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DoD News Briefing: Lackland Air Force Base, Texas

Presenters: Lackland Air Force Base, Texas
February 28, 1997 5:40 PM EDT

Secretary Cohen: Ladies and gentlemen, as I've indicated on several occasions in testimony to the Congress, both houses of Congress, both the authorization committee and now the appropriations committee, I have several top priorities as Secretary of Defense -- people, readiness, and modernization. I think everyone can agree that we can have all of the sophisticated equipment in the world, and it won't do us much good as a fighting force, as such, if we don't have qualified people to operate that equipment. So attracting and retaining high quality people is at the top of the list as far as my priorities are concerned.

The reason I chose to visit Lackland is because this is where the Air Force enlisted people receive basic military training when they begin their careers. This is where, also, many train and attend schools. I'm advised that as many as 75,000 total have trained here at Lackland, so my visit today gives me a bit better insight in terms of what's necessary as far as a training program, what kind of instructors do we have, what kind of young people, in fact, are coming in, and then coming out of the system. I must say after looking at the rooms here, the dorms as such, after just five weeks, it is remarkable -- I even volunteered to come down and take a six-week program myself if I can operate as efficiently and with the kinds of standards that have been set here. So it is a very remarkable success of what we're able to do with the young enlistees who come here, and the kind of product that we're turning out. So Lackland deserves a great deal of credit. It gives me an opportunity to see exactly what is taking place here.

One thing I wanted to focus upon, to talk about retaining quality people. Quality of life is very important, and that means having adequate housing. Of course right here we're seeing one of the innovative activities of the Defense Department come to fruition because a program has just been started to hire a private contractor to demolish dilapidated military housing units and replace them with 420 new privately owned units. This is the first Air Force project under the new program. It's going to, I think, be a role model for many other services as well.

So I'm here today to gain information to help me make decisions as Secretary of Defense, and I feel a lot more confident that we're doing things right here at Lackland and throughout our services.

I came down to answer your questions at this point, so please begin.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you say retaining quality people is number one. (inaudible) basically that the drawdown has ended, however now we're hearing that there may be more cutbacks. Can you elaborate on that for me?

A: As you know, we're going through a Quadrennial Defense Review, referred to as a QDR. The QDR process essentially is forcing us to look at ourselves in the way that Admiral Stockdale mentioned when he was campaigning for Vice President, said who am I, and why am I here? It was an important question for him to raise, and one that I think we have to raise for the nation -- who are we, and why are we here or there, in various places around the globe? We have to decide exactly what it means to be a super power, what are the responsibilities, what are the costs, what are the benefits? Essentially, that's what this QDR process really is all about -- trying to define for ourselves and for our country what we need to remain a super power for the future, what it means to operate in a budget constrained environment. In my own judgment it's unlikely in defense that unless we have some sort of a major conflict, we won't see dramatic improvements as far as budget escalations in Washington. We're likely to operate at roughly the same levels that we currently have, plus inflation. So if you're going to have that kind of a budgetary environment, what will it take in order to continue to attract high quality people, to retain high quality people, and also to modernize our forces for the future.

So the QDR process is, we're approaching it on the basis that everything must be on the table. We're going to look at everything. We're going to look at our modernization programs, we're going to look at infrastructure, we're going to look at readiness, we're going to look at human resources, we're going to look at every facet in our entire structure, and then make a determination of what kind of tradeoffs, if any, we have to make in order to have the best fighting force in the world to protect us for the kind of threats that are not only likely to appear in the future, but are quite near as I speak to you today.

So no one can tell you until the process is complete. I do know that we're making a very through examination of what our needs are going to be. I have met with the Joint Chiefs on this on several occasions now. They are deeply involved in this. I have talked to the individual panels that are conducting their own internal investigation in terms of what needs to be done as far as reforms are concerned. We may have cutbacks or even augmentations, increases may be necessary as well. But essentially to look at strategy, force structure, end strength, readiness, all these things that make up defense structure. That is going along well, and we will meet our deadline. I have to make a report to the Congress on May 15th, and I am satisfied that the way things are going right now, with the time frame, that we will do that.

Q: There's a lot of skepticism about government and today the Pentagon released that more than three quarters of the chemical weapons logs kept during the Persian Gulf War are missing. Now veterans groups are saying that the Pentagon has botched the handling of the record but also the investigation of the handling, and (inaudible).

A: I've said before, this was not well handled by the Pentagon -- the entire Gulf War Illness program, as such, now underway. It was not originally handled well. There were records missing, records that were not compiled, not shared, and I think the response on the part of the Pentagon was inadequate.

I do not share the view that's being announced today that the investigation is inadequate. Dr. Rostker, I think, is trying to do a very complete job. He [one of Dr. Rostker's investigators] is in Florida today conducting the investigation, trying to find out what records are available, which ones are missing, why are they missing?

The fact is, as a result of Dr. Rostker digging into this matter, that we're now starting to see the surfacing of missing documents, documents that were not communicated from one agency to another. So I suspect we'll have more bad news, frankly. I think the more we're going to dig into this and really get to the bottom of it, you will see more examples of information that was not shared.

So that's part of the investigative process, to dig in as far and as deep as one has to to get at the facts and make them available to the public. I think it would be wrong to then suggest because you're digging into the facts and surfacing them and making them public, therefore, it's bad news, as such, what took place back in 1991 and beyond, up to last year, that you should then say the investigation is not being handled properly.

I think they're doing a good job. I have a good deal of confidence in Dr. Rostker. I know how strongly the President feels about it and how strongly I feel about it. Our first obligation is to our veterans, to our soldiers, those who were in any way injured, will be cared for; for those who are disabled, they will be compensated. We'll get to the bottom of this entire matter. It's going to take some time. We have increased the funding ten-fold over what it was. We now have a very dedicated task force; again, digging down and deep to find all the facts and then make them public. I'm satisfied that process will go forward. The President's called for further inquiry on the part of his advisory committee. That committee also has been charged to look at what the Pentagon's doing now. We will get to the bottom of it.

Q: (Question on privatization)

A: The Secretary of State can't, but the Secretary of Defense may be able to. (Laughter) I indicated that privatization in place was something recommended by the BRAC Commission itself. A letter was sent that indicated this was contemplated by the Commission. Although that's still a matter of some debate, and that both McClellan and Kelly were considered to be more or less pilot projects to find out whether or not privatization in place will work. The GAO report indicates it's going to be more expensive to have privatization in place. We need to find out what facts the GAO is operating under in order to come to that conclusion. So there are a lot of questions that have yet to be asked and answered, but I do know that it's proceeding in on acceptable plane right now. The privatization in place is well on its way to reality, as such. We're seeing competition instilled here. We have a request for proposals, it's out. We have both public and private competition for the work. So I think we'll have to wait see whether or not privatization in place will work, and these two projects, two bases, will give us some evidence of that.

Q: (Question on mixed gender training)

A: That's one of the reasons I wanted to see how that's handled here at Lackland. I frankly think the services, at least initially, should make the determination as to what works best for their service, what goals have been set, how have they achieved those goals. You have to give some deference to the services who after all, responsible for producing the young men and women into viable teammates following their recruiting and training. The Marines do it differently. The Marines have combat units, and therefore, they train differently. Some specialized units, combat units in the Army train separately. But the Air Force and the Army, for the most part, have integrated training. I've indicated I have an open mind on the subject, but nonetheless, I've yet to see any compelling evidence that would warrant changing that. Based upon my observations here today, it seems to me fairly clear that the Air Force has a very good training program and it works well for the Air Force, and one would have to come forth with some pretty compelling evidence that it should be handled differently.

But I will look at it, and we will review it. The services are looking at it. But I think right now we have about the right mix and we'll wait and see if there are any compelling reasons to change it.

Q: (Question on on recruiting problems)

A: It is of concern, whether we'll still be able to maintain the recruiting quotas as such. So far we've done a pretty good job. So far we are still way above our goals. There has been some slight slippage this past year. We're down from 95 percent overall to about 92 percent in terms of recruiting goals as far as high school graduates are concerned. There's been a slight increment in terms of the category four levels, up one percent to two percent overall.

But essentially what we look for is what are the signs, what do we have to do? What's taking place in the private sector that might draw people away from us in terms of the military.

No crisis is imminent, we have a joint review committee, as such. They are looking very closely at any trends in terms of whether or not we're (inaudible). We have this council looking at readiness. We also have looked very closely to see what signs we have to address -- are there specialties we have to address, people who have real technical skills we need to get into the military, do we have to offer additional dollars.

I think for the most part what we have to have is stability. I've talked about this in the past. We have to have stability for those who are serving in the military or coming to the military, who would raise questions saying, "I'm not sure what the funding levels are going to be for the future. Can I rely upon having decent pay, decent housing and a good quality of life for myself and for my family, and are there retirement benefits that will be there for me after I put in my time?"

The more instability you have, the greater turbulence you're likely to have, and the less likely to meet your recruiting goals. So what we have to do, and this is one of the reasons I believe the President has asked me to serve as his Secretary of Defense, is to build a bipartisan coalition in Congress for putting in place a strong commitment to a strong national defense, and to do so for the long term.

By building that coalition, we can set forth what our goals are, what our needs are, our requirements, how we fill them. But to try to take the bipartisanship out of the debate over what National Security system, and to start rebuilding this strong consensus that we had in years past, it becomes more difficult today because there's no clearly identified enemy on horizon. There are enemies out there, but they're not in the form of the former Soviet Union, as such. But they are just as dangerous to our security interests. Yet we have to persuade certainly the public and also colleagues in the House and Senate, that we have to have this commitment to a solid foundation of funding, a commitment to fund the programs that we have laid out for the long term. Again I go back to the QDR, we're trying to assess what exactly we have to have for the future because the programs and the systems that we're going to have to deploy in the year 2015 and 2020 have to be started out in order to get them in the force.

So it takes a long term commitment, and that long term commitment as you build a foundation that is bipartisan in nature and can reach a consensus in the country and can sustain our defenses, then we won't have to worry about the future. But unless we have that, there will always be ups and downs. We have $250 billion this year, $240 next year, to $260. What's it going to be? When you get that kind of instability as far as programming is concerned, then you have a lot of doubt to (inaudible).

Q: (Question on the 60/40 rule)

A: I think we should try to achieve greater flexibility. It cannot come without negotiating with the Congress, however, and that's going to be a tough job. But nonetheless, we're trying to achieve that. (inaudible) negotiate that last year, recognizing that some flexibility has to be achieved, but I know that coming from a state that dealt with this issue on depots, there's pretty strong resistance to changing the 60/40 rule. But again, we're going to go through the QDR process, we will lay out for the Congress the kinds of choices and tradeoffs that we have to make.

It has to be made very clear to all groups that if we can't make efficiencies, can't achieve efficiencies in our military programs, then something else will be sacrificed. Either it will come in the form of readiness, modernization, infrastructure, all the things I mentioned before, end strength. There have to be some tradeoffs because we're going to be limited in how much money will be there to achieve our goals. So as long as everyone is clear on this and Congress makes the determinations ultimately, they control the purse strings. What we have to do is persuade the Congress that we have come up with a proposal which will minimize the impact of local communities as far as economic disruption, and try to pursue a balanced program. If we can do that, then we'll achieve our goals. But it will take a lot of work, a lot of negotiation.

Press: Thank you very much.