WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 2011 — As the last month ticks down in a career that began with his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, today offered his view of how war, peace, society and the world have changed over those 40-plus years.
He’s seen some of the most significant military changes ever during his tenure as chairman, he told the audience gathered here at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This has been a tumultuous four years,” the admiral said. “I do remember when I took over this job … the state of Iraq; the despair that was there in so many corners, the vector we were on, which was certainly headed for failure.”
In contrast, during his last trip there a few weeks ago, he flew over Baghdad at night with some “Army guys” who served there early in the conflict, Mullen said.
“It looked like a sea of lights, like you were in Las Vegas,” he said. “They’d never seen traffic on the streets of Baghdad at night, and it was jammed.”
The turnaround in Iraq will be debated by historians, Mullen said, but he credits two primary military factors: courageous leaders at the top, and the uniformed men and women who carried out their orders.
Mullen said his three priorities as chairman have been the broader Middle East, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and defeating al-Qaida; the health of the force; and the rest of the world.
The best day of his term of chairman was “the day we got [Osama] bin Laden,” he said. “That also represents 30 years of work since ‘Desert One,’ when we failed in the Iranian hostage rescue. And we rebuilt not just our Special Forces and our special operators, but our military.”
Blood, sweat, tears and a lot of losses have resulted in an adaptive force that is the world’s best, the chairman said.
“Obviously we’re in the middle of executing a very difficult and challenging campaign in Afghanistan,” he said.
There has been steady security progress in that country “since we put 10,000 Marines in Helmand in the summer of ,” he noted.
The counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan has implications for that entire region, including Pakistan, India, Iran, China and “the ’stans,” he said.
Responsible nations need to focus on the entire region, so the situation there doesn’t deteriorate into civil war or a failed state with nuclear weapons, Mullen said.
The United States today faces security challenges different in both number and nature from those he knew as a young officer serving in Vietnam, he said.
“This is not 1990; this is not 1970,” he said. “This is a world that, from my perspective, still is very, very dangerous.”
“I talk about two existential threats to the United States right now,” he said. “One is obviously the nuclear weapons that exist in Russia; we think that we’ve got that well controlled inside the [current strategic arms reduction, or New START] treaty and inside the relationship.”
The other is cyber attacks, which “I think … actually can bring us to our knees,” he added.
The cyber threat has no boundaries or rules, and can issue from other nations, nongovernment actors ï¿½ “You pick it,” ï¿½ but the danger it poses warrants a structure of doctrine and regulation like that used to control the nuclear threat, he said.
“We’re a long way from that right now,” he said.
As the United States and Russia reduce their nuclear arsenals, the traditional nuclear triad of bomber aircraft, land-based missiles and ballistic-missile submarines “at some point … becomes very, very expensive,” the chairman said.
“I think a decision will have to be made in terms of whether we keep the triad or drop it down to a dyad,” Mullen said.
Mullen said he has worked to strengthen the nation’s military communication with China, and worries that the United States and Iran have had no formal communication since 1979.
“Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union,” he said. “We are not talking to Iran. So we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculations.”
While the military now uses different doctrine to counter different threats than it did when Mullen began his career, the force today is more capable and more professional than he dreamed of then, he said.
Mullen noted that people who wear the nation’s military uniforms now make up less than 1 percent of the population.
“Our major units now are on their fourth, fifth or sixth deployments since 2003,” he said.
While service members and their families have been “incredibly resilient,” the chairman said, the average American has no idea of the depth of stress with which they live.
While he feels strongly that the nation does not need a military draft, the chairman said, military leaders must work to connect service members with the greater nation.
“American citizens are stunned at what we’ve been through,” he said. “I do worry … that over time, our connection is eroding. I think that’s a very bad outcome for America; an outcome this democracy could not stand — to have its military essentially detached from its people.”
Mullen said he’s seen 18-year-olds enter the military and leave it changed for the better.
“I believe broadly, a couple years of service — in any capacity ï¿½ would be good for our young people in the country,” the chairman said. “In neighborhoods, in communities, with the Peace Corps, with the military … something that exposes them to the broader world, and gets [them] a connection to the challenges and recognition of the opportunities.”
Mullen said during his own career, he has relied on the partnership of Deborah Mullen, his wife of more than 40. During his term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he also has relied on his military colleagues, he added.
“I have had the great privilege of leading young men and women who are the best I’ve ever seen,” the chairman concluded, “but doing that with a group of four-stars that are exceptionally strong. I think we’re in pretty good shape.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)