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Cohen Media Availability at National VFW Convention

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
August 21, 2000

(Media Availability at the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Milwaukee, WI)

Q: ...what your reaction would be to that.

Cohen: Well, I want to keep my comments strictly on the facts and the record and to stay out of the politics as much as possible. As I indicated in my remarks this morning, we can always do better. I think we have turned this around, and we saw a fairly significant cut since the end of the Cold War. We have downsized, we have consolidated, and there was a steep decline in procurement that's on the rise now.

So we've gone from where we were when I took over just 3.5 years ago, from $42 to $43 billion in procurement, we're now up to $60, climbing towards $70. We've had the largest pay raise in a generation. We have certainly increased compensation, retirement benefits, pay table reform, so things are on the upswing. Can we always do more? Sure. And we're doing that. We'll put more into healthcare, into housing, and certainly pay is going up, but I think there's always room for criticism.

But I think if you look around, we're still the finest force in the world today. There's no one who's comparable. No one has the capability, they don't have the technology, they don't have the training, they don't have the equipment, they don't have the leadership that the United States has. So while there's always room for improvement, we've got the best in the world.

Q: Several of the World War II vets we talked to today said they're afraid of being forgotten. Do you see that concern with the gentlemen you talk to and the women you talk to?

Cohen: They will not be forgotten, because that's what this World War II Memorial is all about. That's why people like Stephen Spielberg and Bob Dole and Tom Hanks and so many thousands of others are out there raising funds to have this memorial. And it's for us to always remember to go back to this greatest generation, to remind ourselves of what they sacrificed and what we've inherited and our obligation to carry forward. So they're not going to be forgotten, and that's why there are tremendous efforts underway to remind people the world over of the sacrifice that the American people have made -- our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guardsmen over the years, what we've done on behalf of freedom.

As I mentioned during this morning's remarks, more people today live under this blanket of freedom than perhaps at any time in history and it's because of the sacrifice on the part of the American people.

Q: [George] W. Bush in fact said the next President will inherit a military on the decline.

Cohen: I think you'll see a military on the ascendance, as a matter of fact. If you look today in terms of educational quality, these are the most highly educated people that we've had in history. Their training, their equipment. We are now passing through this revolution in military affairs and business affairs, and I think with the substantial increases, after all, President Clinton last year approved a $112 billion increase over the next five years. That's the largest increase since the end of the Cold War, and that is bound to be increased even further in the future, so I think you'll see a military that will be even more capable.

We're witnessing a transition into this new 21st Century military force in which we are taking advantage of what we call network centric warfare. That is to be able to have total battlefield awareness that you can take the satellites, the sensors in space, connect those to the soldiers in the field, given the complete ability of our commanders and the soldiers they're commanding to have total battlefield awareness. That's something that's a revolutionary concept.

We are in that phase now. We're much closer to achieving the goal of Vision 2010 and 2020 than we were certainly during the time of Desert Storm. So we've got a military that is in the stages of revolutionizing their practices, their doctrine, and their equipment. I think if you want to talk to Admiral Quigley here, he can tell you whether he thinks we have a military in the decline or on the increase. (Laughter)

Q: Your assessment of morale overall?

Cohen: I'd say morale overall is very good. There are bound to be complaints from time to time, and that's the purpose for holding meetings with all of our military to find out what they need. What we found two years ago, they needed greater pay, retirement benefits, pay table reform. All of that's been done. We have to devote ourselves to healthcare and housing and to procurement.

I noticed just recently that in the Business Week, as I recall reading, that defense stocks are now on the upswing, and that's because procurement is on the upswing. If you just think that three and a half years ago we were down at the low $42, $43 billion procurement annually. Now we're at $60 and scheduled to go to $70 within four years, I think that tells you where we're going, tells you of our capabilities.

Q: (inaudible)

Cohen: Hopefully a reduced pace of life. I'm looking forward to after 31 years of public service to having a different pace of live.

Q: Not returning to public life?

Cohen: No. I'm planning to just go into private life, do a little writing, perhaps consulting. Basically turning more time (inaudible).

Q: Are you glad you left the Senate and took this?

Cohen: Well, I retired from the Senate. I didn't retire to take this. I retired from the Senate and was my way into private life when the President called.

This is the greatest experience of my life. There has been nothing in my experience that will ever compare to being Secretary of Defense of the finest military in the world. I say that... I have a wife -- still married. (Laughter)

Q: (inaudible)

Cohen: It's been the best experience of our lives, I will tell you. To be able to travel the world on behalf of our military, to represent them, to do what we can to improve the quality of their lives, to see how good they are. This is what I want the American people to see -- to go out there and see how talented, how brave, how patriotic, how committed they are to this country and to see how they operate every single day of their lives.

I didn't have a chance to mention, I should have mentioned our sadness at the loss of the Russian submariners, submarine. This is something that's felt deeply by American servicemen and women as well, and I will tell you that the other night when the news broke, Janet reacted typically with the kind of passion that she shares for people who serve their country, and the first thing she did upon learning it was to call a friend of ours who is serving out in Hawaii who is the commander of a Los Angeles Class, 688 Class submarine, to call him and say how are you doing? How's the morale? How do the sailors feel? And of course all of them shared the grief that there's a camaraderie that is shared by all military people when they're serving their country.

Russia is not an enemy of ours, and to have 118 young people perish in that fashion reminds all of us of the kinds of dangers that military people face, the risks they assume on behalf of their country, and we should be even more dedicated to our military because of the training that they undergo. This is something that makes us the best in the world and is one of the reasons that you're seeing perhaps what took place with the Russians, they haven't trained recently. They haven't had the equipment maintained as we have. They don't have the kind of rigor in their training regimes for a variety of reasons.

But our people are training hard. They are the best trained military force in the world. That's why when tragedy strikes, be it for humanitarian rescue missions when we provide relief to those who have been flooded, hurricane victims, mudslide victims, whatever it is.

Q: Fires.

Cohen: Fires. They are out there. It's because of the training that they receive.

So we're very proud of our military.

Q: Do you feel you have a handle of what went on in that submarine?

Cohen: We don't, really. At this point there's too much ambiguity about what took place. There is still some sentiment on the part of Russian officials, at least at this point, that there was some kind of a collision. I think the general assessment is there was some kind of internal explosion, but what precipitated it, they'll have to find out in the future.

Q: Some suggested in the Russian military that it was an American...

Cohen: I can categorically say there were no American ships involved in that tragedy.

Q: (inaudible)?

Cohen: No comment.

Q: Any comment on who you are supporting?

Cohen: No.