of the world's population, and 4 of the 5 largest gross domestic products of the world, including the United States, Japan, China and India. Fifty percent of the world's energy goes through one spot in the ocean, a mile-wide span in the Strait of Malacca. These are mind-numbing statistics. This region is critically important to the security of this nation.

One of our major undertakings in the Pacific and in Asia is to try to build the capability and capacity of our partner countries to deal with these insecurities and instabilities. Somebody brought to my attention that the number of countries in the United Nations has almost tripled since the U.N. began in 1945 with 50 countries. That sounds terrific. Unfortunately, half of these nations are dysfunctional, failed or failing entities.

It is this background that provides an attractive foundation for terrorists to operate in. It is not something that we are used to dealing with. We are challenged conceptually in getting our minds and our capabilities wrapped around this challenge to be able to work effectively against them, so that all of us, not just the people in the United States, but people throughout the region and throughout the world are able to enjoy the growth, prosperity and freedoms that we cherish.

It is axiomatic that this growth and prosperity will not occur unless stability and security underpin them. I salute my predecessors who have served in uniform the last five decades, who have worked intensely to provide security and stability throughout the Pacific region. In every country I have visited in the Pacific Rim, the majority of the people acknowledge openly that stability in the region has been and is underpinned by U.S. military power first and foremost.

We have help from tremendous allies like Australia. We do not have a stronger ally in the world than our good friends "down under." We have a strong relationship with Japan. I could go around "the Rim" and name all of our partners.

Think of the changes since the end of World War II. Japan has grown into a phenomenal economic powerhouse of democracy, a model, in many respects, for others to follow. Look at the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, India, and Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world with 250 million people, all nations with great potential.

Indonesia has some terrorist problems and networks. The networks get some support from the population, but my observation is that the majority of the people reject this ideology. Indonesia is fertile ground for trouble because economically it is still a developing nation. In its last national election, 76 percent of eligible Indonesian voters voted. Compare that to our voting record. You talk about democracy! They are working on it.

India, with one billion people, is a functioning democracy. It is different in many respects culturally, but they are aligned with us philosophically, in form of government and respect for rule of law. In this area, there is a tremendous amount of good going on, and we have to capitalize on those things that are going in our favor to help build stability.

The governments in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh are not the strongest in the world. They have very difficult borders to defend and individual feelings of mistrust with some of their neighbors.

Largely, underdeveloped countries with poor populations, who need the basics of life, are susceptible to the siren song of terrorists who say, "Look at what you have; we will give you something better." They do not tell them the truth about what comes with this something better. They tell them, "We will give you strong leadership." They do not tell them where they want to lead them, and that is down the road to the terrorist infrastructure that we see manifested in so many places.

As we look to the future, our ability to counter this worldwide threat is going to be underwritten and made possible by things that have not been our traditional focus. Because of the state-on-state nature of defense in the past, we have tended to focus on heavy metal — big ships, big tanks, big airplanes — and lots of them.

But today the requirements are a little different, we need speed, agility and persistence. When we talked to Gen. Abizaid about what is at the top of his list of priorities, he said it is the ability to have real-time, continuous intelligence information fused instantaneously to his operational people so they can act quickly. We need to act with small units against small units. That is the challenge today.

Sept. 11 was real, ugly and nasty. We lost a lot of people. We are losing and have lost a lot of people in the fights since then. Why doesn't this register with us? Why can't we see that this problem has not gone away? The many institutions in this country that have worked together to increase the security to prevent follow-on events are wonderful and deserve our praise.

Terrorist acts are going to happen again — almost guaranteed. Our enemies are still out there and seek to exploit our vulnerabilities. They are working overtime, and they are patient. They are biding their time. But I think we can prevail in this conflict.

We are going to need technical help. We are going to need hardware. We will need people who can think, connect the dots and pull things together. We need persistence. We need to be able to look at areas that are suspect and wait these terrorists out — and when they pop out — be able to do something about it.

There are a lot of characteristics of this combat environment that you in industry and government can help us with. Those in AFCEA and the U.S. Naval Institute can also be of great assistance. The forum that you offer in which people can sit down and start thinking and talking about these challenges is important.

From the PACOM theater, a vast area with lots of activity and many partners, communication and information exchange are key requirements. We cannot do our job without them. Through your good work in the technical field we are getting swamped with information and data. Turning that information into something that is useful that we can act on is a real challenge. That needs to be a top priority.

Interoperability with our allies, friends, partners and nonmilitary entities is essential for us to get our job done. Long gone is the solo flyer.

Good advice that I was taught early on is that you don't go into a fight without a wingman. When we do things, whether it is a combat operation or humanitarian operation, we do it with others. It is impossible to do the job unless we can talk to these people and exchange information in words, data or video.

One other point, I am tired of spending money, time and effort trying to connect the dots for technology equipment that does not "talk" to one another. Let's agree on some open standards and enforce them. Policy-makers, please make it happen.

For us, we need to curb our appetites so that we do not get overwhelmed by every new toy industry comes to show us. If it does not use open standards, and it cannot talk to any other device that we have in the field, I do not want to talk about it.

This is not a bottomless pit of resources, and the taxpayer is more than justified to demand that we do this more efficiently and more effectively.

We have joint operating environments today, and I would not think of doing anything, unless it is in concert with our sister services, allies, friends and nongovernmental institutions. We can leverage our talents and capabilities when we work together.

Whether it is tsunami relief, security in the Malacca Strait, trying to build capacity in Southeast Asia or trying to build confidence in Northeast Asia, Japan, Republic of Korea or China, PACOM is there. It is critical to work together in our own country and with our allies in this challenge we face worldwide.

We are blessed to have our men and women in uniform, who are carrying this fight daily to the enemy in some of these distant battlefields, serving so well in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the people we have, with their caliber and capabilities, with the tools you have provided our men and women in uniform, and the other organizations of government in this country, we can prevail.

I have confidence in our capabilities, certainly in our people, and I think that if people understand us better, we will have the will to prevail.

The stakes are really high.

U.S. Pacific Command is a joint command directing and coordinating the employment of U.S. forces in peace, crisis or war to advance U.S. interests as an active player, partner and beneficiary in pursuit of a secure, prosperous and democratic Asia-Pacific community. USPACOM, in concert with other U.S. government agencies and regional military partners, promotes security, deters aggression and advances regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. Go to for more information.

Adm. William J. Fallon; Commander, U.S. Pacific Command
Adm. William J. Fallon; Commander, U.S. Pacific Command

Jakarta, Indonesia – Adm. William J. Fallon, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, far left, meets with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, far right, at the palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 23, 2006. The two met to discuss security issues in the region including joint efforts in combating terrorism. Photo courtesy of the Office of the President of the Republic of Indonesia.
Jakarta, Indonesia – Adm. William J. Fallon, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, far left, meets with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, far right, at the palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 23, 2006. The two met to discuss security issues in the region including joint efforts in combating terrorism. Photo courtesy of the Office of the President of the Republic of Indonesia.
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