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Refocus on combat skills, top officer says

Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen's comments contrast with Gates' emphasis on current, not potential, conflicts.

June 08, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military's top uniformed officer on Saturday urged the armed forces to rebuild combat capabilities that have atrophied during the protracted counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The focus by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on major-combat skills contrasts with recent speeches by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Gates has urged the Army not lose its focus on counter-insurgency and has criticized the tendency of some military officers to focus on potential future conflicts at the expense of trying to win the wars it is engaged in now.

A senior aide to Mullen said the chairman was not trying to draw a contrast with Gates. The aide said the two men were in full agreement on likely future threats faced by the U.S.

Mullen, speaking at graduation ceremonies at the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa., said the military's "most pressing long-term problem" was maintaining armed services that are correctly shaped, equipped and trained.

"We must also stay prepared for a range of military operations," Mullen said. "We cannot sacrifice the future for the sake of the 'now.' "

Mullen did say he expected the counter-insurgency mission to continue, and potentially grow. But his remarks centered on a need to preserve skills useful in high-intensity conflict.

He lamented that some Marines had never deployed aboard a ship and that Army artillery officers had not been able to focus on their core mission.

"We must now set about the task of restoring some of the more conventional and expeditionary capabilities these two services will require in the dangerous and uncertain years ahead," he said.

Mullen said the Navy's current fleet of 280 ships was too small, and criticized the Air Force as failing to focus on its nuclear mission. On Thursday, Gates sacked the civilian and military leaders of the Air Force in the wake of a report that found problems in the oversight of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

That decline in nuclear oversight, Mullen said, "erodes our nation's ability to effectively deter and to defeat potential major adversaries."

In his speech Saturday, the chairman also sounded a theme Gates has occasionally discussed: the need for senior officers to listen to more junior officers.

"We've got the most combat experienced military -- Army and Marine Corps especially -- than we've had since the Vietnam War, and we must preserve the lessons this experience has taught us," Mullen said.

The high pace of combat deployments, Mullen said, has created a junior officer corps that is "wise beyond their years."

Some Army lieutenant colonels and other midlevel officers, many of them fresh from commanding battalions in Iraq or Afghanistan, spend a year at the War College before going off to serve as staff officers and planners.

Mullen said those officers needed to ensure that the lessons being learned by young lieutenants and captains would not be lost.

"We've come too far, learned too much, not to take those lessons and do something with them," Mullen said. "You have an obligation, a duty, to listen to, learn from, and lead those in your charge."

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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