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Department of Defense Installations Commander’s Conference
Remarks as Delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense John J. Hamre, Crystal City Hyatt Hotel, Arlington, Virginia, Tuesday, August 03, 1999

I always think this is the most dangerous speech I give all year. It's certainly the most dangerous crowd I appear in front of every year. You're the ones who have all the hard problems that we can't give to anybody else and we have no answers other than you have to work harder. That's not a good message to give.

First of all, thank you. I appreciate being invited to come again to talk with you. If I might just step back for a moment and let you know a little bit about what's important in the front office these days. We are, of course, in the recovery mode after the operation in Kosovo. As you probably know, Secretary [Cohen] asked General [Joseph] Ralston [Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff] and me to undertake an after-action process to look at the lessons learned from the Kosovo operation. We're still in the front end of that. But I already have my [own thoughts]. This is not the product of any careful review, but I would like to tell you at least my personal perceptions about it.

I think our Armed Forces just did a terrific job. This is unprecedented in history to see this kind of an operation. Within just days and weeks, we were able to move to the theater 900 aircraft; 650 of them were U.S. aircraft. We were able to coordinate the activities of 18 other countries in an air operation, a very complex air operation, flying between 400 and 650 sorties a night with just a spectacular degree of precision. And I think [they did] an absolutely remarkable [job of] organization. We should all be very, very proud. I think we did a terrific job.

You don't often hear that. We're now going to enter into the phase when "blame-America-first" takes over. We have a lot of people doing that. But the record ought to be very clear: The air crews and the maintenance crews behind them, the security personnel, the intelligence offices, everybody just did a terrific job. It was absolutely splendid.

Now, why is it important to say that? First of all, we have to tell the truth. We shouldn't be shy about it. There is a lot of tendency in Washington for us to say, "That's over, let's get on with the next one." We ought to pause and let the world know we did one an amazing job.

Now, unfortunately, a lot of problems that [surfaced during the conflict] are starting to show up. There are definitely some stretch marks in the system here as a result of [the operation]. It was hard work. We didn't call it a war at the time, but this was a major regional contingency. This was a flat-out war and it certainly took a one war's worth of [effort] in order to make this happen. It was definitely stressful.

Now, the people that paid the price then, and the people that are really going to be paying the price over the next six months is, frankly, all of you. You probably already feel it. Where did the discretionary money come from to fight a war? We got funds from Congress, very good funding from Congress; enough to cover the costs that we can document. But you and I know that fighting a war entails a lot of costs that just don't show up in the accounting system. There's not a lot of flexibility left in our budget to be able to accommodate operations like this, and historically, where's the flexibility? It tends to be in base operations. So, unfortunately, you are now going to have to do a lot of hard work.

I'd love to give you good news and tell you there's not a problem, that there's more money than you can shake a stick at, but that wouldn't be true. As a matter of fact, there isn't enough money to go around, and you're all probably feeling it. I'm sure in your private sessions with your services that you're probably talking more bluntly about it than you would say it to me. But times are going to be tough here over the next six to eight months. As I said, I think we got the funding from Congress that we indicated we could identify as being attached to this operation, but it's not going to be enough to cover the real costs. We were already operating with a fair amount of challenge posed to the installation commanders in these budgets. I'd like to tell you that it will all disappear, but it's not going to disappear. This department has more needs than we have got money. It's always been that way. It certainly is that way now and we're just going to have to find ways to [make our way] way through that. Unfortunately, it hits very hard on the installation community.

So part of why you're all here is to try to figure out how bad it's going to be. Is there going to be relief? What can I count on? When is it going to change? What help do I need? And you want us to get off your back so you can get your job done. Does that pretty much sum up what you're all here to tell me? [Laughter.]

I'll talk to the senior team when we get done so I can get feedback from you all. I'd like to take the little bit of time I have with you to talk about a couple of issues on which I want to ask for some help from you. First let's talk about Y2K. Now, I would guess that most of you have been working Y2K. You're probably sick and tired of it by now, and I personally believe that this is going to be one of the most underperforming crises in history. [Laughter.]

We have been working our tail off as a department to deal with it and spending a lot of money. We've done a very, very good job as a department getting on top of the problem. If the problem's going to show up, it's going to show up in two places. It's going to show up at our installations overseas. They are going to feel it, I'm afraid, because the rest of the world just hasn't done as well. The progress that has been made is very uneven. But the rest of you are all probably at some risk, too, because we're all a little uncertain what the infrastructure is going to be like. I personally think that it's not going to be as extensive a problem as people think. But nobody knows for sure and that's what makes everybody just a little bit nervous.

You have an exceptionally important role here when it comes to Year 2000. Americans are going to expect that problems will not occur in their Defense Department. The one thing we have to actually guarantee to the American public is that on the 31st of December and the 1st of January and the 2nd of January and every other day, we can go out and defend this country. But most Americans don't see the fighting forces of the United States. They see their local installations, and if you have problems, you're going to become the local poster child of failure. We can't have that. We cannot have failure in the Defense Department when it comes to Year 2000. If there's anything that you need right now, you must let us know fast because we only have 150 days.

Now, for the folks overseas, it's going to be a much harder problem. We're going to take a close look here at the end of September to find out if we need to reposition any emergency assets to overseas installations to help with very basic functions such as power generation. We don't have enough to go around to address every crisis in the world. Our first responsibility is to make sure we can undertake our [national security obligations]. We're going to have to take a very hard look and decide if, for instance, whether a power generator should go to someplace in the United States or to a key installation overseas. It's going to be a tough look. That's why you need to give us feedback if we don't have it. Report up through your services, but you have to tell us where things really stand. It's the only way we're going to be able to make some intelligent decisions in October. I ask for your help on that.

The second thing I want your help on, when you get done with Year 2000, is to start turning to the issue of consequence management. I know that you talked a little bit about that earlier today. We're starting to wake up here in the United States. It's not a matter of "if," it's a matter of "when" we have a terrorist incident in this country that involves chemical or biological weapons. In the last six months, there have been over a hundred threatened incidences of anthrax use in the United States. Now, ninety percent of them have been in California, so we understand. [Laughter.] We're getting this more and more. Frankly, the emergency response community is starting to get complacent about it. That happens once you get your fifth phone call that there's anthrax at the high school during exam time. But this has now become the terrorist weapon of choice, at least for the call-in threats. At some point this could become very real.

Biological agents are a hundred thousand times more lethal than chemical agents if they are ever properly dispensed. We all remember that incident in Tokyo where this little bunch of religious terrorists decided to set off a chemical weapon in a subway system. You probably don't know that they were experimenting with anthrax for two years before that and couldn't make it work. So it's just a matter of time.

Now, why am I bringing this up to you? If you're a terrorist and you wanted to cause a stir in the United States, you could do something in Peoria, but you get a "two-for" if you set it off in Fort Hood, or Norfolk, or San Diego. I don't know how many of you have sat down with your first responders and asked if they are all inoculated for anthrax. Probably very few of you have. I'm not criticizing you because we haven't ever thought about it here. Maybe you don't think this is serious, but I'm telling you, I think this is very serious. As soon as we get past the Year 2000 challenge, I'll ask the system to check how are we doing with basic preparedness with your first responders in your communities. You have to start thinking about it. Ultimately, it's the infrastructure of security that we're going to have to build, both for ourselves and then for the rest of America. But it absolutely is going to have start with us. I don't know if we're ready, so we're going to have to start focusing on that.

There is a third thing I want to talk about, which is related to this issue of consequence management. This is one where I'm really asking for your help as intelligent spokesmen in your local community. All of you play an unusually important role in talking to America. It's very hard to talk to the average American about defense. If you do it from Washington, it gets filtered through the media and it turns into a seven second soundbite. That's not a discussion with America. That's not a way that you really communicate. So how do you do that?

We're going to have this national conversation through you. You are going to be talking to more Americans than anybody here in Washington in the next years, and I need your help talking about one specific thing. We have a lot of people who don't take seriously the idea that at some point America has to get ready for terrorists using a chemical or biological weapon. If you say that here in Washington, you immediately set off other debates. "It's just the Defense Department trying to find a new mission to justify its budget." I have heard that a lot. Or you set off the civil liberties advocates who say, "There goes the Defense Department wanting to take over America." As though there would be a single person in America that wouldn't demand that we do something if it happened. You all have to find ways during this next year in your communities to talk to the local leadership about getting ready as a country.

I know you already have so much to do. I know you already have 18 hour days. But I also know that you have active programs where you're working with your local community. You have to take advantage of this. You have to start explaining to people that this is imperative. There's a reason why we in the Defense Department have insisted that we get our troops inoculated. We're not going to send them into combat without a flack jacket. Why would we send them in without a vaccine if we can save them? We're not going to let a group go in where one guy says, "Well, I'm a machine gunner, but I just don't think I'm going to take that vaccine," and he falls over dead or sick and puts at risk all his buddies. We've got to start talking to Americans about this. You have to do that. It's part of your responsibilities as installation commanders. You are the most efficient voice this department has in talking to the average American. This is not a trivial issue.

Now, you might ask, how much should I pay attention to these guys anyway? They're only here another 18 months. [Laughter.] Did I get that right? Well, I'm going to be here 18 months and you're going to have to hold your breath real long. [Laughter.] The thing about this organization that I admire so much is that every one of us is sitting in a job where the good things around us were caused by somebody who came before us who started off but never was there long enough to see the fruits. That's your obligation. My obligation is to start putting the foundations in place for the very good things that are going to happen two years from now and four years from now and none of us are ever going to be in the jobs to take credit for it.

That's what this organization is about, creating the foundation of excellence for the future. We just saw it in Kosovo. We see it in Bosnia. We see it in the Persian Gulf. We see it all over. This department is doing tremendous things and it's because people thought of their responsibilities when they were commanders and started doing the right thing no matter who came next. So I'll only be here another 18 months, but in that time, we're going to do a lot of good things for the people that come in the future. We're going to make sure this country is protected. That means all of us. And in some ways, you're more important than anyone because you not only have to provide the platform that everybody is going to use, you also have to provide the spending power, unfortunately, that we're all going to need to make sure this department is stronger in ten years. I'm sorry it's like that, but we wouldn't put you in these jobs if you weren't up to it.

Let me conclude by saying thank you to all of you. I'm not kidding when I say that you really do have the hardest job in the department because we often don't give you what it takes to do your job well and yet our expectations are so high. Any time there's a problem, invariably, it's going to land on your plate and you always have a thousand people who have a better idea on how to do it than you. [Laughter.] But that's why you were given these jobs, because we knew they were important and we knew we had to put the right kind of people in them. We're counting on you to do it. This department is counting on you and frankly, the country is. I'm very confident it's going to work. Thank you for letting me be a part of it. It's been a most exciting experience of my life, not the most fun, but it's been the most exciting experience of my life. And I really do look forward to this New Year's Eve. It's going to be a little more interesting than the average New Year's Eve, and, quite frankly, I'm also looking forward to next year. We have a lot of very important things to do. We'll do them together. Thank you. [Applause.]