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Linking Technology and National Security
Prepared remarks of Secretary of Defense William J. Perry , The Economics Engineering Systems Department Graduation, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., Friday, June 16, 1995

I can't tell you ... just how great it is to be back in a town and a school and a department and among the people that I cherish. This is like homecoming weekend for me.

The German poet Christian Morgenson once wrote, "Home is not where you live, it's where they understand you."

But my pleasant stay here is going to make it all the more difficult to get on a plane tonight and fly back to Washington to deal with the problems facing the secretary of defense. Congressional hearings on the defense budget, meetings with citizens groups on base closings, and a national security meeting on Bosnia policy.

I am now serving as the 19th secretary of defense, but in previous years I have served as advisers to many of my predecessors -- considering the problems facing the Department today, it is clear that advising the Defense Department is more fun than trying to run it. ...

When I taught here in this department a few years ago, I gave a series of lectures on how important it is for national policy makers to have a keen awareness of technology and what technology can and cannot do in support of policy. Today, I would like to update and reinforce this point about the link between technology and policy making, because, if anything, my two years in the Pentagon have updated and reinforced this point for me.

But more importantly, as graduates of the Economic Engineering Systems Department and of the OR [Operations Research] Department, you are uniquely equipped to use your technical background and your specialized knowledge to help policy makers. Thus, you have a unique opportunity to influence the course of our nation and the world in the next century.

The link, of course, between technology and policy is not new. It was anticipated more than 2,000 years ago in Plato when he wrote "The Republic." Plato saw that political leaders must know more than politics, so he advocated giving the best and the brightest an intense education in the arts and the sciences in order to develop a cadre of future leaders, which he called philosopher kings.

Well that's not the way it works in a democracy. You are the closest approximation to having gotten the kind of education and training that Plato was talking about, but it's not likely any of you will become a king. In particular, in America, our leaders tend to be chosen for qualities that have little to do with technology and more to do with politics.

For example, of the 18 secretaries of defense that preceded me, only two had a background in science or technology -- Harold Brown, who is a physicist, and Charles Wilson, who was an electrical engineer. The rest of them have been lawyers, businessmen or politicians. And yet, the defense secretary is confronted every day with decisions that involve technology and, indeed, profound issues in technology.

This technology gap among policy makers is endemic among all political leaders in modern democracies. The British author and physicist C.P. Snow once wrote, "One of the most bizarre features of our time, most bizarre features of any advanced industrial society in our time, is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men," and he did say men, "who cannot have a firsthand knowledge of what those choices depend upon, or what their results may be."

Then he went on to say, "When I say cardinal choices, I mean those which determine in the crudest sense whether we live or whether we die."

During the Second World War, for example, a handful of men made cardinal choices in Washington about the nuclear bomb program. They failed at first to grasp the importance of the new nuclear technology that was being developed. Indeed, it took a personal letter to President Roosevelt from Albert Einstein to convince the president to launch a supersecret crash program called the Manhattan Project to develop this atomic bomb.

While this was going on in the United States, the advisers of Adolf Hitler were telling him that the atomic bomb was not feasible, so he never gave it the priority that Roosevelt gave the Manhattan Project. The world could be very different today if either Roosevelt or Hitler had gotten different advice from their scientists.

This demonstrates that most policy makers are very dependent upon scientists when it comes to making decisions that involve technology. But it also demonstrates the scientists who give the advice do not always agree. Nor are they always correct in foreseeing the consequences of the recommendation. So the policy maker must know enough about technology to make the ultimate judgment on a course of action.

This problem is all the more critical today because of the explosion in technological advancement. This explosion is dramatically illustrated in the U.S. military -- our weapons, how we use them and even the troops we recruit.

If this explosion leaves policy makers behind, we may not be able to seize on the advances so important to our national security. In fact, this problem -- of policy makers failing to understand technology -- nearly caused Congress in the '70s and the early '80s to kill some of the high-tech weapon systems that were developed for the Cold War and that later proved to be an outstanding success in Desert Storm.

In the late '70s, there was a very vocal group in the Congress that argued that the high-tech systems that were being developed then would be too complex, too expensive and too hard to operate or repair in the field, and that they would fail once you got them out on the field and subjected to the stress of war. If this group in Congress had had its way, we would not have developed the so-called reconnaissance strike force, which is a combination of stealth aircraft, smart weapons and smart battlefield sensors which were a key to our outstanding military success in the Gulf War. Also, we would not have the global positioning satellite system, which uses satellites and radio systems to tell combat units where they are at any given moment.

This GPS system, by the way, was the key to being able to find and rescue Cap. Scott O'Grady [Air Force pilot shot down June 2 and rescued June 8] and pull him out of Bosnia .... That whole operation would not have been possible except for the fact that Capt. O'Grady had a little GPS receiver on his wrist and the incoming helicopters had a receiver on their helicopters. The consequence -- they landed essentially at his feet, and the total time on the ground was less than two minutes. If they had had to go and spend a half hour or so searching for him, the results could have been very different. Even as it was, they were met with groundfire as they brought their helicopters out of Bosnia.

Well, after much sound and fury in the congressional debate, these and other high-tech systems eventually prevailed in the Congress; some of them, including the GPS system, by a single vote.

Desert Storm showed us that technology can give us not only superiority on the battlefield, but with dramatically reduced casualties. So one consequence of that is that resistance to military technology has virtually disappeared among our military leaders. Now, instead of technologists dragging policy makers and generals along, we have visionary leaders like the present Army Chief of Staff, Gen. [Gordon R.] Sullivan [retired June 30], who is pushing the Army to take advantage of what he calls the third wave of warfare -- the digital battlefield. Gen. Sullivan has said in a speech, "The 21st century is rushing headlong into the Army."

I do not want to suggest that technology is a panacea for defense policy. Technology cannot be allowed to drive defense policy, but technologists do need to achieve a degree of policy literacy. They need to gain an understanding of the complexities of policy making in this area so they can better help policy makers find ways to harness the technology revolution to serve our national security. That's where you graduates come in.

As the secretary of defense, I use my knowledge of technology, and I use it every day to make policy decisions that affect our nation's future. With your technical training, you can also play a role in our nation's future -- whether in academia, in the private sector, by using your business skills to help the government solve policy problems or in the public sector by using your technical skills to make better policy decisions.

There are many opportunities out there to use your unique skills. Your job is to find them and seize them.

C.P. Snow, whom I quoted earlier, once said, "Technology is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other."

With your technical background and specialized knowledge, you can help the world receive the gifts and avoid the knife.

Thank you.


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at