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DoD News Briefing: United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Presenters: United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.
May 28, 1997 12:25 PM EDT

[This media availability occurs in the press box at Falcon Stadium just prior to making the commencement address for the USAFA Graduating class of 1997]

Secretary Cohen: Thank you very much.

Ladies and gentlemen, first let me take this opportunity to express my sincere condolences to the family of Capt. Amy Svoboda, the pilot of an A-10 aircraft that went down last evening. My understanding is that her family has been notified. She was a graduate of the Class of 1989 of the Academy. Her aircraft went down approximately 9:30 last evening, and it has been confirmed that she died in that crash. So I wanted to take the opportunity to express my sincere and deep condolences to her family.

During the past four months I have been serving as Secretary of Defense, I have visited with U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines in Bosnia, Japan and Korea. I have studied the basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas; also the Army basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. Now it's truly a great opportunity for me to be here at the Academy to be with General Estes and also General Fogleman, two generals whom I work with very closely on a regular basis.

As much as I enjoy getting out of Washington, I must tell you for the past six weeks I have been lashed to my desk. I have used the analogy of being Ahab lashed to the whale that I have been chasing all these years, now I find myself lashed to the desk in the last six weeks, indulging in an examination of exactly where it is our military is going to go into the 21st Century. It's something that you're familiar with, called the Quadrennial Defense Review, the QDR.

Last week we presented the QDR to Congress. Overall, it was quite well received.

Essentially, we developed a strategy for the present and for the future. The strategy is summed up in three words, and that is shape, respond, and prepare. Namely, that we have to have forces that we can have forward deployed, that they can shape the environment in ways that are positive for our interest. That means having roughly 100,000 personnel forward deployed in the Asia Pacific region, another 100,000 forward deployed in Europe, so that we are able to respond to the full scale of crises that erupt -- be they humanitarian type operations, evacuations, what they call non-combatant evacuations (NEOs), to small scale contingencies, to major regional conflicts. We have to have the capability of responding across the spectrum of those types of crises.

The third element of our strategy is the shaping part. That's where we have been deficient. We have been losing roughly $15 billion each year that has been migrating from preparing for the future, modernizing our equipment -- those funds have been shifting over into operations and support. That is where we have tried to focus our energies, and how we continue to make sure that we are the finest fighting force in the world today.

That's going to require some sacrifice. It will mean some cutbacks in force structure. It means some base closures in the future. It means we will have to slow somewhat our modernization plans. But nonetheless, it will allow us to start to climb to that figure of between $55 and $60 billion on an annual basis that we're going to need if we're going to continue to be the super power that we are today.

So with that in mind, I thought I would stop here and entertain your questions, but say that overall we were very well received on Capital Hill last week. General Shalikashvili and I testified for three consecutive days. While, obviously, there are areas of concern, for the most part the members of the Senate and the House were very, very enthusiastic, I think, about what we have done. It's only the beginning. It's a first step. There is something called the National Defense Panel which is giving a second opinion, and that National Defense Panel will review our recommendations and then take that and go further and suggest modifications, perhaps that we go further than we have, that we become "more visionary" than we have, according to some critics, and make other types of recommendations. They then are presented to the Congress and then we will work with the Congress in the coming years.

This is a long process that we need to develop a strong bipartisan consensus about what we need for a national security defense that will carry us into the 21st Century.

Let me stop here and entertain your questions.

Q: (inaudible)

A: I will talk to the graduates about the unlimited possibilities that they have, about the challenges they will face in going into the future, about the responsibilities they carry. They are not only warriors, they are also diplomats, and they are going to be deployed all over the world. They carry great weight upon their shoulders. Wherever we go, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, they are diplomats as well as warriors. So I'm going to point out that we demand high standards, we insist upon high standards for all of those in the military, and that's why we are the best in the world. We are the most envied in the world.

I have spent the last four months entertaining Ministers of Defense coming from other countries who come to me to say how can we be more like the United States? Can you teach us what you're teaching your young people? Can you help us develop a corps of non-commissioned officers? Can you help us modernize our forces? Can you tell us what you learned from your experience in Vietnam when you went through this deep trough of despair, and now that you're back up and having the finest military in the world, how did you do that? So they're coming literally in droves. I think I had seven Ministers of Defense in one week come to Washington to meet with me to talk about what we're doing right.

I think too often the focus is upon the negative. We find the exceptions rather than the rule. We look for problems when overall, we are doing an outstanding job globally. So what I want to talk about is the positive responsibilities that we have and the great job we're doing as well.

Q: Mr. Secretary, this is the smallest graduating class in more than 20 years. Based on (inaudible)? ...drawdown in the officer corps (inaudible)?

A: There will be some drawdown in the Air Force, as there are drawdowns in virtually every service -- the Army, the Marines, the Navy are all going to have some drawdowns. We have tried to shape those drawdowns in ways in which they don't come out of the active combat force, but are in the support element -- combat support and service elements -- so that we maintain as much as we can the sharpness in the teeth and take it out of the tail that has grown considerably in recent years.

So all the services will have modest reductions, but we believe the reductions that have been proposed for the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Army are reasonable.

Q: (inaudible)

A: I have in the QDR recommended that we have at least two BRAC proceedings. I would prefer to have one in '99 and another one in the year 2001. That's up to Congress. Obviously, Congress determines whether we have BRAC proceedings or not.

What I've tried to lay out to my former colleagues is that all the easy choices are over. We have been on something that we call a procurement holiday. We have been allowed to take that holiday by virtue of the military buildup that we had during the late '70s, early '80s, but that holiday is now over, and so all the easy choices have been exhausted. What we need to do now is to decide whether we should carry the extra weight.

Essentially what the military has advised me in looking at this process, is that we have experienced roughly a reduction in our force structure of 33 percent, and with the QDR it will go to about 36 percent from where we were at the height of the Cold War, let's say from the period of 1985. So we've had about a 33, climbing to 36 percent reduction in force structure. We've had only a 21 percent reduction as far as our infrastructure is concerned, so we're carrying roughly 14 to 15 percent excess capacity.

I have tried to put this and paint this in athletic terms, that we are, in fact, in the Olympics. We're not just running the 100-yard dash, but we're a decathlon champion. So we've got to compete not only in the 100-yard dash, but in the pole vault, in the discus throw, the hammer throw, the broad jump, the 10K race, etc. We've got to do all of these things because so much is required of the United States. We're not just a one function operation, as such.

So if your coaches come to you, the best that you have in the world, and say you won't be able to compete very long carrying that excess weight, so you've got to slim down, you've got to get in shape, you've got to be able to shed that in order to compete in all of these categories. Most of us would say well, we have a choice. We can carry the weight and not be competitive, or we can get rid of the weight and become as slim and agile and athletic as we need to be in order to be a world champ. That is basically what we're talking about as far as our military is concerned.

We can still carry the weight, but we won't be able to get to the modernization as quickly. We won't be able to have the savings necessary to put into the new system that we want to bring forward from the future to the present as quickly as we can. So that's the price we pay.

Can we continue doing what we're doing without any sacrifice? The answer is yes. We can continue doing exactly what we're doing. The problem is we'll never achieve the kind of modernization that we need to, unless Congress is willing to appropriate more dollars.

This is something that I've tried to be very realistic about in dealing with the Pentagon itself and the military. I asked them to look at the strategy that we need to develop. What are the threats out there today, near-term, mid-term, long-term? What are the threats? Let's develop a strategy to combat those threats. We must do so not based upon budget alone, but be conscious that we're living in a budget-constrained environment. Namely, in the absence of a major conflict, it's unlikely that we'll be able to have additional funds over and above where we are today. We're at roughly $250 billion today. I expect that we'll be there for the foreseeable future, absent some kind of a major conflict, in which case we need to plan on that level of funding.

Now it's not going to be easy to achieve. Just last week there was a vote in the House of Representatives -- a late night vote, early morning vote, about 3:30 in the morning. An amendment was offered to cut almost $6 billion out of the defense budget. It failed to pass by just two votes. So you can see the kind of pressure that Congress is now under by virtue of having balanced budget measures. We want to balance our budget by the year 2002, and therefore, it's unlikely that we'll see dramatic increases in the future, absent a major type of conflict.

So within those kind of restrictions, we have got to figure out ways in which we continue to do what we're doing. We are shaping the environment. We are forward deployed. We are responding all the way from rescuing people in Zaire or Albania or perhaps in any other part of West Africa today. We are prepared to do all of that and fight in Korea, should that be called upon for us to do. I hope it never happens, but we have to be prepared. We have to be prepared to deal with Saddam Hussein today and for the foreseeable future. So we have all of these responsibilities. So we can do everything we're doing today except we won't be able to get to the modernization, get to the number of F-22s and the Joint Strike Fighters and the other type of equipment that we'll need to make sure that we're always superior.

I've said this before. I never want to see our forces engaged in a fair fight. I don't believe in fair fights. I want to be unfair. I want it unfair, to our advantage, so that when we put our people in the line of fire we know that we're going to dominate and prevail. In order to do that, we've got to make sacrifices now, and the longer we delay on the sacrifices, the longer it's going to take us to get to that level of superiority that we hope to get to by the year 2015.

Q: (inaudible)

A: First of all, there has to be a BRAC process, then everything is on the table, as in every other BRAC process. So there's no list. Basically what you have is the military looking at those installations, those facilities that give us the greatest combat capability, the best training facilities to maximize the efficiency. That's a determination that must await the future. So there's no list and no one can get up before you and say that any base is in danger or any base is safe. It all depends upon the judgment of the best minds that we have to say what gives us the greatest capability.

Q: (inaudible)

A: I think morale is generally high. I indicated I've spent some time visiting the troops in Bosnia. The American people should be very, very proud of the troops that we have. Wherever I go, be it Japan, South Korea, I'll be going over to the Middle East, to Saudi Arabia, to the UAE, all of these countries. What I find is an inspiration. I find that we've got the most dedicated, patriotic, gifted men and women that we've ever had in the history of our armed forces.

So what you see from time to time is an episodic focus on a case in which it gets great public attention. There may be some temporary question about a diminution in morale. I have not seen that. I go to work every day in a building that has 23,000 people in it, and they still are carrying their heads very high, they're very proud of what they're doing. When I visit the military in any capacity, in any part of the world, I find that they are very proud of what they're doing, and they look at these examples as being exceptions and not the rule.

Q: (inaudible)

A: I think Secretary Widnall handled it appropriately. I think she did an outstanding job in the way in which it was handled.

Thank you very much.

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