Did time in an F-14 cockpit. Check.
Sees the landscape from 30,000 feet, but doesn't ignore details. Check.
Shows command initiative. Check.
After being sworn in May 19, Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., is fully mission-ready as the fourth commander of the nation's homeland security forces under U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs. He also oversees the 52-year-old North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the bi-national command with Canada.
In his first one-on-one interview since taking over, Winnefeld spoke to the Independent about the commands' challenges and the experience he brings.
In an unexpected twist to a career that began at the Georgia Institute of Technology and wound through the Pentagon, Winnefeld as a lieutenant flew an "enemy" MiG jet in the 1986 movie Top Gun. Then, he took on good guys who launched from the USS Enterprise; ironically, in real life 15 years later, he commanded that same ship as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks unfolded. To great acclaim, Winnefeld reversed the ship from its trajectory toward home to return to the Persian Gulf and within 24 hours put the ship's aircraft within launching range of Afghanistan.
A distance runner, snow skier, golfer and hiker, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff director for strategic plans and policy has identified ways to strengthen both commands and nurture their main key to success — relationships. He's already visited Mexico and Canada.
On his nightstand is Distant Neighbors, a book about Mexican culture, history and politics — food for thought as he works with foreign partners to quell drug violence while also pondering what terrorists will try next.
Indy: What do you think of Colorado Springs?
JW: What I've seen so far, I love. I've been traveling a lot in the first five weeks of the job, because there's a lot of outreach that I have to do, but Colorado Springs is nice. Very diverse terrain, people. Very hospitable, very friendly, so I think we're going to like it here.
Indy: What will the kind of initiative you took on Sept. 11, 2001, look like in your role at NORAD and NorthCom?
JW: First, I want to make it clear that I wasn't violating any orders. We were actually on our way home, and we were going to be going through South Africa for a port visit, and we were going quite fast because we had a tight timeline to get there. And I recall my safety officer on the carrier called me and said, "You need to turn the TV on, something's going on in New York." At that moment I saw the second airplane hit, and it was very apparent to me at that point we weren't going to be going anywhere. And so I consulted with my battle commander at the time and said, "Hey, don't you think we need to turn around?" It was initiative, but it wasn't violating any orders.
So, what that speaks to is assessing a situation and maybe thinking out of the box a little bit and trying to take initiative in the best interests of the country. So as combatant commander here at NORAD and U.S. NorthCom, I have considerable license. I'm expected to, actually, have ideas, to be creative, to take initiative and then of course to make sure that what I do is in keeping with what the president has in mind for defending the nation, making sure I sort of get out of the lane, and coordinating it properly with both my chain of command and other interagency players in government. As long as I do it right, I will be encouraged to have initiative and vision, which is the real joy in the job.
Indy: After being sworn in, you headed for the Mexican border on June 1. You've said the top priority is our partnership with Mexico. Explain your plans.
JW: I view this challenge as not just a challenge in Mexico. It's a challenge that spans the entire hemisphere, frankly. It's a challenge in the United States that we acknowledge, as a demand for drugs, as weapons and money going south to Mexico, every bit as much as it's a challenge with violence in Mexico with drugs and illegal human trafficking and so on coming north. So we can't view this in isolation as just a border problem, or a just U.S. problem, or just a Mexico problem.
Indy: How will you help Mexico build capacity?
JW: We have already programs whereby we help equip the Mexican military: helicopters, night-vision goggles, the sort of things they need in order to take on these criminal organizations. There's a training piece there where we do some training with and for the Mexicans. We share information with them. So that's what building capacity and capability is about. It's not about boots on the ground.
I was just in Mexico ... and I was extremely impressed with the Mexican leaders. I spoke with their secretary of state, the head of their national security council, the head of their equivalent of the CIA. I spoke with the person who's the equivalent of vice president, their secretary of government, Mr. [Fernando] Gómez Mont. And I was extremely impressed by their open introspection about what the issues are that they need to confront, and they're determined to do that.
Indy: Will the U.S. increase its commitment?
JW: I would encourage more resources be applied to this problem, because there's a lot of low-hanging fruit out there. There's a lot we can do to partner with the Mexicans to take on this challenge, and we also have work to do in the United States. It doesn't fall into my lane, but there's a new national drug-control strategy out. More resources will be applied to that problem to reduce demand in the United States. It's a problem that we need to attack from all directions.
Indy: How much of a threat are homegrown terrorists, such as the "underwear bomber" and the "Times Square bomber"?
JW: What we've seen is a shift in their approach, more towards what I would call shots on goal, where it's going to be a lot of little guys coming at us. We have to be perfect 100 percent of the time. All they have to do is get one through, and they get to make a statement. They don't need to invest all the time and resources in trying to produce something like a 9/11 when a Times Square wouldn't be near as impactful but still it would have a severe impact. So that's what they're doing.
And it's going to require real vigilance on all of our parts to take this thing on. I will tell you one of our best sensors out there, candidly, is the American public.
Indy: A recent report recommended control of North America's Arctic waters and skies be added to NORAD's mission. Is NORAD prepared for this?
JW: If the governments of Canada and the United States were to mutually decide that NORAD would take on an expanded role in the Arctic, we would do that. We would develop the staff, capability, the understanding, command and control mechanisms that we need in order to do that. But until that order is taken, I don't want to speculate too much on what it would be.
Indy: When NORAD took on the maritime warning function, it seemed logical. Is the Arctic more complicated?
JW: It would depend on the role given to NORAD. We do air warning and control, not only surveillance and understanding the environment, but also going out there with airplanes and intercepting potential threats. The maritime piece was very carefully decided to only be maritime warning, and that NORAD would not exercise control of either nation's forces in responding to a threat. My humble opinion is that it's an area we need to do better, and we are working already in improving the way we do maritime warning between the two nations. It's not that we're missing anything. It's just that we could work together with Canada better.
Indy: Tell us about Top Gun.
JW: I flew in the movie. The principal military adviser from the Top Gun squadron at the time was Bob Willard, who happens to be commander of Pacific Command. So here you have two guys that were Top Gun instructors at the same time — one is the commander of Pacific Command, the other is commander of NORAD and U.S. NorthCom. I went to a restaurant with Tom Cruise and Tony Edwards six months before the movie started getting shot, and they were asking us a bunch of questions and that sort of thing.
Indy: What did you learn from this experience that can be translated to your command of NORAD and NorthCom?
JW: As you watch them make the movie real-time and they put together a scene, it was very easy to say, "You know, this isn't going to work. This movie is going to flop." And when you watch the movie, you go, "This was brilliant." And so maybe the people who are steeped in a problem really do know what they're talking about.
We can be critics and skeptical, but very often at the core there's somebody who knows what they're doing. And those people knew what they were doing. They spent an inordinate amount of attention to detail on every one of the scenes in that movie.
Indy: Are you a detail guy?
JW: I'm an idea guy. I love the creative process. I love innovation, and I have to discipline myself to follow up and be a detail guy to make sure you close out the idea. You can't have the idea and have it fizzle. If you have a batting average of 10 ideas and three of them turn out to be really good ones, you're doing pretty well.
Indy: Can you share some of your ideas?
JW: I've tried to prioritize them, roughly. You can't strictly prioritize things, because then people will give too much emphasis to one thing and not enough to another. But clearly, counterterrorism, you have to have that as a priority in this job. Mexico. Defense support to civil authorities. The traditional missions here, air warning and control, and then the maritime warning piece. Inside each one of those we're having a lot of fun putting out some new ideas and advancing the ball.
Indy: Will the public notice changes?
JW: I think in some ways, yes. I've really been reaching out to the National Guard. They are a wonderful, versatile organization. Their capability is truly remarkable. I don't think we've always had the relationship here at NorthCom with the Guard that we should have. We are taking dramatic steps to improve that, and they have been very receptive. ... There are a number of other things we have out there, so stay tuned.
Indy: What keeps you up at night?
JW: The unknown unknown. What is it that a terrorist is thinking of right now that could have a dramatic impact that we haven't yet considered and that we haven't preemptively foreclosed.
Indy: How do you deal with that?
JW: You just try to continually challenge the assumptions you're making and challenge your team to think out of the box and maybe put together a little group that's charged with doing that from time to time. Vigilance.
Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr.
• Graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with a degree in aerospace engineering and was commissioned through ROTC.
• Served in three fighter squadrons, flew the F-14 Tomcat and taught at Navy Fighter Weapons School.
• At sea, commanded Fighter Squadron 211, USS Cleveland and USS Enterprise.
• Led task forces in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and supported Operation Enduring Freedom.
• Commanded Sixth Fleet, NATO Allied Joint Command Lisbon, and Striking and Support Forces NATO.
• Shore tours: senior aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; executive assistant to the vice chief of Naval Operations; as a flag officer, director of Warfare Programs and Transformational Concepts of the Fleet Forces Command, and director of Joint Innovation and Experimentation at Joint Forces Command.
• Awards: Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal, five Battle Efficiency awards.
Source: U.S. Navy and U.S. Northern Command