WASHINGTON, July 8, 2009 – While devoting much of his National Press Club address today to efforts under way in Afghanistan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was quizzed on a broad range of other defense issues ranging from the war in Iraq to the defense budget to possible revisions to the military ban on homosexuals.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen focused on three major areas: efforts under way in the broader Middle East, military challenges elsewhere in the world, and the need to reduce stress on the force and take care of wounded warriors and the families.

Here are highlights of his comments and responses during a question-and-answer session:

On Iraq:

Drawdown plans are on track, with the significant decreases to begin early next year, Mullen said, noting that violence is down to the lowest level since 2003 and 2004.
Meanwhile, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the cities by the June 30 deadline stipulated in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement proceeded smoothly. “That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a vulnerable time. Times of transition always are,” he said. “But I’m confident right now that we’ve got the strategy right and we’re in support of the Iraqi security forces.”

On Iran:

Iran’s nuclear-weapons development plan – one Mullen said he believes is moving forward – has the potential to cause an “incredibly destabilizing” impact on the region, the admiral told the group. “They still continue to move down the road toward nuclear weapons,” he said. “They are state sponsors of terrorism. And they are generally a destabilizing influence in the region, and still are in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

On North Korea:

North Korea’s leadership “continues to be a destabilizing force” in the region, he said, as evidenced most recently by its missile launches conducted in defiance of the United Nations Security Council. “I’m actually encouraged by the unity of the international community with respect to continuing to isolate the North Korean leadership,” Mullen told the group. “And I think that’s important,” he said, “and that we need to keep that pressure up.”

On China:

Mullen said he’s long believed that a rising China is a positive for the world, as long as it rises as a peaceful nation. But he expressed concerns about China’s strategic intent, and questions about its increasing investment in defense. “Where is that going?” he asked. “Clarifying that strategic intent over time, I think, is very important.”

On cyber security:

While not directly addressing the recent spate of cyber attacks targeting U.S. and South Korean Web sites, Mullen said he’s “increasingly concerned” about the threat, whether from individual hackers or state entities. “That’s something I think we all need to be concerned about,” he said. “It’s a growing concern.”

The Defense Department is “constantly probed in the cyber world,” he conceded, but he added that he’s “comfortable that we are on alert.”

“We recognize the probes, and we are responding,” he said.
Leadership across the board has recognized and is addressing the threat, but Mullen said a corps of cyber-security experts needs to be cultivated to maintain the focus.

“It’s a growing concern, and we need to have this as a big part of our focus with respect to [it being] a growing concern, and we need to have this as a big part of our focus with respect to the threat now and in the future.”

On balancing military capabilities:

Mullen called it “absolutely critical” that the military build more irregular warfare capability, an emphasis Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has built into the fiscal 2010 defense budget request. The goal is to “move that pendulum” from its current position, in which 60 to 70 percent of defense spending goes to conventional capability, he said.

“For me, it’s all about balance,” he said. “It isn’t about moving the pendulum from one side all the way to the other. It’s about balance for the future.”

On stress on the force:

Mullen said he sees “growing indicators” — including rising suicide rates across the military — that the troops are under stress. Today’s troops are the best he’s seen throughout his career, Mullen said. “And yet we’ve asked them to deploy multiple times, for longer periods of time than expected,” he added. “And there is extraordinary pressure and stress on them, and not just on the members, but also on the families.” The military is addressing those needs, beginning with top-level emphasis, he said, noting that the key, more than anything else, is leadership focus on these great men and women.”

On caring for wounded warriors and families of the wounded and fallen:

The United States as a nation owes these troops and their families a huge debt that must be repaid, Mullen said. He noted that their lives have changed dramatically, through wounds or loss of a loved one, but their dreams haven’t.
Mullen credited stepped-up cooperation between the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs with helping to meet their needs and reach toward their aspirations.

But another big part of the equation, he said, comes from the American public. “Communities throughout the country reach out to those who’ve given so much and touch them where they need support and make a difference that sustains their lives over a period of time,” he said.

On possible changes to the military ban on homosexuality:

Mullen said the president wants to change the so-called “Don’t, ask, don’t tell” policy, which prohibits officials from inquiring into servicemembers’ sexual orientation in the absence of disallowed behaviors, but allows action to be taken if a servicemember discloses homosexuality by word or action. But he noted that the policy is a law that’s been in effect since 1993, and changing it would require legislation.

In the meantime, Mullen said, the secretary of defense has directed the department’s general counsel “to look at a more humane way to execute the policy.”

Mullen said he hopes that any policy change is implemented in a way that “recognizes the challenges and the stress that we’re under right now.”

“Should the law change, certainly we will carry it out,” he said. “I’ll certainly lead.”

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