Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, Commander, U.S. Central Command, discusses innovative efforts to maximize operations across Central Command through the employment of new technology and concepts, including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and unmanned systems. He then takes questions from participating journalists.
MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, Commander of the U.S. Central Command.
General Kurilla will make opening remarks and take questions from participating reporters. We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.
I will now turn it over to General Kurilla for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
GEN. KURILLA: Hey, Sam, thanks so much for that introduction. And for all, thank you all for being on this call. Happy holidays for all those who are celebrating, and happy New Year to all of you. I know it’s late evening in your part of the world. This is something I’ve wanted to do for some time now, and it seems like every time we try and schedule it, something would inevitably come up in the region or conflict with travel. But we’re here now and I’m glad I can finally get this done.
So since taking command of CENTCOM, I’ve spent about 50 to 60 percent of my time traveling in the region. Visiting the region is critical for me because it allows me so much insight. No one can get a sense of a people’s culture from a phone call; you certainly cannot get a sense of the wondrous cultures from a video teleconference. As you well know, the region holds great cultural and social relevance — the cradle of civilization, the region’s majestic landscape, ancient history, and home to three of the world’s major religions. It is home to some of the most important scientific, artistic, scholastic and social contributions.
So our region really does matter to the United States and to the world. The information I get firsthand during these personal visits is invaluable as we navigate the challenges and maximize the opportunities in the region.
I believe it is imperative for me to speak face to face with my counterparts. It’s the only way we can build the deep kind of abiding relationships we’ll need, and in between those meetings while I’m back here in Tampa, I’m in constant touch with all my military counterparts and our ambassadors in the partner nations. In fact, I spoke to three chiefs of defense this morning, and I was in the region all last week.
My travel and engagements help shape my strategic approach for CENTCOM, which is best summarized in three words: people, partners, and innovation. Let’s start with people.
People are our greatest asset. Our people at CENTCOM are our most critical resource. We hire, invest in, retain, and care for the people — the best people — and their families. But for us, the concept goes beyond CENTCOM and extends to everyone working on the challenges faced by the region. I’m referring to members of the U.S. government, government leaders across the region, aid workers, the press — all of you are part of this. We’re all stakeholders in the region, and I’ve found after serving more than three decades in the region that ensuring these relationships are candid, built on trust, and constructive is critical to military and security success. All the solutions to the region’s vexing problems start and end with people.
Partners are our nation’s comparative advantage as against competitors like China and Russia. No nation can face the complexity in the region alone. We must cultivate, strengthen and lean on those partnerships in the months and years ahead.
Over the past 20-plus years, CENTCOM has been the focus of much of the U.S. Department of Defense. That was an unusual time in American history. We were fighting two wars at the same time. Those wars have concluded, and now we understandably have downsized our force posture in the Middle East. So we don’t have the enormous number of planes, ships, troops and air-defense systems we had in the region just five years ago. Instead, we’ve got to cultivate deep, abiding partnerships that can serve as a hedge against threats in the region while deterring Iran from its worst, most destructive behavior.
For China and Russia, partnerships to them are transactional relationships. For CENTCOM, our partnerships are values-based relationships. That’s what makes us the partner of choice in the region.
Innovation is the final component of this strategic approach, and that’s where I want to spend some time this evening. Innovation is the connective tissue to our partners. Innovation will strengthen our partnerships, assist in operations and ensure a stable region. Innovation will extend the value of our partnerships, fill some of the gaps in resources, and allow us to move faster, operate more efficiently, and increase progress across all operational efforts.
Innovation is not just about technology for us; it is innovation of thought, innovation of concept, innovation of process. We are building a culture of innovation and our partners are with us on this journey.
The American commitment to the region used to be measured by boots on the ground. That is the old way of thinking. Rather, it should be measured by the strength of our partnerships. For example, we are building on assets that we already have and creating an interconnected mesh of sensors that transmit real-time data, viewed together through data integration, artificial intelligence platforms that help build a clearer picture of the operating environment. We’re using unmanned systems paired with artificial intelligence, or AI, to give us better information faster. This allows us to employ our manned systems more efficiently and strategically. All of this helps us achieve decision dominance. We’re able to cultivate information and use AI to make decisions faster than our adversaries and use our manned systems more efficiently.
CENTCOM has recently stood up three innovation task forces: Task Force 59, Task Force 99, and Task Force 39. Let me explain to you what those task forces actually do.
Task Force 59 is our sea-based innovation task force. You’ve surely heard about it, and many of you have reported on it. The foundation of Task Force 59 is our unmanned vessels, both on the surface of the water and under the water. These unmanned vessels carry sensors which are collecting vast amounts of data. That data, pushed through data integration and artificial intelligence platforms, helps build a clearer picture of the operating environment. Through Task Force 59, we’re on a path right now to rapidly improve maritime threat detection and build an integrated, unmanned and artificial intelligence network to achieve safer seas and stronger protection for global trade.
More importantly, our international and regional partners are on this journey with us. Task Force 59 teamed with Bahrain last year and we have established a hub there and one in Aqaba, Jordan. Just last month, Bahrain participated in a naval drill in the Gulf where seven crewed ships from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Kingdom, and the United States teamed with unmanned systems. This is one of the many examples that underscore our forces are realizing the future right now, and doing it together.
Just last week, Task Force 59 concluded Digital Horizon, a large-scale demonstration to identify best-in-class unmanned and AI solutions for maritime deployment. In this exercise, Task Force 59 experimented in the Arabian Gulf with emerging unmanned vessels tied to AI platforms. Task force leaders evaluated which combination of platforms offer the greatest maritime domain awareness, and which are ready for operational deployment now.
By last 2023, Task Force 59 will have a fleet of over 100 vessels operating together, communicating together, and providing a common operating picture to all participating militaries. Our goal is at least 80 of those vessels will come from our partnered forces, and we’re on track to do that.
In addition to Task Force 59, which operates at sea in the maritime domain, we have Task Force 99, based in Qatar, operating in the air domain. Task Force 99 will replicate Task Force 59’s maritime efforts with aerial drones complete with tailored payloads and other capabilities operating together to observe, detect and gather data that feeds into an operations center. Task Force 99’s fleet of unmanned aircraft will impose dilemmas on our adversaries and detect and defeat threats to our systems and to our partners.
Finally, we have Task Force 39, our land-based innovation task force. Task Force 39 will test concept and technology, to include a fleet of unmanned land vehicles paired with manned ground vehicles, to help us and allow us to protect the force while maximizing our troops strength and force posture. Task Force 39 is teaming manned and unmanned systems. Task Force 39 is also looking at new technology to defeat Iranian drones. We want to serve as the experimentation center for new drone-defeat systems, ideas and technology, to include directed energy.
As you know, Iranian drones are a threat in the region. Iran commands an arsenal of drone systems ranging from small, short-range to modern intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance units. They are building larger drones that can fly further with increasingly deadly payloads. We see the UAVs of today in the same way we viewed IEDs during our initial conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All of these efforts are under the umbrella of a culture of innovation we’re building throughout CENTCOM. So that’s what we’re doing on innovation. And we’re going to need our partners, and we’re going to need to accelerate in innovation because, as you know, the region remains dangerous.
Alongside with our partners and the Syrian Democratic Forces, we continue to put pressure on ISIS. Just this past week, we conducted a series of raids with our Syrian Democratic Force partners resulting in numerous ISIS operators captured, including a senior leader. Meanwhile, in Iraq, we continue to advise, assist and enable the Iraqi security forces in the fight against ISIS. In fact, today marks the one-year mark of our transition from a combat role in Iraq to the advise, assist and enable role. Since then, the Iraqi security forces have been aggressively taking the fight to ISIS in Iraq. Territorially, ISIS is defeated and incapable of holding large swaths of land. However, ISIS remains a threat and the Iraqi security forces will keep the pressure on ISIS leadership in Iraq.
Next week we’ll release a full roll-up of our Defeat ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria: the full tally of operations, raids, detentions and killed ISIS operatives. The full size and scope that our partners have done against ISIS is going to be, I think, a little bit eye-opening to some. This will cover all of the year’s operations.
While ISIS is significantly degraded in Iraq and Syria, the group does maintain the capability to conduct operations in the region, and we know the group has the desire to strike outside of the region. And we see ISIS in three categories.
First, ISIS at large. This is the current generation of ISIS leaders and fighters that we are currently in the fight against. While we have significantly degraded their capability, the vile ideology remains uncontained and unconstrained.
Next, we’ve got ISIS in detention. This is the roughly 10,000 ISIS fighters in detention camps throughout Syria, and the approximately 10,000 in Iraq in detention centers. Our SDF partners in Syria secure these camps.
Finally, we’ve got the next generation of ISIS. These are the more than 25,000 children in al-Hol Camp who are in danger of being indoctrinated. These children in the camp are prime targets for ISIS radicalization. The horrible conditions in the camp make them even more susceptible to the ISIS ideology. With approximately 56,000 residents, more than 90 percent of them women and children living in tents, the camp is a flashpoint of human suffering. One short-term goal for the coalition is to make the camp safer for all residents and reduce the influence of ISIS on those residents. The camp administration, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the camp’s security are doing this through increased force protection measures. CENTCOM remains focused on supporting these security forces as they diligently work to improve conditions at the camp. This is critical to securing the lasting defeat of ISIS. We’re committed to preventing the resurgence of the group.
The long-term goal, however, must be the successful repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration of the camp residents back into their country of origin. We continue working with the Syrian Democratic Forces to address both security at the camp as well as the humanitarian conditions. Working together on al-Hol is an extension of our ongoing cooperation to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to undermine regional security and stability through militia groups, ballistic missile capabilities, UAVs, and routine threats to international waterways. Iran continues to violate sanctions and embargoes, proliferate weapons to its network of proxies and affiliates, and seize shipping in international waters. Iran continues to spread chaos through violent proxy groups funded by Tehran. And these Iranian-aligned groups routinely strike at American troops and our partners in Iraq and Syria. For more than 40 years, the Iranian regime has funded and aggressively supported terrorism and terrorist organizations and defied international norms by conducting malign activities while destabilizing not only the region, but global security and commerce as well.
So we’re making great progress along our approach of people, partners, and innovation, but there is still much work to do. The threats are real and this region is so critical to the world. And I’m happy to answer any of your questions about any of these topics.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much, sir, for those opening remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Questions submitted in advance have been incorporated into the queue, and I do want to note that we did get many, many questions submitted in advance from our colleagues over on the Arabic translation line of this call, and I want to be fair and try to get to as many of those great questions as we can while still taking a few questions over here on this English live line.
So we’ll go ahead and start with a pre-submitted question, and that first question, General Kurilla, comes from Mohamed Maher from Egypt’s Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. And Mohamed asks, “A U.S.-led task force will deploy over 100 unmanned vessels in the Gulf region’s strategic waters by next year to stave off maritime threats. This was recently discussed during the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain. Can you tell us, General Kurilla, more about this project, and are you working with other countries on this?” Over to you, sir.
GEN. KURILLA: All right. Well, Mohamed, thank you for that question. So absolutely, this project is part of our sea-based innovation task force, Task Force 59. These unmanned vessels carry sensors which are collecting vast amounts of data. This will allow us to see much more of the international waterways that are so critical to the region and the world, and in doing so we’ll be able to use our manned systems more efficiently and more strategically. These vessels are collecting data through sensors; that data then is pushed through data integration and artificial intelligence platforms, and gives us a much clearer picture of the operating environment and more efficiently use our manned platforms. So think of these as indication and warning sensors, much like scouts out there, to then use our manned assets more efficiently.
These are vast waterways that we have to provide maritime domain awareness to. But most importantly in this effort, we are working hand in hand with almost every partner country in the region, and our goal is for the unmanned fleet of 100 — it’s both surface vessels and undersea vessels — is that 80 percent of them are from partner nations and 20 percent from the U.S. We believe we’re on that goal right now, and we’re making great progress on that. So our partners are fully on board and will soon be in the lead on that.
Thanks for the question, Mohamed.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. I’d like to go to another pre-submitted question, and this one comes from Tamam Abusafi from Bahrain’s Alayam Daily newspaper. And Tamam asks, “The U.S. recently announced the seizure of weapons that were being smuggled from Iran to Yemen in large quantities. Will the unmanned fleet that you are working to establish in the Gulf contribute to reducing Iran’s illegal activities in the region?” Over to you, sir.
GEN. KURILLA: Hey, Tamam, thanks again for the question. Kind of similar to the last one. But yes, absolutely. So this is an unmanned fleet, and it allows us greater maritime domain awareness. What that means is we can see further and we can see much more of the waterways that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see. Each unmanned vessel is equipped with different sensors. These sensors map the pattern of life on both the surface of the ocean and they operate from under the sea, and in doing so they’re allowing us to identify normal and abnormal vessels of interest. This hundred-vessel fleet will track thousands of vessels transiting our waterways every day.
Now, what happens when one of these unmanned vessels detects an abnormal pattern or sees something that looks unusual, like a ship on an unusual course or on a course associated with illicit activity? Without any orders, without any human pushing a button, that drone collects data. It transmits that data to an operations center. And the human beings inside that operations center can now direct manned systems to take action. So think of this as manned-unmanned teaming on how we will operate.
And it’s not just the unmanned vessels. We’re building an interconnected mesh of sensors that transmit real-time data, fused together through data integration and artificial intelligence platforms, that help build a clearer picture of the operating environment. I hope that answers your question, Tamam.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. We’ll now go to a question from the live queue, and that question goes to Roger Barake from Ici Beyrouth. Operator, please open the line.
OPERATOR: The line is open. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello, sir. I want to ask a question about the relation and military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the USA because of political, let’s say, cold situation between these two countries. So how about the military cooperation? Thank you.
GEN. KURILLA: Roger, thank you so much for the question. While the Saudi — the Royal Saudi forces — we have a very strong military-to-military relationship. In fact, I just spoke with General Fayyad Al-Ruwaili, the chief of defense, this morning, and we had a great discussion about operations and opportunities to strengthen our military cooperation.
Just last month I was in Riyadh as part of a multi-country trip to the Middle East. I had a great engagement with General Ruwaili, and my team and I were able to participate in a military joint planning committee that General Ruwaili hosted. We discussed many of the security issues that we are discussing today, to include the employment of artificial intelligence and unmanned systems, and new technology and ideas to defeat adversary drones. I talk to him on a regular basis on a broad range of security challenges throughout the Middle East, including the war in Yemen, maritime threats, and violent extremist organizations.
Remember, our military relationship with the Saudis goes back to 1951. The Royal Saudi Armed Forces fought alongside us both in Desert Storm and remain a critical partner for us in the Middle East, and that relationship remains very steady today. It must be for the enduring security and stability of the Middle East. The Saudis are very interested in strategic plans with us, and our strategic planners travel to the kingdom regularly to work with Saudi military leaders to build up their ideas for a long-term strategic vision.
This next year, for the first time ever, the Royal Saudi Armed Forces will publish a national military strategy and a national defense strategy codifying the kingdom’s strategic vision for national security and regional security. I think that’s a critical step for the Saudi Royal forces. And the Saudis are focused on building a modern, innovative military force. I’m really impressed with their modernization and transformation of the entire Royal Saudi Armed Forces and their focus on innovation, which is really important to us, and we’re working on them on counter-UAS systems and technology.
I think they’re poised for the future, and I look forward to a continuing military partnership. Again, it is an incredibly strong relationship, and I think we’re talking about if not every week, it’s every other week that I talk, and I’m visiting very often as well. Does that answer that question, Roger?
MODERATOR: We’ll go ahead, sir, and go to — I think Roger’s back in listening mode, so we’ll go ahead and go to the next question.
The next question is going to be again from our live queue, and it will go to Ms. Suzy Elgeneidy from Alahram newspaper in Egypt. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you. So thank you for this opportunity. And my question is: what are the perspectives for the strategic cooperation between U.S. and Egypt to protect the security of the region? And since you mentioned that ISIS is still a threat, so to what extent is the Russian-Ukrainian war and the possible Turkish intervention in Syria will affect the U.S. capabilities and its early warning devices and systems to fight ISIS and other terrorist group in the region? Thank you.
GEN. KURILLA: Well, ma’am, thank you. Thank you very much for the question. And I greatly value Egypt’s leadership role in the region. Egypt has long served a critical role in stability across the region, and CENTCOM is committed to this strategic relationship. The U.S. and Egypt have for decades a military-to-military cooperation. For 30 years, the U.S. has helped Egypt train and equip a large, modern, and powerful military that contributes to both Egyptian security and regional stability.
Egypt played a critical role fighting terrorism with the United States since 9/11. I think the American military partnership with Egypt reaps a rich harvest for both our countries and for the region, and it will continue to do so in the future. I think the relationship remains very strong and remains important for regional security and stability.
Three months ago I was in Cairo with General Mohamed Zaki and Lieutenant General Osama Askar. I speak with General Askar by phone frequently; he’s the chief of defense. And we have important discussions about border security, opportunities to enhance partner training for counterterrorism operations, opportunities to strengthen the U.S.-Egypt military partnership. I had an opportunity to go up into the Sinai and both see the MFO.
I think the key to this, though, is that trusting partnerships allow for candid and tough conversations, and that’s the kind of relationship we have with Egypt. We don’t agree on every subject, but we don’t have to. But we just have to have candid discussions about every subject, and we work through the challenges to strengthen this enduring strategic relationship.
This past year, Egypt played a critical role in de-escalating the most recent conflicts between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Just 10 days ago Egypt assumed command leadership of the multinational Combined Task Force 153. That’s a partnered maritime force charged with security of the Red Sea. It’s the first time for Egypt in this task force, and it’s a new task force in the Red Sea, and they took command from the U.S. It’s part of a combined maritime force, the world’s largest maritime military partnership, that is a 34-member coalition which exists to uphold the rules-based international order at sea. Again, this is the first time Egypt has assumed command of one of our maritime task forces since joining the coalition in 2021.
In regards to your question about ISIS, it is still a threat out there. Again, I think we have taken away the territorial areas, but the ideology remains unconstrained and uncontained. And what I am concerned about right now is that we’re able to continue with the Defeat ISIS operations that we’re doing in Syria. You asked about a Turkish incursion. I am very, very concerned about that because that can destabilize the region and call our SDF partners off of the prisons. They have about 28 prisons across northern Syria. It could cause them to pull off of those and put those at risk. If you remember, one of the prisons last year, in January of last year, there was a breakout of almost 4,000 ISIS detainees. It also can put at risk the security down at al-Hol Camp. So anything we can do to de-escalate the situation and prevent that incursion by the Turks would be important.
Again, Egypt’s very important. It’s important to the region. It’s important to the world. I did get there this last past September. I toured the Suez Canal along with the leadership of the Suez Canal Authority. So hopefully that answers your question, ma’am, and I really appreciate it.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. I know we’re running short on time, and I do have quite a few journalists lined up in the live queue and quite a few more pre-submitted questions, so hopefully we’ll be able to do this again. I’d like to squeeze in one last pre-submitted question, sir, and that’s from a journalist in Yemen. And the journalists in Yemen don’t get a lot of chances to get on these calls, so I really want to get in a question from one of our journalist friends from Yemen. And it’s Mr. Wafeeq Saleh from Yemen Shabab TV. And Wafeeq asks, “To what extent, sir, do you see the introduction of AI and other technologies contributing to enhancing regional security and stability in this region as compared to the more traditional methods we’ve used?” Over to you, sir.
GEN. KURILLA: Well, Wafeeq, thanks for that question. Again, AI, artificial intelligence, when it’s paired with our unmanned systems collecting data through sensors and operating on a meshed network, it really does allow us to get decision dominance. In other words, we’ve got reams and reams of data coming in through these sensors in the water, under the water, in the air, on land. The AI sorts through that data and allows us to make sense of things. Basically, it’s humans that are enabled by AI we find make the best decisions.
We can use that data to make these decisions faster. This allows us to employ our manned systems far more efficiently and more strategically. If you only have a few manned systems, you have to best position them. What all of these sensors allow us to do is effectively use those sensors as opposed to going out to one of these vessels of interest, and you realize it is nothing that a sensor could have told us that beforehand.
And we are fully partnered in this effort, and our partners are on board with our approach to it. And all of this, we believe, will increase regional security and stability. Again, thanks for that question from Yemen. It’s been quite a few years since I was down in Sana’a, but I have been in Yemen recently in the last several months. So thank you for that question, sir.
MODERATOR: Great, sir. Thank you so much. And now, General Kurilla, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you.
GEN. KURILLA: Hey, Sam, thanks again for having me. And for everybody out there, you all know Joe Buccino, my spokesman. If you have questions, reach out to him, submit them, and we’ll see if we can answer them and try and do that in a timely fashion. I think this is an important institution and an important program, and you can be certain I’ll be doing this several times in the future.
So I’m here in Tampa, and there’s no question about our commitment to the region. There’s no question about our commitment to our partners in the Middle East, the Levant, and Central Asia, and we are all-in. We are moving out on innovation, and partners are right there with us. And while the region presents a complexity of challenges, it also represents a range of opportunities, and we must be prepared to take advantage of those opportunities and prepared to address these challenges. Doing so requires leaning heavily on and investing in our partnerships.
This is the inclusion of Israel as well into CENTCOM one year ago, and it presents massive opportunities. Israel and the Arab militaries, it turns out, are seeing the same threats. They have common cause. And very quickly, stunning new partnerships were formed in the Gulf militaries and Israel.
So looking ahead, I expect the region that CENTCOM covers to be again globally among the most dynamic regions. Many events that occur in CENTCOM can ripple over to our adjacent parts of the world. So again, our emphasis on people, partnerships, and innovation will best position us for the future, and CENTCOM is ready to meet that moment. We’re well-positioned to support the region today, and I look forward to the many, many ways we will together enhance the role in the future.
Have a wonderful New Year.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank USCENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a great day.
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