MR. IGNATIUS: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist for The Post. Today our guest is General James McConville, the U.S. Army chief of staff. Before that he was vice chief, and he’s served in a number of distinguished commands for the Army, including combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We’re going to be talking today with General McConville about the future for the Army, the path forward as it thinks about modernization. But General McConville, I want to begin with some issues that are immediate on everybody’s minds and will broaden our discussion to thinking about the future. And let me ask you about the decision that’s the most immediate to the Army and our country, and that’s the war in Afghanistan. We have a deadline of May 1 that was set by the previous administration for withdrawal of U.S. troops. We’re getting awfully close to that. What kind of guidance are you giving to your forces, to your staff about what’s ahead? And how quickly, once a decision is made to withdraw our forces, can we do that in practical terms?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, thank--first of all, David, thanks for having me here today, and I know there’s a lot of interest in what is happening in Afghanistan. And you know, the administration is leading with policy. They’re going to shape it with diplomacy, and then the military will execute those orders. They’re in the process right now. There’s multiple contingencies. And once those decisions are made at the highest level, we’ll be ready to execute.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, I had a good chance to talk with Secretary of State Blinken last week about Afghanistan, and I heard loud and clear that he and more importantly the president, wants those troops out, that truly he can’t imagine them being there next year. He--I think the question I want to ask you in a practical sense is whether it’s possible to get them out quickly, and whether it’s possible to get all the equipment that we’ve brought in to support them out at the same time.

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, it’s all about physics. It comes down to how many people you need to move, how much equipment you need to move. And the commanders in the field have those type of contingency plans, and they’ll be able to advise the senior leaders in administration how long that takes. And those plans were available right now.

MR. IGNATIUS: And I want to just ask you a couple more questions before we leave Afghanistan. If that May 1 deadline--and it sure looks likely to me; you don’t need to comment on that--but I do wonder if our forces in Afghanistan will then become vulnerable to attack. The Taliban generally has held off on attacks since the agreement was reached for this May 1 final departure. Is General Miller, your commander in Kabul, and other senior commanders, are they preparing for the possibility that they could come under significant attack over the next weeks and months?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, when it comes to General Miller, I don’t think there’s any finer combat leader in the United States Army. He’s got a very distinguished career. He cares about his troops. And you know, we’re all going to make sure that our troops are taken care of and have the proper defense mechanisms in place to take care of that troop. So that’s certainly on the top of his mind.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, a final question, General McConville. You served in Afghanistan. This has been, as we often remind ourselves, sadly America’s longest war. I’m curious, as you think back on your deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, what the lessons are for you as a commander and as a person of this long period of difficult combat assignments. What’s your takeaway as you think about this? And when younger soldiers, men and women, ask you, General, give us your sense of what this all means, how do you answer that?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, I think, you know, when we take a look at what’s going around the world, many of these conflicts are going to continue until we get the appropriate political solution. And you know, one of the big takeaways is just how important security provided by the country, it is. And you know, I’ve had--three of my kids have served in Afghanistan--two sons and a daughter--and so I know what it means to send our sons and daughters off to combat. They’ve done an incredible job. They’ve basically prevented al-Qaida from attacking our country again. But there’s much, much more work that’s going to be needed to be done in Afghanistan, and we’ve given the Afghan a start in doing that. And it’s going to end with some type of political agreement.

MR. IGNATIUS: And when you talk to your--to your own kids who served there and other young people who’ve served and risked their lives, what do you tell them this mission really has been about? What is the thing that they’ve put their necks on the line for as you try to explain it, as your kids would explain it?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Yeah, I think, you know, when we take a look at it, our country was attacked on 9/11, and we knew who did it. We knew where they were. And by going to Afghanistan, we had--we were able to hold those who did it accountable. We were also able to prevent al-Qaida from being operational from that sanctuary over the last 20 years. And that’s the contribution they made to world security by going and volunteering to serve. And I’m very, very proud of this generation, of how they continue to raise their right hands and say send me. So, I’m extremely proud of the young men and women today.

MR. IGNATIUS: Thank you for sharing that. And let’s turn to another tough subject, which is the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. With Chairman Milley’s direction and support, the military’s been looking hard at the role of the military family, veterans, Reserves, even active duty personnel--whether they had any involvement in that January 6th insurrection, what we all watched on television. What are you learning, General McConville, as you do your analysis about links between the Army, the Army family, and what happened on Capitol Hill?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, I think what it starts with is--within the Army is, we want to be a cohesive team where everyone treats everyone with dignity and respect and they take care of each other, and you know, we don’t have harmful behaviors like extremism, like sexual harassment, sexual assault, like racism in our force, because, you know, we have to go out and earn the trust of the American people every single day, and we should never take that for granted. And if we have soldiers who taint our organization by doing those things that are harmful to the country, that is not what we want to see.

We have millions of people who have served in the United States Army over the many years that have fought heroically for their country. And when people do harmful things like that, it taints their service. So, we have no room for extremism in our force. And that does not mean that people can’t have their beliefs, their own political and religious beliefs. However, there’s no role for anyone trying to overthrow the government or having, you know, any type--in the military to do something like that.

MR. IGNATIUS: One of your colleagues, General McKenzie, a Marine Corps general who’s the commander of CENTCOM, told me and I quoted him in the Washington Post saying any commander who doesn’t think there’s some of this extremism, some of this white nationalism in his unit doesn’t know his unit. You’ve commanded an awful lot of troops. Would you say something similar? What’s your sense, thinking back on the silence you’ve had on the troops serving with you?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, I think one is too many. You know, I don’t--I look and, you know, we certainly have a taskforce that takes a look at those type of behavior and, you know, the numbers are not very big at all. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not there. And we are very concerned about having any type of harmful behaviors that break the trust of the American people in our organization. The American people have got to trust their Army, and we’ve got to make sure that we provide the force that allows them to do that.

MR. IGNATIUS: And in terms of vetting new recruits to make sure that people, you know, subscribe to the values we share in common as Americans don’t have values that are extreme and dangerous, are you going to be doing new things in the vetting, and are you going to be doing new things while people are serving during their service to make sure that these ideas are not underground, invisible but there?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Yeah, I think it’s--you know, get backs to the core of the United States Army, which is being a cohesive team where everyone treats everyone with dignity and respect, and everyone takes care of each other. And it’s, you know, keeping the trust of the American people. So, these type of behaviors, you know, we don’t want them in our Army and we don’t want them to stay in our Army. And so, we’re going to take the appropriately measures that we can to make sure that the 99.999 percent of people that believe in what we’re about are able to serve with dignity and respect.

MR. IGNATIUS: And, General, before we leave the question of what happened at the Capitol, I want to ask what role the Army and the National Guard are playing today, here in April, in any continuing presence. We saw folks come out pretty darn quick when that car rammed into the barricade, tragically killing a member of the Capitol Police a week or so ago. Your folks are still--are still there in a National Guard capacity. How long do you expect that will continue?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, we don’t know. As you said, the National Guard has done a fabulous job really around the country and also in the Capitol. They were there on the 20th of January. And what we will do is, whatever’s approved by the secretary of defense, we’ll provide the appropriate security forces. They’re working very, very closely with the Capitol Police, as well as other law enforcement agencies in the District of Columbia to make sure we have the appropriate presence, given the idea that most agree that the military should only be used in law enforcement as a last resort.

MR. IGNATIUS: One question that keeps being asked is why it took the Guard so long to get to the Capitol as that afternoon of January 6th wore on and the perimeter had been breached and the horrible scenes of people inside. It’s been argued that the military’s response in getting the National Guard there was too slow. Is that a bum rap, in your view? It’s often enough in the papers. Do you think that’s just misguided?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, right now there’s an investigation, so I don’t want to get in front of the investigation that’s going to come out and lay that out. But, you know, I do like to look at 20th of January, which was the Inauguration Day. And I got a chance to see what happens where you have a lead federal agency in charge with an integrated security plan that brings all the interagency partners together. I got to see what it looks like when you do an interagency rehearsal where all the players are there, so they understand who’s going to do what. I got a chance to see what a rehearsal looks like for all the National Guard members that came in. So, they had a chance to rehearse all the contingencies that they may see. And I think that is a model for how we should do things in the future, because there’s many different organizations that are involved in providing law enforcement for the District.

MR. IGNATIUS: Before we turn to modernization, one more question about right now. We’re still struggling to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control. The order of the day is vaccination, and a lot of Americans are being vaccinated. A lot of members of the U.S. Army are being vaccinated, but not all. And the numbers seem to be below--well below 50 percent. And I’m wondering what you think can or should be done about that. The president, it’s my understanding, could order all active duty forces to be vaccinated if he felt there was an emergency that required that. Troops can be ordered to be vaccinated for anthrax, other things. I know you’ve probably had to be vaccinated for anthrax in the past. I’m sure that was no fun. Why shouldn’t we be just issuing an order that active duty military forces need to be vaccinated to protect the force, to protect its readiness? Why isn’t that the answer?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, I think, first of all, you know, we’re taking a look at our numbers right now. We’re at over 700,000 in the Army have had one dose. I think we’re about 250,000 to 260,000 that have fully vaccinated. And what we’re seeing is, you know, there’s been--I’ve seen some stories about everyone wants to know who’s declining. What we’re seeing is with education, and quite frankly as their buddies get the vaccination, we’re seeing a lot more participation. And you know, as we go ahead and begin the vaccination, we’re very, very aggressive. And if somebody doesn’t want to get it, the next person’s standing right there ready to get it. So, I think we’re going to see a lot more coming forward. I think we’re going to see a lot more trust in the vaccinations.

And as far as whether we need to give an order or not with the emergency capability, they’ll have to work their way through it. But, you know, what I would like to see is that all members of the Army take a look at being part of a cohesive team and they realize for their brothers and sisters in arms it’s important that we defeat this virus, which is, you know, the biggest threat to the American people that we have right now in the country. And so, we have to defeat this virus. We have to get back to business as normal. There’s a lot of things we need to do with our military, and this is causing a lot of friction, although people are doing a great job of overcoming the fog and friction associated with it.

MR. IGNATIUS: An awful lot of people obviously look up to men and women in uniform. And as more and more members of the Army get vaccinated--and I’m encouraged by what you say, that there’s a kind of demonstration effect that people see it happening and they think, yeah, okay, I’ll do that too--is there a way that they can bring that to the public and show them that their men and women in U.S. Army uniforms are getting vaccinated and think about it, folks? Is there something you could do in terms of public education, do you think, that would help?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, certainly willing to help in whatever manner that they would like us. I think, you know, we have a lot of both Guard, Reserve, and active soldiers out right now manning vaccination points around the country, and they are making a significant contribution.

So many of the American people are going to go out to, you know, whether it’s in many of the states, and they’re going to see the military helping the communities get people vaccinated. And I think, you know, as we come together and we realize the importance of this, I think as we get more information, people will realize that this is something that we need to do for a society, we need to do it for the team, and we need to do it for the Army. And I think we need to make sure we spend a lot of time on the educational process. We want those who have had it to go out and say, hey, it’s the right thing to do.

MR. IGNATIUS: Thanks for that. Let’s talk about the future of the Army. You’ve been doing a lot of things about modernization, what the battlefields of 2035 will look like, and what the Army’s weapons and doctrine should look like. Give our viewers an introduction to that examination you’ve been doing, the problems as you see them, and the--some of the early solutions you’re thinking about.

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, thank you. And you know, it’s that whole adage that generals always want to fight the last fight or--and quite frankly, we don’t. What we want to do in the Army is win the next fight. And we’ve done a lot of experimentation in simulation as part of the joint force. We recognize that we need a new joint war-fighting concept. We’re at an inflection point. Most of the services have been doing irregular warfare, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism for the last 20 years based on 9/11, and we recognize as we move into an era of great power competition and I would say great power competition does not mean great power conflict. And the way you avoid that is really peace through strength, and that’s a strong, whole government of effort but also a strong military, and also, very importantly, strong allies and partners. So, when we talk about transforming the Army, which I believe needs to happen every 40 years--it happened in 1940 when General Marshall had my job for World War II. It happened in 1980 when I came into the Army, and that’s when we did a lot of things from air-land battle to our big five modernization efforts to combat training centers to the all-volunteer force. Now we find ourselves in 2020.

So, we’re coming out with new doctrine for the Army. It’s multi domain operations, which is part of the joint force fighting concept. We’re working very, very closely with the other chiefs. In fact, the chief of the--chief of staff of the Air Force, General Brown, and CNO of the Navy Admiral Gilday, we met up in Aberdeen and are working together to bring forward a combined joint all-domain command and control system that will allow us to tie our sensors and shooters all together and to give us the speed, the range and the convergence that we need for decision dominance and for overmatch.

And we’re building new organizations. We’ve built security force assistance brigades, multi domain taskforces. We’re training differently, taking advantage of technology with a synthetic training environment. We’re using augmented and virtual reality to train our soldiers very, very differently.

We have six modernization priorities which have not changed. We are committed to developing and fielding--and we’re doing that very, very quickly--from long-range precision fires to next-generation combat vehicle to future vertical lift to a network that ties everyone together, to air missile defense and soldier lethality. And we’re implementing a 21st century talent management system that’s going to compete for the young men and women’s talent out there that we need to man the Army of the future.

MR. IGNATIUS: So as always happens in a period of change and limited resources, you get some inter-service rivalries about who should do what. That certainly happened when missiles first came on the scene and the Army said they were ballistic, and the Air Force said, no, no, no, they’re aeronautic. We’re getting some of that same conflict now. You’ve got plans for the Army to have long-range missiles, long-range fires to deal with the battlefield of the future, and just recently an Air Force General, General Ray, said he thought that idea was stupid when we had bombers that could perform that mission.

Just talk a little bit about this, you know, in a sense that a turf fight that’s going to take place as we think about how we’re going to do the long-range attacks, which part of our military should be responsible, and how we avoid the frictions that, to be honest, have been so common in the past?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, I think, you know, at the end of the day we’re a joint team. And as I mentioned, all the chiefs have talked about this. We’re working together. I think we all want to win. We all bring different perspectives. You know, where you sit sometimes depends on what you stand. Your view of the future fight may be different from your perspective. I have an interesting perspective. Not only an aviator, but I also had the privilege of commanding an infantry division. So, I try to see other people’s perspectives. And what we look at is, we’re trying to provide options to combatant commanders of things that they can use. You know, there’s sea based, there’s air based, and there’s also ground based capabilities that give that combatant commander multiple options but also present multiple dilemmas to someone that we’re trying to compete against so they can’t focus on just one option that we have. And I think that’s the value in having multiple perspectives, multiple options and multiple dilemmas that we need to have as we live in this world of great power competition.

So, there will be different perspectives. There will be different opinions. Sometimes, you know, people will say certain things. But in the Army, and at the chief level, we’re not going down that road. We’re really trying to work together. We’re really trying to understand. The American people expect us to present or to give them the best military they can get for the resources that are available. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

MR. IGNATIUS: One of the things that--General McConville, about having such a strong military as the United States does is that we have magnificent existing weapons people will often speak of, legacy weapons--the Navy’s aircraft carriers, the Army’s tanks and ability to use tanks in combat--this whole range of ways of projecting power. But as we think about the future, we know that some of those platforms may not be as relevant in the future as they have been in the past.

So, the question I want to ask you--and I’ve asked this with General Brown in the Air Force and Navy commanders going back to Admiral Richardson and others--the question is, what are going to give up to get the new things that you want? I mean, for example, tank warfare, when I think about the future, it’s pretty hard for me to imagine tank battles like what we remember from Patton and World War II. That just doesn’t seem like the future’s going to be like that. Yet we have this huge tank capability. Same thing with ground infantry. Shouldn’t some of that begin to change and evolve?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Yeah, I think--I think it is going to evolve. And when you take a look at the systems that we’re developing, you know, I keep coming back to, you know, the speed of the systems that we need, the range of the systems we need. And this concept of convergence, where we bring together the sensors and shooters that are out there--and we’re actually executing that right now--that, you know, all said, we can provide lethal effects in tens of seconds vis minutes, you know, tens of minutes. And the one thing about, you know, when we look at the armor force and we look at some of the forces that are available, you know, recent experience with armor which I learned about is really the value of that in cities. You know, when I was in the 1st Cavalry Division, I got a chance to see how we used armored forces inside a city, how we support the Marines in Fallujah with armored forces, how we fought [unclear] and some of these other cities. And you could go back and even look at some of the other battles that we’ve had with--over the years.

And so, what we have to do is make sure that we’re not just keeping systems for systems’ sake but they still have value in the future fight that we’re looking at. But when we take a look at what we’re doing with systems, the reason we’re bringing in new long-range precision fire is it’s because we want that speed, and we want that range. The reason we’re bringing on a next-generation combat vehicle to replace the Bradley is because that’s going to change how we operate with that system. We’re going a lot of things with manned/unmanned teaming and unmanned/unmanned teaming. We’re doing a lot of things with artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, because that’s going to change how we do business. We take a look at the helicopters we have, we have the greatest helicopters in the world, but future vertical lift is really about aircraft that provide significantly more range and speed than we’ve had before.

So, most our systems that we’re developing are really across the six modernization priorities, are taking advantage of the technology, and are giving us the edge in the overmatch that we think we need for the future. And what we’ve found is, when we’ve done simulation experimentation and we take our multi-domain operations of fighting and then we take our new organizations that we have and we take the modernization priorities and we put them altogether, that’s where we get the overmatch that we need. We don’t get it by just doing one of those three things.

MR. IGNATIUS: We have just a minute remaining, and I want to ask you quickly a question about the human side. One of the takeaways from this last 20 years is the enormous value that special operations forces have, especially in partnering, as I’ve seen, in Syria and other battlefields that I’ve been lucky enough to cover. Just briefly, General McConville, do you think the Army needs to have more of that special operations force capability? You led the way with your special forces, the Green Berets. Do you need to do more of that?

GEN. McCONVILLE: Well, I think we’re doing both. I think we’ve got tremendous talent, our special forces. They have done an incredible job over the last 20 years, absolutely amazing job. But one of the things the Army has stood up--and this is not in competition with special forces, but security forces assistance brigades.

You asked the question, you know, what have we learned early on in the discussion is the importance of countries being able to buy their own security. And you know, really what that comes to is a professional military that’s trusted by their people. And we’ve set up security force assistance brigades. There’s one for each combatant commander. They’re out operating right now in very, very small teams, working with the Army to professionalize it, which is different than what our special forces do, which is provide incredible capability developing small-size units and also developing special operations for these various countries. So, there’s tremendous synergy going together on how we improve the overall capacities and capabilities of our partners if we want them serving side by side. That’s where you get the strength of the military, and really that’s how you get peace through strength.

MR. IGNATIUS: I’ve seen those security assistance brigades training, I think it was in Louisiana, and it was fascinating. I’m sure that’s part of the future. So, General McConville, I want to thank you for thinking with us, as I said at the outset, a little bit about the present and present dilemmas but also laying out your vision and the Army’s about ways you want to change, adapt to new technologies and think about the world of 2035. I want to thank you for joining us and talking about these dilemmas. Thanks for being with Washington Post Live.

GEN. McCONVILLE: Thanks for having me.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, we’ll be back. My colleague Jonathan Capehart will interview the founder and CEO of the food company Chobani at 2:00 today. And on Wednesday I’ll be talking to Admiral Bill McRaven about a new book he’s published. It’s been 10 years since Admiral McRaven led the raid on Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad that we all remember. So, I hope you’ll join us for that on Wednesday. Thanks for tuning in to Washington Post Live today.

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