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Cohen Seizes the DoD Challenge

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 1997 – In his first interview after being confirmed as secretary of defense, William S. Cohen pledged to visit the troops in the field as often as he can.

Cohen met with American Forces Press Service, The Stars and Stripes and Army Times Publishing Co. reporters the night before being sworn in. He spoke with the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service shortly before the White House ceremony Jan. 24.

"This is my first opportunity to send a message to the troops in the field, and I wanted to let them know how pleased I am that the president has put his faith and trust in nominating me to be secretary of defense," Cohen said.

After spending his time learning the ropes at the Pentagon, Cohen said, he wants "to listen to those men and women who are on those front lines out in the Med and the Indian Ocean -- wherever they might be." He said he will try to schedule frequent visits to field sites.

Cohen also said he plans to continue the quarterly senior enlisted visits started by his predecessor. "Secretary [William] Perry believes in the maxim, 'If you take care of the troops, they'll take care of you,' and I believe that's a wise maxim that should be followed," he said.

Maintaining quality people and high readiness, and modernizing the force top Cohen's agenda as the 56-year-old from Bangor, Maine, takes the reins as the nation's 20th defense secretary. Cohen said his greatest challenge as secretary will be to take advantage of the immense talent in the military.

"The one thing I still get a spinal shiver about when I meet the men and women who serve here is the enormous intelligence, dedication and can-do spirit," he said. "Most people are unaware of how good the military really is at carrying out the missions we assign to them."

Cohen said his job is to shape the military's enormous capability and maintain the high level of readiness and morale in the face of budget cuts. It's a matter of matching resources and mission at a time when there is no identifiable menacing threat to the United States, he said.

The job calls for persuading the American people "that just because we're not in combat doesn't mean we don't have to maintain a combat capability that exceeds all that we're likely to confront," Cohen said.

While serving on first the House and later the Senate Armed Services committees during his 18 years in Congress, Cohen worked with six defense secretaries. He said he often visited troops in the field and equates those with visits with his home state constituents.

"One cannot effectively represent one's constituents by staying in Washington," Cohen said. "You have to get back to the state as often as possible to learn what's going on in their lives so you can better represent them. I feel the same thing is especially true in this position as well."

Keeping high quality people in the military, Cohen said, is his first priority. "I believe the personnel we have in the military today are the best educated, the best trained and the best equipped we've ever had in the history of this country. I want to retain the good people we have."

He said his initial focus also includes maintaining high readiness, and quality of life plays a crucial role in that effort. Providing good housing is a key component in maintaining family stability and happiness, he said.

"I've had a chance to visit a number of bases during the past 18 years, and I found some of that housing to be quite deplorable. Housing, day care, health care -- all of these are key components to quality of life. When men and women are shipped out, they want to make sure their family have adequate housing and health care."

Cohen said he supports Perry's policy of including an annual maximum military pay raise allowed by law in the five-year budget plan. He also said he talked with Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, regarding personnel and operational tempo rates.

"We don't want to pursue a perstempo that will ultimately be degrading our readiness capability," Cohen said. "[DoD is] now instituting a tracking system to find out which units are most called upon. We want to make sure we don't over use individuals."

Modernizing the military is Cohen's third priority. He said early press stories following his confirmation said modernizing will require sacrificing personnel or readiness. These stories are wrong, he said.

"I don't think I stated yesterday the conclusion that some have drawn -- that in order to improve modernization one has to cut back on readiness or any of the other activities we currently have."

Making decisions about end strength or force structure would be premature, Cohen said. The Quadrennial Defense Review currently under way, which will report in May, is looking at strategy, force structure, end strength, readiness and infrastructure, he said. "I'm going to defer any comment on that until I get the recommendations coming out of the QDR," he said.

But, Cohen said, DoD has deferred modernization, and if the current strategy is maintained, the department must dedicate more money and effort in the coming years. "My preference is to do it earlier than to defer it," he said. "To constantly defer it only means it's going to be that much more difficult when the time comes to come up with the money."

Can modernization be achieved without reductions? Maybe, Cohen said. The department is looking at acquisition reforms and strategies already saving money that can be used for modernization.

Streamlining systems, cutting inventory warehousing, just-in-time deliveries -- all of these strategies may save billions of dollars, Cohen said. "If that's the case, then obviously it will reduce any pressure to make changes in the other categories."

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