Fast Five With Retired U.S. Navy Adm. William McRaven

U.S. Navy Adm. (ret.) William McRaven

U.S. Navy Adm. (ret.) William McRaven

Credit: Lazard

As commander of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, U.S. Navy Adm. (ret.) William H. McRaven oversaw the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Now a senior advisor at Lazard, he recently spoke with Aviation Week editors. Excepts follow.

Should Ukraine be given F-16s and the Army Tactical Missile System (Atacms)? We need to give the Ukrainians whatever they need to win the fight. To me, winning means making sure the Russians don’t take over Ukraine. Now, the tactical decisions on whether they need F-16s or Atacms I leave to the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I applaud the Biden administration, the Pentagon and our European allies. This is going to be a long war, and as we see cities getting devastated, [which] draws on European resources, it becomes harder to stick with the Ukrainians. Putin is hoping that the Western alliance will collapse. He’s prepared to wait this out as long as it takes, and he doesn’t care if he loses 70,000-100,000 men in action. Those of us who are supporting Ukraine need to be resilient and prepared for a long fight.

What are your thoughts on the lessons we should draw from Russia’s war in Ukraine?

The Russians did not come in a combined arms fashion, which is really how the U.S. and Western militaries engage. It is the synchronization of effects on the target that matters—artillery, air raid, armor, then the infantry comes in, and the whole time you’re using cyber to seal off the area for maximum effect. That’s not what we saw. Russia just did not live up to our expectations of a force that had been modernized over the last 15 years. Command-and-control systems did not work well on the battlefield. And their logistics, even though they were right there on the border, were not very good. Conversely, Western forces have been helping to train the Ukrainians since 2014.

You have talked about the need to make sure the U.S. defense budget is properly aligned against threats. What do we need to protect in the budget? At the end of the day, it’s always about people—the quality of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. That will set us apart from our adversaries. You have to balance how much you spend on your soldiers and their families with the technology that you want to buy. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the best technology, but if you don’t incentivize the young men and women of America to join the military, then all the technology in the world is not going to do you any good. If you’re not paying them enough and the benefits aren’t appropriate, they are not going to sign up.

When you look at the military scenario playing out with China, especially in the Taiwan Strait, the word “denial” is used a lot. What is the proper strategy, and how do we make sure it doesn’t backfire on us? At the 20th Party Congress [in October 2022], China’s President, Xi Jinping, made a point of saying that reunification with Taiwan is one of his goals. Now, do I think there is going to be an invasion of Taiwan in the next 4-5 years? I do not. Xi just got reelected for a third term, and does that really mean he’s president for life? If it does, then he’s got a long runway to decide how he wants to reunify. In recent proclamations, Xi has said he’s looking for a “peaceful reunification.” So I don’t see confrontation coming anytime soon. We’ve always known that deterrence is the best solution to prevent a war. If you are strong enough and thoughtful in how you apply that strength, you can have a dialog and say: ‘Look, this is not in your interest to try to invade Taiwan militarily.’

Denial is a bit more challenging. If the Chinese decide they’re going to do an amphibious landing across the Taiwan Strait, the only way to stop it is to deny them. But that means conflict, so deterrence is the better approach.

Now that you’re in the business sector, how do you think the implosion of Silicon Valley Bank [SVB] is going to affect the startups that are pushing technology forward to the Defense Department? I’m hardly an expert on finance or the economy, but I have talked to a lot of startups that were worried. I applaud the administration for saying: ‘Hey, we’re going to make sure every depositor gets their money back,’ because a lot of small startups that had received loans from SVB or had their money in SVB were worried. It may manifest itself in a year or so, when all of a sudden the good ideas that were coming in on drone technology or underwater technology, whatever, narrow a little bit because the startups don’t have the resources they need. But I think the venture capitalists will jump in and help out if it’s a good program or technology. So it probably isn’t going to manifest itself as egregiously as it could have.