Seal of the Department of Defense U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
On the Web:
Media contact: +1 (703) 697-5131/697-5132
Public contact:
or +1 (703) 571-3343

International Institute for Strategic Studies
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen , Hotel del Coronado, San Diego, California , Thursday, September 09, 1999

Thank you very much. And Under Secretary [of the Navy, Jerry] Hultin, thank you for being here this evening as well. I understand you're going to be addressing the group tomorrow.

But let me say that it's a pleasure for me to be back in San Diego. The weather here as we were walking in has been described as being like a cool Maine day, except it's like this every day.

Thank you again very much for the introduction, and let me say I believe that General [Klaus] Naumann is with us this evening. General, let me take this occasion to thank you once again for the extraordinary leadership you provided as the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee. We had great pleasure working with you over the years and we certainly miss your contribution. I'm sure that you are looking forward and now indulging in a new life and lifestyle that will not put as many demands and stresses upon you as being the Chairman of that committee.

The British-born but American author Alistair Cook once noted, "Today the rest of America, and after that Europe, had better heed what happens in California, for it already reveals the type of civilization in store for all of us." Some years later Peter Vale, the South African academician, put it somewhat differently. He said, "Rejoice my friends, or weep with sorrow. What California is today, the world will be tomorrow."

So indeed, this region is the razor-sharp edge of a worldwide transition from military industrial economies reliant upon government capital to information-based economies reliant on intellectual capital. It's a trend, of course, that's now transforming virtually every aspect of our life the world over.

In fact this spring we were awarded an opportunity to take a glimpse into warfare in this new world. And Kosovo, like all battles studied throughout history and through the hard lens of hindsight, illuminates in many ways how America and our allies and our adversaries are going to approach the art of war well into the next century.

To me, at least, it is clear as we begin the next millennium that the United States and our NATO allies constitute the matchless military force of our time. Nonetheless Serbia, which is about the size of my home state of Maine and which has an economy about one-quarter the size of San Diego’s, managed to step onto the fighting field, challenging this matchless force and raising in the process profound questions about the best way to prepare for and respond to such adversaries in the future.

General MacArthur once said that the military is forced to depend upon intelligent interpretation of the past for signposts charting the future. It was with that quote in mind that I called upon two of our nation's most able interpreters -- Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Ralston -- to examine our operations in Kosovo, to elicit some of the lessons learned, and to suggest some of the signposts toward the future in an after-action report that I will be filing with Congress later this fall.

While it would be premature for me to discuss, at this point at least, any of the findings, I'd like to offer just a few observations, some preliminary lessons. They tend to fall into two categories: lessons about the Alliance that will help us to operate more effectively as part of NATO in the future; and lessons for America that will help shape how we think about our own strategy, planning, budgeting and training.

I would begin with the observation that a crowning lesson for both America and the Alliance is that we face something of a super power paradox. Our supremacy in the conventional field is prompting adversaries to increasingly pursue unconventional or asymmetric methods of warfare. I think there's a tendency to view this paradox largely in terms of either stateless or state-sponsored actors who seek to wield terror armed with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. But we've also learned from Kosovo that we have to perhaps stretch this concept of asymmetric warfare to include not merely tools, but also tactics. In Slobodan Milosevic NATO faced a force who saw rape and pillage and slaughter as appropriate, even preferred military tactics; who created a humanitarian crisis as a combat strategy; and who viewed mass executions and expulsions as being in his nation's interest.

In June, just a few days after our U.S. forces had arrived in Kosovo, I saw the effects of this campaign of terror. I visited the small town of Urosevac, which is about 16 miles outside of Pristina, and which is now the headquarters of the U.S. forces in that sector. But during the war, that town had served as a staging ground for the Yugoslav army's ethnic cleansing campaign. It was a memorable experience for me. I will never forget standing in the center of that town with so many shell-shocked buildings and burned-out houses and glass scattered everywhere, and the joy that was in the faces and in the hearts of the ethnic Albanians, the Kosovars, who came out to meet me and greet me. Their faces were not yet filled with the kind of rage and indignation we see today.

While the animosities of the past endure in Kosovo, we should really have no doubt about it: to have sat on the sidelines, to have allowed Milosevic to unleash his forces to carry out this campaign would have been a total and unacceptable defeat not only for NATO and the United States, but also for the peace and stability that we have fought to bring to Europe for the better part of this century.

Tonight, because NATO held fast and firm, I can share just a few insights from an extraordinarily successful military campaign. First, the lessons for NATO. We speak both of the strengths and the shortcomings of the Alliance, but one of the most important lessons that we learned in Kosovo was that NATO as an alliance remains more than equal to the task of defending our collective interests and values in Europe. The command structure that we have developed over the last 50 years can be effective and adaptable today. We have forces that are well trained in common doctrine and shared equipment for a range of contingencies. This is something that we constantly have to point out.

Through this long 78-day campaign we had 19 countries, all of whom had different ethnic, cultural, trade, religious and other commercial ties with Serbia. Nonetheless, those 19 countries, some of whom were under extraordinary domestic pressure, were able to hold together to carry out this campaign. So maintaining this cohesion for a two and a half month period was a remarkable testament to our ability to hold together the alliance under some difficult circumstances, and in my judgment it contributed certainly to Milosevic's ultimate capitulation.

There is a related lesson for NATO as well: that we can be quite flexible when necessary and adapt to meet rapidly changing mission requirements. As Klaus Naumann might tell you, we have spent decades and untold dollars tailoring and training NATO to carry out large-scale campaigns that would have a combined effort of air, naval and ground. But in this case, we called [upon an] air campaign to be conducted. And while we will always prefer operations that keep all options open, we had an amazing and unprecedented success in this air campaign. We had more than 37,000 sorties with all but two planes returning safely, and no casualties suffered. I think that's a remarkable testament to the skill and the training and the technology and the flexibility of our forces and the vitality of the Alliance.

At the same time that I'm saying this I have to point out that Belgrade's battle strategy included a deliberate and manufactured humanitarian crisis. We were carrying out this air campaign, under circumstances in which the weather certainly was hardly cooperating. Again, I'd have to point out that out of the 78 days of this air campaign, roughly 20 days were actually clear enough to allow the uninhibited execution of that air campaign. So under extraordinary geographical limitations, environmental limitations, we also had to deal simultaneously with a humanitarian disaster. Our forces had to cope with helping to bring resources and relief to nearly a million refugees who had been expelled from that country. And we had to reassure the fragile nations on the front line to prevent them from imploding under the pressure, as Milosevic had intended.

So that, too, I think is a testament to NATO's flexibility in that the forces that we had were able to rapidly transform themselves from warfighters to peacekeepers, and peacekeepers that I would point out today include the Russians and other members of the Partnership for Peace program.

So there's another lesson for the Alliance and that concerns the relationship between Russia and NATO. Russian and NATO forces can operate effectively together as they have in Bosnia, and as they are now doing in Kosovo. In spite of some of the objections at the local level of Russian presence, I think it's one of the unheralded stories is that a closer collaboration of Russia working with NATO is making a success of this peacekeeping operation. It's giving hope for better communication and cooperation on a host of other issues.

When I leave here I will be stopping momentarily in Washington and then going on my way to Moscow to talk about issues involving amending or revising the ABM [Anti Ballistic Missile] Treaty dealing with issues of reducing more nuclear weapons, talking about going from START II to START III, and arriving at a shared system for early warning of missile launches. So we have a number of issues that we have in common with Russia and we have the basis for resuming those relationships on a much more productive basis today.

I would say this evening -- and I don't want to take too long this evening -- it's always dangerous for any speaker to be looking out into the audience as they're about to delve into the entree, to carry on too long. But I would say that not every lesson learned by NATO was entirely encouraging. Just as I can point to the strengths of the alliance, I can also point to some of our shortcomings.

It was Winston Churchill who once remarked, "In working with allies it sometimes happens that they develop opinions of their own." Indeed, Allied Force reminded us that consensus is both the heart and, at the times, the hindrance of a coalition. It became clear quite quickly that NATO needed to retool its existing political machinery to be more effective for what I would call the staccato timing of a military contingency. In this instance we shifted more authority -- over a relatively short period of time, given the history of the organization itself – to the military commanders in the field, allowing them greater flexibility.


You have read about this. We can talk about this. But indeed, it was quite a task for the military commanders to have to deal with the political aspects of this particular campaign. That there was to be political oversight, civilian oversight of any military operation is something inherent in our democracies. We do not simply turn to the military and say here is a campaign, carry it out, we are unconcerned with the consequences. We are unconcerned about how it will be carried out. So we'll always want to have some civilian oversight of a military campaign.

In this particular case it was particularly daunting because you had 19 democracies, all of whom wished to have some say or at least some oversight role. That made it quite a challenge for the military commanders. But in a relatively short period of time greater and greater authority and flexibility was granted to the commanders in the field, and you saw as the campaign went on much more intensification not only of the targets but the areas of operation, on not only an eight hour day but a 24 hour a day campaign.

I'd like to say that like Bosnia, before Kosovo, we also had a reminder that NATO's transformation from a force ready to repel an armor-heavy invasion to one that could mount a more flexible and mobile defense is still incomplete. We could not, we the United States, could not have carried out this operation alone. A great deal of this operation, however, rested on American capabilities. The United States conducted virtually two-thirds of all the support sorties that were flown and half of all the combat missions. And because we were the only country with precision-guided munitions that can operate in all weather, heavy cloud cover in the initial stages of this campaign made it almost an exclusively American operation.

Moreover, I'd point out that not all of our allies possess the kind of communications gear that's required to maintain total security. As a result, there were times when our pilots had to communicate over unsecure lines and that allowed the Serbs to perhaps intercept and make use of this source of information to compromise the effectiveness of the air campaign itself and put our pilot's lives unnecessarily at risk.

Individually, all of the allies are making progress in transforming their militaries to meet the missions of the future. We're now seeing a largely European peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. But I must say that collectively there is much more that we have to do. We started talking about this at the NATO summit this spring. We talked about the Defense Capabilities Initiative, and very quickly I can summarize it. We have all agreed to develop forces that are more mobile, beginning with the reassessment of NATO's strategic lift requirements for planning purposes. We need forces, we've agreed, that can sustain themselves longer; that means having a logistics system that will ensure they have the supplies when and where they need them. [We need] forces that communicate more effectively, I just touched upon that. We have to have a common NATO command and control structure and communication architecture by the year 2002, so we are working to develop that as well. [We need] forces that can engage more effectively; that means having the new advanced technologies such as greater stocks of precision-guided munitions and forces that can survive better against chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, and also information warfare.

So we have had a political statement of agreement that this is what we have to do to become more effective for the future. What we now have to do is to measure up and to match the political commitment with actual deeds. There I would say the evidence is less encouraging.

As I look around at the budgets of the members of the NATO Alliance I certainly see restructuring taking place as far as the size of the forces, and one cannot criticize that. But I also see a corresponding reduction in a commitment as far as the budget is concerned. So while there is a great sense of enthusiasm for what we have to do for the future to modernize NATO, to make it as effective as it needs to be, there is not at this point the kind of political commitment to actually carry it out.

So I take some measure of hope with the naming of my good friend and colleague, George Robertson, as the next Secretary General of NATO. His energy and enthusiasm have been crucial to the transformation of the British military and will infuse and invigorate the transformation of the Alliance as well. But this is something that we must continue to point to otherwise the gap that you have been reading and hearing about -- the technological gap between the United States and the other NATO Allies -- will continue to grow. If that disparity becomes deeper and more prolonged, that will carry political implications for the NATO Alliance itself.

A couple of lessons for the United States. I think what we were able to achieve through this campaign reminds all of us that the revolution of military affairs is fundamentally changing the way in which we fight. In the past, by way of example, we needed multiple bombers to hit a single target. In Kosovo, a single bomber could destroy multiple targets. In Operation Desert Storm, which is rightly celebrated for its technological progress and prowess, there were only a handful of sophisticated aircraft that could carry precision-guided munitions, and only nine percent of all munitions expended during that campaign were precision-guided. In Kosovo, nearly all of our fighters could deliver these devastating weapons, and in the opening days, as I mentioned, of Allied Force, one-hundred percent of the U.S. ordnance was in fact precision-guided.

In the revolution of military affairs, it's also important that we take advantage of the kind of technology that has been developed to give us what we call the sensor-to-shooter capability. In Kosovo we had a vast number of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. We had analysts in Washington and across Europe, we had space-based satellites, and for the first time we had a fairly significant use of unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, all of which allowed for a fairly rapid collection of information, a collating into a single system of the battlefield intelligence that we then sent to our shooters.

Taken together, all of these innovations allowed pilots to hit virtually any target any time, day or night, in any kind of weather to within a few feet of accuracy. I'll give you one example. During one mission we were able to strike a radio transmitter in downtown Belgrade with little, if any, damage to surrounding buildings. Of the thousands of bombs that were dropped and the missiles that were fired, nearly all of them hit their intended target. Of all those thousands of weapons that were dropped and expended, approximately 20 had unintended consequences or were not on target. So that is unprecedented. The fact that we were able to carry out a campaign of this size and this magnitude with no casualties and only two aircraft lost is something that is unprecedented and really overwhelming in concept.

We're also reminded, and I talk about technology, that there are some deficiencies there as well. We can't afford to have the kind of mistakes that were made as far as the accidental bombing, or mistaken bombing, I should say, of the Chinese Embassy. As good as we are, this vast intelligence system can create what I would call a haystack of data, but finding that one needle that will pinpoint a target in the right timeframe can be difficult. So even though we have this tremendous capacity, we also have to recognize it has some limitations, and also that the human factor involved can create some difficulty as it did with the bombing of the Chinese Embassy.

But it also points to the fact that with the tremendous success that we've had, America's armed forces excel not only because of our equipment and training and tactics, but ultimately because of our people. Prior to coming here this evening I stopped off and visited our sailors aboard the USS Shiloh. They're about to deploy to Hawaii tomorrow to begin the testing of a new area defense capability that will be one of the building blocks as far as the development of a theater missile defense system for the United States.

What is so striking to me, and what is perhaps unknown to so many Americans, if not those beyond, is the extraordinary talent that we have in our military today. If you take these young people and you look at what they're able to do. How young they are, how educated they are, how dedicated, patriotic and energetic they are, to go out on this kind of equipment that we have, to be able to operate that effectively really stands as a testament that we have the finest military in the world today.

In my after-action report comments, I am focusing on how we fought in Kosovo, but I think much of the commentary and critiques have been focused on why. It's been said that Kosovo was the first war of principle, a fight to defend justice and basic human rights. I would also add that we had a significant interest in seeing to it that NATO was effective and ultimately victorious, and seeing to it that we didn't see a spread of the kind of instability which could have involved members of NATO in a confrontational way.

But Kosovo also reminded us that any time a nation considers the use of force it has to ask a number of questions, such as whether the lives of its citizens and the security of its nation or the fundamental principles of its people are directly threatened; whether the vital interests of its closest allies are jeopardized, risking the stability on which that nation's way of life depends; whether the wheel of conflict, if allowed to spin on its violent axis, will draw other nations into its vortex at greater and more devastating cost and; whether inaction threatens humanitarian catastrophe or establishes a precedent of allowing unfettered criminal behavior to undermine international peace and stability. I think all of these questions have to be asked any time there is the issue that arises as to whether we or our allies should be committing our forces to battle.

I think that among the enduring lessons of Kosovo and indeed every conflict is that we have to resist the temptation to use our forces in every dispute that either catches our eye or our emotions. We also have to recognize the truth that there will be times when not only we can act, and we're the only ones who can act, and in fact when we must act as we did in Kosovo.

Churchill said that, "The problems of victory are more agreeable than the problems of defeat, but they are no less difficult." The lessons I think that we're learning today of this victory are largely agreeable: that NATO proved its unity, its resolve, its ability to defend its interests and its values, and that the United States and the allies do indeed possess a matchless military force. At the same time we also have to grapple with the difficulties that we learned in this victory and how we and our allies are going to meet the changes and the challenges of the coming century.

I can tell you that I feel very confident that we will measure up to this responsibility but it's going to take a great deal of dedication, and it's going to take a lot of political will on the part of all of our allies to make the kind of changes necessary in the face of citizens who want to have declining budgets and declining force structures. That's going to be a major challenge for the United States in working with our allies, but I am confident with the leadership that we have that we can measure up to them.

With that, ladies and gentlemen, I will not deter you from the meal of the evening. If you have questions, I'm told that we have time for them and I'd be happy to respond. Thank you.