Dunford Addresses Potential U.S. Conflict with Russia over Syria
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — Despite a reported Russian threat to “target” coalition forces following a Navy F/A-18 shooting down a Syrian fighter, the nation’s top military officer said Monday that the communication link designed to prevent conflicts between Russian and coalition aircraft over Syria “was still on-going this morning.”
But Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was aware of “open-source reports” of the Russian threat and “we will work diplomatically and militarily to re-establish deconfliction.”
Taking questions at the National Press Club, Dunford said U.S. and coalition officials “worked very hard on deconfliction efforts with the Russian Federation ... to make sure our air crews were safe and our personnel on the ground were safe and make sure we could prosecute the campaign against ISIS in Syria.”
“The Russian Federation has said their focus in Syria, like ours, is to defeat ISIS. We’ll see if that is true.”
“An incident has occurred we have to deal with,” Dunford said. “We have a means to deal with it. I think it’s going to require some diplomatic and military engagement in the next few hours to restore the deconfliction mechanism that’s in place.”
Asked if he was confident that U.S aircraft will not be shot down, Dunford said he had confidence in the deconfliction process between the coalition and the Russians.
“I’m also confident our forces are capable of taking care of themselves,” he said.
Dunford noted that the decision by the U.S. commander in the theater to have the Navy Super Hornet shoot down the Syrian fighter came after the SU-22 ignored warnings, passed through the deconfliction link, to stop attacking U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces in a designated deconfliction zone also occupied by US troops. That action, as with two previous strikes against pro-regime forces in the zone, were “in self defense,” the general said.
Dunford also said that “no decision has been made with regard to deploying additional forces to Afghanistan,” and that any decision on troop levels “will be made in the context of a broader strategy review of Southwest Asia” that he expected to be finished by the middle of July.
He said the news reports about adding 4,000 personnel was triggered by the request from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan for additional forces “to thicken the advise-and-assist effort inside of Afghanistan.”
The strategy review would cover issues outside of Afghanistan, including whether Pakistan is allowing a “sanctuary” for Taliban or other opposition elements.
Asked about his complaints during congressional budget hearings last week, Dunford said that because of the funding cuts and “budget instability” since passage of the 2001 Budget Control Act, “I believe that right now our competitive advantage in the conventional area has been diminished” and that U.S. forces are “at more risk.”
“I fundamentally do not believe we should be sending our men and women into a fair fight. If we’re going to send them some place, we should be able to give them the ability to accomplish the mission with a minimal loss of life. We’re not going to be able to that under the Budget Control Act.”
Dunford rejected a question of whether the F-35 program should be killed because of its developmental problems and cost overruns, saying “the F-35 is operationally deployed today. It will remain a program.”
He noted that the decision to declare the Marines’ F-35Bs were ready for combat operations was made when he was Marine Corps commandant and he was “fully confident” in its capabilities.
He also pointed out that the issue of cost overruns was now history because of the good work of the recently retired program manager, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, to reduce prices.“The F-35 is a critical program” and it is “a transformational capability,” Dunford said.