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Cohen Media Availability with Lord Robertson in Norfolk, Va.

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
September 05, 2000

(Media availability with Lord George Robertson, secretary general of NATO on board USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) in Norfolk, Va.)

Cohen: I've asked Lord Robertson, the secretary general of NATO, to join me here to stress the importance of the role the Joint Forces Command plays in the Atlantic Alliance. As you no doubt gathered from the ceremony that we all just witnessed, the commander in chief of the Joint Forces Command also serves as Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic.

These two jobs fit extremely well together. The Joint Forces Command prepares our forces for battle, makes sure they're on the cutting edge of training and doctrine. The Supreme Allied Commander of the Atlantic supplies those forces to the Alliance and the U.S. troops have performed brilliantly in all of the NATO tasks -- as peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo, as warriors in Kosovo, and as diplomats in the Partnership for Peace exercises throughout Europe. So in all of these cases U.S. forces have been well trained, well equipped, well led, and ready to do their job no matter how tough that job is.


Robertson: Thank you, Secretary Cohen.

I don't want to take too long, but just to underline how important Allied Command Atlantic is to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and it's a good place to come and do that.

There are two Supreme Allied Commanders in NATO, and the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic is an equal and one of the critical arms that we have in dealing with not only the problems of today but also the very considerable challenges of tomorrow.

I made the point this morning and I repeat it again just now, the fact that an Army general is taking over as SACLANT is new, it is noble, but it is perfectly rational and explicable, and indeed, it is a sign of that integration that is taking place between the individual services and indeed the interoperability of allied forces in dealing with the problems, the difficulties, the challenges that are going to face us in the future.

Admiral Gehman has done a huge amount to bring together these fighting forces, ready to serve for peace as they have had to do in these last three years when he has had the command here; and handing over to General Kernan to take on these joint forces as well as the amphibious capabilities that are going to be so relevant and so important in the future.

In a private ceremony before we came here this morning I presented Admiral Gehman with the Kosovo Medal, the NATO Kosovo Medal, awarded to those who served in the theater. I presented to him today, both to him personally for what Allied Command Atlantic did during the Kosovo conflict and to all of those who served in Allied Command Atlantic, and for what they did too, to make sure that we had such a significant success last year.

So the change of command ceremony here is a routine that takes place when one commander is relieved and another commander takes over, but it's significance should also not be underestimated.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Lord Robertson, the thrust of today I kept hearing was technological advancement and interoperability. But one area that's been quite in the news lately has been the issue of the national limited, national missile defense. And from the news reports in the past year it seems like NATO and the United States have actually had a difference of opinion over this.

Do you gentlemen foresee that apparent gap being closed and NATO and the United States coming to some sort of consensus on what kind of national missile defenses will be doable in the future?

Robertson: Let me make one very clear point. NATO is the United States and the 18 other countries. NATO is not some monolithic organization that exists for itself, it is 19 nations. Free democratic nations who collectively through their sovereignty and through their military might have kept the peace as a result of that.

The United States has got a particular idea on national missile defense that it put to the Alliance. A discussion and consultation has taken place over the last year -- very intensely, and we'll continue to do so. The United States is a party with the Russians to the Antiballistic Missile Treaty -- has every right to put forward its own proposals. But as a good ally within the Alliance it is making sure that its other allies know what it is doing and why it is doing it, and we have been very careful to listen to it.

I think the decision that was taken by the president last week was a wise one and a prudent one, and the circumstances in allied consultations and discussions will continue in the spirit of comradeship and the collective responsibility that characterizes this Alliance.

Q: Lord Robertson. In September 1997, British vice admiral -- his name is Ian Garner -- he said that in the near future they would be (inaudible) the Russians military based on recent involvement. And we understand through this (inaudible) it was postponed. What are your plans to back to this (inaudible)? If not, why not?

Robertson: Well, I'm not sure what Ian Garner said at the time. We have no plans of that nature at the present moment. What we've got is a discussion going on about an information office, a NATO information office in Moscow, and the discussions are very advanced on that. I hope we'll get agreement on the modalities. The principle has already been agreed. Then we will talk about the other part of the NATO/Russia (inaudible) act which is a military liaison mission, a NATO military liaison mission. To (inaudible) the Russian military mission that is presently in NATO and Moscow as well, that will be a subject for discussion later on in the year in fulfillment of the remaining parts of the (inaudible) act that still has to be put in place.

Q: Secretary Cohen, a couple of readiness questions, if I may.

How would you rate the combat performance of our Navy pilots in places like Kosovo and Iraq during mission (inaudible)?

Cohen: I would rate our pilots to be the finest certainly in the world -- NATO pilots who performed their mission over Kosovo. We pointed out in the past that we had some 38,000 combat sorties, some 38,000 sorties that were flown, losing only two aircraft and no pilots. That's a record I think that has been unequalled in the history of warfare.

I would say that our pilots -- Navy, Air Force -- are in very high states of readiness. So I think that you'll find they continue to be and function at that level.

Q: Are you satisfied that the Navy pilots we have in service now receive all the training that they need before they're going into combat missions?

Cohen: I don't believe the CNO, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, would send our Navy pilots into combat unless they were fully satisfied they were capable of carrying out their missions. So I would defer to Admiral Gehman, to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but I have seen absolutely nothing but confidence exhibited by the military leadership in the quality, the training, the capability, the performance of our pilots.

Q: You don't think, you're not worried that the budget restrictions were preventing pilots from getting all the training?

Cohen: I've indicated before, we can always do more and will do more in the future in terms of procurement, additional dollars for spare parts to make sure that we have readiness. We can always do more in that respect. But I believe that our pilots will not be sent into battle, into combat, and have not been sent into combat ill prepared.

Q: Secretary, this is a follow-up to that question. Mr. Cheney has been going around the country and has made quite a number of discouraging remarks about U.S. military readiness and America's ability to meet our obligations around the world. What do you think of Mr. Cheney's [statement]?

Cohen: I'm not going to comment on either Mr. Cheney's comments or anyone else's. What I can say is, as General Kernan said today, we have the best trained, best led forces in the world. There is no superior force to the United States military. Can we do more? Yes, we can always do more. We will do more in the future. But I am determined not to allow the military to be drawn into this type of political debate during the course of the campaign, the final few months.

We will keep it strictly on the merits. If there are statements made that are in error, certainly they will be corrected. But it's important to send the signal to all concerned that our military is ready to carry out their responsibilities. They will do so with great patriotism, professionalism, and expertise.

Can you point to any specific area where there might be some deficiencies? The answer is you can always do that. But I believe that our forces are prepared, fully prepared to carry out their missions.

Q: Is it inappropriate to bring these type of question our in the (inaudible)?

Cohen: I think it's always appropriate to discuss any issue including the state of our military readiness, and I believe that defense can be, and is, and should be an appropriate area for discussion. I would hope that no one would gather from any comments made, however, that we have a demoralized military. The military in the last few years has seen a significant pay increase, the largest in a generation. We've seen a significant change in retirement. We've seen pay table reform. We have devoted more resources to housing and to health care and we are determined to keep morale up, and I believe we're seeing a real turn-around in that respect over the last 18 months, two years. I think that our recruitment and retention will indicate that.

Once again, you can point to areas where we need to do more, and that's a legitimate area for discussion and debate, and I hope that this entire issue of military preparedness and readiness certainly is debated in a thoughtful and open way. But I would send the signal to all concerned that we have a highly motivated, highly ready, highly capable force, one that will carry out its missions effectively.

Q: Yesterday, (inaudible) you're first question about the missile defense thing. You reportedly were overruled in favor of Secretary Albright and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger. Were you disappointed by the fact that your recommendation to the President was apparently not (inaudible)?

Cohen: I think what I indicated in my statement that was released to the press, that there are many factors involved for the president to make a decision on. The president decided to defer the actual deployment to his successor, but that was always going to be the case. The president was not going to make a deployment of the system, and he was going to defer that.

The question became whether or not there could be some preservation of a deployment by 2005, an option to defer that to allow the successor to have the opportunity to deploy a system by 2005 which would be the earliest possible date. President Clinton looked at the information, saw that there were slippages, and indicated in his public statement that he hoped that should his successor decide to go forward that he could meet the time table of 2006 or 2007.

What I indicated in my own statement is that I believe it's important that we have a national consensus not only on the need for a national missile defense system, but on its size and structure and capability. And what I have determined the last few months have been something of a pulling away on the part of those who are opposed to deploying an NMD system, and those at the other end of the spectrum who want something far more robust.

If we are talking about making a commitment to a national missile defense system which will involve significant resources, there should be a solid consensus to continue with that system both in terms of its size and scope. Hopefully during the course of the next two months there will be an extended debate, an extended debate on the subject matter, and perhaps that consensus will emerge.

Q: Mr. Secretary, the whole idea of a national missile defense system is something that we sometimes (inaudible) to launch either way. Given the tightness of the current defense budget, wouldn't that money be better spent for parts, maintenance, keeping the military equipment going now versus trying to, and modernizing at the same time, versus slicing away further at that and ending up with a system that is being (inaudible).

Cohen: The National Command Authority and the president of the United States are required to examine the nature of the threat that this country is likely to face not only today but tomorrow. The president made this very clear, that in his discussions with President Putin that even President Putin recognized that there are emerging threats to our mutual security, namely that nations formerly known as rogue states now are identified of states of concern, are in fact acquiring a missile capability with weapons of mass destruction, reaching not only the United States but other parts of Europe, including Russia.

So to the extent that there is an emerging threat, the question then becomes what is the most appropriate means to deal with them.

Obviously it would be best if you could prevent the dissemination of this technology in the first instance. But this technology is in fact being disseminated, is being acquired by nations who could pose a threat to the United States and to our allies and preclude us through intimidation and other efforts to prevent us from carrying out our national security obligations.

Under these circumstances, I believe that the president of the United States has an obligation to explore ways in which we can defend our national security interests. The national missile defense system is one obvious approach.

Could there be other ways? Could you devote resources to other areas? The answer to that is you can, and we will. We have increased our procurement budget from $42 to $43 billion back three years ago to $60 billion this year. It will go to $70 billion. It will go higher in the coming years because we need to recapitalize our infrastructure and our assets.

Will there be other types of threats that we'll have to contend with? The answer is yes. Chemical, biological, and cyberterrorism. All of those must be met as well.

But to say there are other types of threats does not exclude the threat that is emerging by admission of the Russian president as well as others that certain nations who are less responsible for their conduct, having been demonstrated in the past, will acquire the means to either blackmail or extort the United States and prevent it from carrying out its missions. That's the issue on the national missile defense.

Now, hopefully the Russian president will seize this opportunity that has been presented by President Clinton to work together as he pledged to do earlier this year. He said they had a better idea. That they have a boost-phase intercept system or concept that they would like to work jointly with the United States. He will have that opportunity to measure up his words with his deeds. The next few months and into next year we'll see whether the words are only words, or whether there is a real responsibility behind those words.

Press: Thank you very much.

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