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SPEECH | July 27, 2016

Remarks by Gen. Joseph L. Votel at the 2016 Deterrence Symposium

As delivered

Gen. Joseph L. Votel, Commander, United States Central Command: Thank you for the very kind introduction here. It‘s great to have the highly coveted fourth keynote speaker position this morning. I‘m not sure what more I can say, but actually, my staff did a great job in preparing a really great speech here for me. Unfortunately, I kind of trashed it, so I‘ve gone rogue a little bit here this morning. I‘m sure they‘re all very nervous. I just want to talk with you a little bit about deterrence in the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM).

First of all, let me just again welcome everyone this morning. Cecil, thank you for the invitation to be here. It‘s great to be in the Midwest, being a Midwesterner. It‘s great to fly into a place and see lush green vegetation as opposed to desert and everything else there, so it‘s great to be here. And thanks to all of you for being here. I know there‘s a lot distinguished people in the audience, so let me just say, all protocol observed, it‘s very nice to be here and great to be speaking with you this morning.

What I‘d like to do is just take a little bit of time here and lay out the USCENTCOM deterrence narrative and talk to you about how I as a relatively new commander here−about four months in the saddle here at CENTCOM coming largely from a SOF background but also a conventional force background−look at deterrence in this particular theater here. That‘s something we pay an awful lot of attention to, and I‘ll try to lay it out here a little bit for you.

Let me just talk to you a little bit about the environment here, and I will read a brief paragraph to you here that I think is descriptive of the CENTCOM region.

CENTCOM is an area of responsibility that is complex, diverse and highly unstable. Sectarianism transcends international borders and weakens internal stability as competing sects vie for power and influence. Sectarian conflict historically positions countries like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt against Iran and its proxies vying for regional hegemony. Five years after the Arab Awakening, failed, political transitions and broken social contracts fuel continued unrest across the region.

Moreover, economic uncertainty and sustained low oil prices are devastating energy based economies across the region, contributing to reduced government services and diminished prospects for economic growth.

The disproportionately large youth population faces poverty and unemployment, aggravating an environment ripe for unrest, radical ideologies and violent extremist organization recruitment. Lacking realistic alternatives, a new generation of radicalized Islamists has emerged from the virtual realm to wage terrorist attacks across soft targets worldwide, including on other Muslims.

Proxy wars add further instability as regional powers compete for influence. A continued threat emanating from terrorist safe havens in the Khorasan is affecting security in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, further exacerbating the tense nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan.

Turkey, which I would point out is in General Scaparrotti‘s area of responsibility, is an increasingly volatile nation located at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe and plays a pivotal role in Iraq and Syria.

Additionally, powerful nations such as China and Russia are competing for regional access and influence, exploiting perceptions of U.S. disengagement, to further their own interest.

And despite the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran harbors continued nuclear ambitions and purports to be the major regional actor.

Collectively, these tensions fuel conflicts that reside within civil wars, insurgencies and terrorist campaigns, creating significant numbers of casualties, displaced persons and refugees.

You might wonder, after listening to that, why I left my very soft and cushy job at SOCOM and went to CENTCOM. But the reason that I did is because of the great opportunity that this region offers for us.

So after that description, how do you think about deterrence in an area like CENTCOM? I think about it really in four different areas in terms of what deterrence does for us.

First of all, it prevents. It prevents situations and confrontations like those I just described to you from elevating into open conflict. It helps influence and change behavior and decision-making. It helps assure our allies in the region and our other partners who have vital interest here. It helps provide a mechanism for de-escalating in the region, and it helps contribute to stability.

So my main message this morning for you about deterrence in CENTCOM is that deterrence plays a critical role in our comprehensive approach to security and stability across the whole area of responsibility. And I think this really offers us a great opportunity going forward here.

Frankly, despite everything that I kind of outlined in my description of the area, there really is a thirst, there is a desire for U.S. leadership and indeed, a preference for U.S. leadership in the region. And so this gives us an opportunity to bring in the mechanisms that we need to deter and reassure in this particular area. There are not many nations out there that can do this. There are not many that can lead a coalition to do this, so it‘s important that we step forward.

I mentioned earlier the youthful population−largely, in some cases, disenfranchised from their governments, but clearly a youthful population that looks to the West and desires some of those same attributes that we share here.

We have a series of some successes in this particular area, both from a historical standpoint and from a contemporary standpoint, and while I won‘t spend much time talking about the situation in Iraq or Syria or in Afghanistan today, I can tell you that in both of those areas, there is military progress being made. Our campaign plans are in fact making progress.

And importantly, we have contact every day, not just with our adversaries, but with all of our partners in this area. So what that purports for us is the opportunity every day to engage, to assure, to deter, to prevent these confrontations, conflicts, from elevating.

So let me just briefly discus three ways that I think about deterrence and how we are working to achieve the effects of deterrence in conjunction with a variety of other things that we have going on in this region. How we‘re trying to do that within CENTCOM.

First and foremost is through posture and presence. Now, I am a strong believer that the past is prologue here, so I think it‘s important to understand where we‘ve been in this particular region.

There was a time, in many of our lifetime right here, where the United States played a pivotal role in this region and had a very positive relationship not just with our Arab partners, but also with our Persian partners, with the Iranians. And many of you will remember the dual strategy that we had through the ‘60s and throughout most of the ‘70s. In fact, when I recently had the opportunity to meet with King Salman in Saudi Arabia, the first thing he reminded me of was the relationship that existed between his father and President Roosevelt and how important that was for them. So there is some history here, and I think that‘s important to understand.

Of course that all began to unravel in 1979 when our embassy was overrun in Tehran, and then shortly thereafter, when the Soviets invaded into Afghanistan, and President Carter and the administration at the time established an organization known as the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force under an organization known as Readiness Command. Interestingly, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force grew up to be CENTCOM, and REDCOM kind of grew up to be SOCOM in kind of our current piece here, so in recognition that, we had to start posturing and organizing for how we were going to address this.

In the early ‘80s we pursued exercises like Bright Star. Some of you might have participated in that and remember those early days of deploying into Cairo, Cairo West, establishing a footprint and learning to operate in that particular environment, not just on the ground, but in the air and on the sea. And that excellence that was developed through exercises like Bright Star is what gave us the ability to transition to more successful operations like Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield.

Along the way, we continued to formalize our basing--In Kuwait for our Army forces, in Qatar for our Air Forces and in Bahrain for our Naval forces. And those three countries and the bases that we have there are vital to our posture and presence in the region, and those countries play significant roles for us.

Over time, as Iran continued to build up their nuclear ambitions and we grew more and more concerned about that, we used those bases and others to deploy forces into the region so that we had the ability to deter and to rapidly transition from phase zero activities into phase one and beyond operations. And really, very much in a fight-tonight type of scenario.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, the JCPOA came along here. That‘s addressed some of the concerns here, particularly from a nuclear aspect and put that on a time line into the future. And we‘ve also disbursed our operations across the region. So we have well-developed infrastructure in Iraq and certainly in Afghanistan and a variety of other places here.

But my point to you is this. Posture and presence is extraordinarily important in an area like this. And it is increasingly important, particularly as we look to the increasing capabilities that countries like Iran are adding in terms of missile and air defense capability and creating what will soon be a very significant anti-access/aerial denial challenge for us. We don‘t want to have to fight our way back into the region in the event that we have to do something, so posture and presence plays an incredibly important role.

There are other aspects to posture and presence that we also have to consider and pay attention to. These take the form of agreements that we have in place--for access, for basing, for overflight.

It‘s interesting to me, one of the things I‘ve learned in this position, and I‘m not sure I had a full appreciation for this, is our longstanding relationship with Egypt has given us a premium in moving our ships and vessels through the Suez Canal. If you don‘t think that translates into significant and important posture and presence in the region, think again. It does. It gives us the ability to move rapidly and in a priority fashion between Europe and the Middle East.

So continued focus on agreements and across the area are very, very important. In some countries, we don‘t have these very well developed, but it‘s certainly an area that we‘ve got to pay attention to.

The last area I would just talk to you under posture and presence is our coalition. I am a dual-hatted officer as well. I serve as the USCENTCOM commander, and I serve as the Coalition Forces commander in the Middle East here. So a critical aspect of our posture really is our, what I refer to as kind of coalition compliant planning. That is where we bring on the members of our coalition and incorporate them into everything we are doing, right from the jump street. And this, I think, has helped us not only develop our own resiliency and capability here, but has also helped our partners with their posture and presence to support our common objectives here.

So my point to you here is that posture and presence really matters in an area like CENTCOM, and it really matters in a very significant way, and it‘s a key way that we address deterrence in this particular unit.

The second way that we do it in CENTCOM is through building partner capacity and resilience. Certainly all of you are aware of the principal strategy that we use in CENTCOM right now. It is a by, with and through strategy, which means that we attempt to accomplish our objectives, support our interests and pursue stability and security in the area by working with our partners, our coalition partners and certainly with our indigenous partners on the ground. It is a proven way of operating. It is not the fastest; it is not the most effective way of doing things. Our partners don‘t always do things the way that we would do things, but yet it is a sustainable, and it is a long term approach, and it is working for us.

So building partner capacity and resilience through a by, with and through approach is an important aspect of how we address deterrence in this particular area.

Along with that is our exercise programs. I mentioned Bright Star and the importance of an exercise like that to help us develop our posture in this particular area. Exercises today allow us to develop capability and capacity within all of our partners out here.

I would point out one very, very important annual exercise we do, mine-countermeasure exercises that we do in the Arabian Gulf that brings together a variety of different nations with mine-countermeasure capabilities and allows us to exercise that in the Gulf region, in places like the Straits of Hormuz and the other congested areas in that particular area, building capacity, building capability and demonstrating resolve and demonstrating our ability to address threats in that particular area. So again, another important aspect of this.

Certainly how we organize for combat operations is an important way of doing this. I mentioned briefly the mine-countermeasure exercise. I would suggest to you as you looked at the maritime component of USCENTCOM, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), the sub-organizations that exist under that, our various CTFs, are all coalition. They‘re all built around partners and sharing partner capabilities, and they represent a way of operating on a day-to-day basis and a way of transitioning for war. So certainly these existing organizations that we put in place are very, very important.

One of the great programs, of course, that we have here in the U.S. government is our Foreign Military Sales Program (FMS). Now I will tell you, having been to the 15 of the 20 countries in our area, I get a lot of criticism on FMS. By the way, that‘s not a program I manage; it‘s managed by Department of State…just saying. But certainly it‘s very, very important for us, but it is an incredibly important aspect of how we build partner capacity and resilience out here, and it is the best program that is available out there. I have seen first-hand what some of our other great power influencers have tried to do in this area. There is no other program that both equips, trains and sustains the way FMS does. It takes a little bit more time and requires a few more, a little bit more bureaucracy with it, but in the end, it really works.

So these types of investments are extraordinarily important, and they highlight the importance of not just the military aspect of this, but the diplomacy and all the other stuff that comes along with those aspects in building partner capacity.

Then finally, the last area that we pay attention to in this building partner capacity and resilience, is in professionalism and institutional building within our partners in the region that are out there.

Having just moved recently, come from Afghanistan, and a recent trip here, my principal discussion with the Minister of Defense and with the Chief of Defense was how we continue to build long-term professionalism into their officer corps, into their leadership corps, and how we build logistics and sustainment capability within their Ministry of Defense.

So professionalism and institutional building are really key aspects of building partner capacity and resilience.

So what I‘ve had to offer to you here is a second way that we look at building a deterrent capability by having very capable, well-equipped and willing partners in the region, and we do this principally through our building partner capacity and resilience aspect.

The final way that we approach, I think, deterrence in our area is through fostering long-term relationships, long-term relationships that can weather the sine curve that is often the view of people, of us in the region. Certainly they don‘t agree with all of our policies and politics back here, but it is extraordinarily important to recognize that the mil-to-mil relationships we have in place really serve as a long-term bellwether and a long-term way of managing country-to-country relationships. That is not lost on anybody in CENTCOM, and it is a very important aspect of how we build deterrence capacity within our programs and for ourselves, frankly, as I mentioned to you a little bit earlier. We just talked about Egypt, and our long-term relationship with Egypt is what has given us premium access to the Suez Canal. That isn‘t just earned by going and doing a single key leader engagement. It‘s about a long-term approach with them that gives us that.

So key leader engagements are an important aspect of what we do.

Also C4I, our common command and control systems, communication systems that are being put in place. One of the initiatives that we have put in place in CENTCOM, really my predecessors have started and we‘re continuing on here, is the CENTCOM Partner Network that does allow us to share classified information with all of our partners out there. Making them more capable, allowing them to operate in a more secure environment, and allowing us to do the next thing which is a key aspect of that, and that is sharing information with them.

We certainly have a lot of progress in this area, and my hat‘s off to the intelligence community for continuing to break down barriers to share information. This is a key aspect, I think, of continuing to foster long-term relationships and building resiliency and building capability. The ability to give people information that they can look at and they can act upon. We‘re making a lot of progress. We‘ve certainly got a ways to go here, but we certainly are making some progress.

The final aspect, I think, of long-term relationships is responsiveness. One of the things that we are trying to emphasize within CENTCOM is that a “no” now is better than a “maybe” over a long period of time. Our partners want to know what we‘re going to be able to do for them. So it‘s very, very clear, that we communicate clearly with them about the things that we can do and that we cannot do, and that we be up front with them and be responsive to their needs. So responsiveness is a key aspect of this.

So ladies and gentlemen, what I‘ve tried to do here is outline, really, for you that deterrence is a key aspect that‘s really built into a lot of how we approach this very complex and oftentimes troublesome region of 20 countries. It plays a critical role in what we do. We try to pursue it really through three different angles−our posture and our presence, our building partner capacity and fostering long-term relationships throughout the area.

We think that if we‘re able to do this, this helps us move forward in our vision for the region, which is a region that is increasingly more stable, increasingly more secure and increasingly more able to take care of its own problems.

I also think that it helps us preserve our decision space. It helps us preserve our influence, and it helps us preserve our access. It certainly supports my strategy, our strategy, of being able to prepare the environment, being able to pursue opportunities in the area and being able to prevail when we are involved in conflict.

I think it provides the best opportunity to achieve our vision for the region−increasing stability and security, better governance, a mechanism for addressing threats and certainly preserves our national interests.

Thanks once again for the opportunity to come and talk with you a little bit about this particular region and how we look at deterrence here. I wish you the very best of luck with your discussions over the next couple of days.

I would just add, I took note of the very strong alliance that you outlined at the beginning of this Cecil, and I want to invite anybody to please come to CENTCOM. We would love to hear your ideas about how we address these very, very complex problems in that environment.

Thank you very much.