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President Clinton Signs the National Defense Authorization Act

Presenter: President Bill Clinton
October 06, 1999 4:00 PM EDT

Participating: Secretary of Defense William Cohen, General Henry Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Sergeant Major Robert Hall

SGT. MAJOR HALL: Be seated, please.

Mr. President, Secretary Cohen, distinguished members of Congress, senior leaders of the Department of Defense, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it's my honor this afternoon to represent a group I consider the greatest people on the face of the Earth: the men and women who wear the uniform of our nation's armed forces.

I do this as I introduce someone who needs no introduction. You know him. You know his values, his character, his competence and commitment. His leadership and professionalism set an example for all to emulate.

It's been said a leader does not choose the best or most opportune time in which to lead; a good leader takes the challenge whenever and wherever it presents itself, and does the best he can. Since his appointment on 1 October 1997, as the principal military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense, he's been the absolute best he could be, and then some. So today, not as an introduction, but simply an announcement, ladies and gentlemen, the 14th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry H. Shelton. (Applause.)

GEN. SHELTON: Thank you very much, Sergeant Major Hall, for those very kind words. And thank you for your great leadership and your service to our Army and to our nation.

Mr. President, Secretary Cohen, Secretaries West and Richardson, distinguished members of Congress, service secretaries, fellow members of the Joint Chiefs, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it's a great honor to come before you today on behalf of our men and women of the United States armed forces to witness the truly outstanding legislation that is getting ready to be signed by President Clinton -- important not so much because of what it does, which I'll talk about in just a moment, but more for what it says, what it says to every man and woman in uniform, and their families.

This defense bill says that these great Americans are truly valued by our nation; that the Congress, represented by the members that are here today, and President Clinton and his administration, have listened to their concerns and have taken significant steps to correct the deficiencies in pay and other benefits.

This bill says that the dedication and sacrifices of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, frequently deployed far from home and family in defense of our security interests around the world, are understood and appreciated.

And this bill recognizes that as critical as it is to keep the quality of our forces very high, we cannot afford to neglect our readiness; our readiness to meet today's threats or to prepare for those threats that we will surely face in the century that lies ahead.

This legislation contains the biggest pay increase for the troops in nearly two decades. It also authorizes the first fundamental reform of the pay table since World War II. And if there was any doubt that Washington got the message from the field and from the fleet, you need only look at the decision to end the redux retirement formula, which the troops consistently had told us was a disincentive to making the military a career.

This defense bill is a major step forward in doing right by our people and is a result of a true team effort. Without the president's direction and the staunch support of the members of Congress, this day would not be possible.

As we all know, the world remains a very dangerous and complex place, and the challenges to America's interests around the globe have actually increased in the days since the end of the Cold War. It will take a continuing commitment from all of us to ensure that we can meet our security needs in the future. And the key to meeting our security needs will remain a trained and ready force of quality people with the best and most advanced equipment that America can provide.

No individual has spoken out more forcefully on these issues in the past two years than our secretary of Defense. Secretary Cohen has worked vigorously on behalf of the men and women of the Armed Forces. He has offered wise counsel, endless support and dynamic energy in gaining passage of this bill.

I am honored to introduce him today. He is a man who is a true patriot, a dedicated lifelong public servant and a valued friend to those in uniform. Ladies and gentlemen, our secretary of Defense, the Honorable William S. Cohen. (Applause.)

SEC. COHEN: General Shelton, thank you very much for your gracious words and also for the outstanding leadership that you continue to provide to America's Armed Forces. And especially let me say congratulations on the great job you did during the recent months, in the conflict in Kosovo. It was an outstanding job on your part and all of the leadership.

President Clinton; Senator Warner and Senator Levin; Congressman Spence, Congressman Skelton; Senator Robb, Senator Thurmond; my former colleagues in the House; let me say that we owe a great deal of gratitude to all of you who are both on the stage and also out in the audience today, who have been fighting the battle in the legislative trenches. Without you, this day would not have been possible. So I wanted to extend my personal thanks and gratitude to all of you for the fine work that you have done on behalf of this country.

Distinguished guests, two days ago I returned from Southeast Asia. It included a visit to the Australian port of Darwin. And I was visiting the forces there, who were supporting the international peacekeeping effort now under way in East Timor.

Those men and women in uniform remind us that the United States military is shaping and responding to world events all across the globe. Whether they are forward-deployed in Asia, in Europe or the Middle East, whether they are establishing cooperative relationships with other militaries, whether they are encouraging peace and discouraging instability and violence, whether helping to rescue and rebuild in the wake of hurricanes in Central America and right here at home, or degrading Saddam Hussein's ability to deploy weapons of mass destruction and threaten his neighbors, or forcing Slobodan Milosevic and his army out of Kosovo, allowing the refugees back home and peacekeepers to come in, we have, as the chairman has just indicated, the most skilled, the best trained, the best equipped people in the world. It's also clear to us that we have to recruit and retain the best people and provide them with a sound quality of life if we're going to remain a dominant force for good for the future.

Now, in recent years we've invested in our warriors and in our weapons. We have reversed a 13-year decline in procurement. We're increasing the pay, as the chairman has pointed out. We can never pay you enough. We've said this before. But we can pay you more. And that's precisely what this bill is going to do.

Thanks to the tremendous help from members of Congress, Senate and House members, we are going to see a 4.8 percent increase in pay. And that's the largest increase in military pay in a generation. We're going to change the pay table reform. We're going to, as the chairman indicated, increase the retirement benefits from 40 to 50 percent. And we're going to renew our commitment to give our warriors the weapons they need.

All of you are aware that we are well on the way to redressing our readiness requirements. We're putting money into operations and maintenance. We're adding 400 million for the integration of the active and reserve forces. We are also renewing our commitment to tomorrow's readiness in the terms of modernization. We are climbing up that scale now by buying and building the new weapons and technologies that the forces are going to need for future battles. So we will spend roughly $53 billion. We are on our way to, by the year 2001, to achieving that $60 billion mark. Again, my thanks to the members of Congress who have supported us in this effort. We are going to transform our forces in a way that will keep us a generation or two ahead of all potential adversaries. And no one appreciates the need to fight for those who wear America's uniform more than the leader who joins us today.

And I would say that for the past nearly three years I have stood and worked with our commander in chief. In private meetings he has weighed the most wrenching decisions that any president can have. In public decisions and public visits to bases abroad and here at home he has stood with our forces and he has stood with our families, comforting them in time of their need. And I can tell you with complete confidence that this president knows that our nation's security must always transcend every consideration of party label and party ideology.

President Clinton's priority has been to preserve America's security through victory during times of conflict, when the battle lines are drawn and the challenges are clear, and also through a steadfast vision during times of relative peace. He's a leader who has the courage to stand up to fight for what's right, as he did in the Balkans. And he has the commitment to give you and your families the support you need, as he is doing today.

I can tell you it's been my honor to serve by his side. It's now my privilege to introduce to you the commander in chief of the United States, President Bill Clinton. (Applause.)

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.

Thank you very much, Secretary Cohen, for your remarks, your leadership, and for the depth of your concern for our men and women in the military.

Secretary Richardson, Secretary West, Deputy Secretary Hamre, General Shelton, General Ralston, Senior Master Sergeant Hall (sic) [Sergeant Major Hall] told me today this is the fourth time we've met, and the first time in Washington, D.C. I've tried to get around to see people, like the senior master sergeant, in uniform, in the Middle East, in Asia, and elsewhere. I want to thank all those who serve them, the senior service chiefs, the service secretaries, the senior enlisted advisors.

I'd also like to say a special word of thanks to all the members of Congress here, too numerous to recognize them all. But I do want to acknowledge the presence of Senator Warner, Senator Levin, Senator Thurmond, Senator Robb, Senator Allard, Representative Spence, and Representative Skelton, and the many other members of the House of Representatives here today.

This, for me, more than anything else is a day to say thank you -- thank you for recognizing the urgent needs and the great opportunities of our military on the edge of a new century. Today should be a proud day for men and women in uniform, not only here in this audience but all around the world. Time and again they have all delivered for our country. Today America delivers for them.

In a few moments I will have the privilege of signing the National Defense Authorization Act. As you have already heard, it provides for a strong national defense and a better quality of life for our military personnel and their families. It builds on the bipartisan consensus that we must keep our military ready, take care of our men and women in uniform, and modernize our forces.

Today we have about 1.4 million men and women serving our country on active duty, doing what needs to be done from Korea, to Kosovo, to Bosnia, to Iraq, to helping our neighbors in the hemisphere and in Turkey dig out from natural disasters, to simply giving us confidence that America is forever strong and secure. We ask our men and women in uniform to endure danger and hardship, and you do; to suffer separation from your families, and you endure that. We ask you to be the best in the world, and you are. In return, you ask very little.

But we owe you the tools you need to do the job and the quality of life you and your families deserve. This bill makes good on our pledge to keep our armed forces the best-equipped and maintained fighting force on Earth. It carries forward modernization programs, funding the F-22 stealth fighter, the V-22 Osprey, the Comanche helicopter, advanced destroyers, submarines and amphibious ships, command and control systems, and a new generation of precision munitions.

The bill also recognizes that no matter how dazzling our technological dominance, wars still will be won, today and tomorrow, as they have been throughout history, by people with the requisite training, skill and spirit to prevail. The excellence of our military is the direct product of the excellence of our men and women in uniform. This bill invests in that excellence. It authorizes, as you have already heard, a comprehensive program of pay and retirement improvements that add up to the biggest increase in military compensation in a generation. It increases bonuses for enlistment and reenlistment and provides incentives needed to recruit and retain our military personnel.

I would like to say a special word of appreciation to all the members of our military, including a lot of enlisted personnel, who have discussed these issues with me over the last two or three years in particular. And I would like to thank the members of Congress not only for the work they did on the pay issue but also on the retirement issue. And I'd like to say a special word of appreciation on that to Congressman Murtha, who first talked to me about it and I know labored very hard on it.

Now, an awful lot of people worked to make this bill a reality, and I'm glad that there are so many members of both parties of the House and the Senate Armed Services Committee here today. I also want to thank Secretary Cohen, General Shelton and all the people at the Pentagon for their leadership and determination.

This bill is an expression of America at its best. It's about patriotism, not partisanship. It's about putting the people of our armed forces first. No matter how well we equip these forces to deal with any threat, I would also argue that we owe them every effort we possibly can to diminish that threat, the threat to the members of our armed forces and to the American people whom they must defend. One of the greatest threats our people face today, and our armed forces face, is the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We have worked in a bipartisan way to diminish those threats, passing the Chemical Weapons Convention, getting an indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty. We are now working to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention.

At this time, the Senate has a unique opportunity to diminish that threat by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It will end nuclear weapons testing forever, while allowing us to maintain our military strength in nuclear weapons, and helping to keep other countries out of the nuclear weapons business. We stopped testing nuclear weapons in 1992 in the United States. Instead, we spend some $4.5 billion a year on programs that allow us to maintain an unassailable nuclear threat. This treaty will strengthen our security by helping to prevent other countries from developing nuclear arsenals and preventing testing in countries that have nuclear weapons already but have nowhere near the sophisticated program we do for maintaining the readiness of our arsenal in the absence of testing. It will strengthen our ability to verify by supplementing our intelligence capabilities with a global network of sensors and on-site inspections, something we will not have if the treaty does not enter into force. It will make it easier for us to determine whether other nations are engaged in nuclear activity, and to take appropriate action if they are.

Obviously no treaty, not this one or any other, can provide an absolute guarantee of security or single-handedly stop the spread of deadly weapons. Like all treaties, this one would have to be vigorously enforced and backed by a strong national defense. But I would argue, if the Senate rejects the treaty we run a far greater risk that nuclear arsenals will grow and weapons will spread to volatile regions, to dangerous rulers, even to terrorists.

I want to emphasize again, the United States has been out of the testing business for seven years now. We are not engaged in nuclear testing. If we reject this treaty, the message will be, "We are not testing, but you can test if you want to," with all the attendant consequences that might have in India, Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran, and many other places around the world.

I want to avoid a world where more and more countries race toward nuclear capability. That's the choice we face. Not a perfect world, but one where we can restrain nuclear testing, retrain the growth of nuclear arsenals. Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy first advocated a comprehensive test ban treaty. Four former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, together with Chairman Shelton, and our nation's leading nuclear scientists, including those who head our national weapons labs, advocate this treaty.

I believe the treaty is good for America's security. I believe walking away and defeating it would send a message that America is no longer the leading advocate of nonproliferation in the world. So all I ask today is not a vote -- the discussion just began. What I ask is that we meet this challenge in the same bipartisan fashion in which we approached the defense authorization bill. The stakes are exactly the same.

When a young man or woman joins the United States military, they don't ask you if you're a Republican or a Democrat and you all make it clear you're prepared to give your life for your country. We should do everything we can to ensure your safety, to give you a bright future, even as we give you the tools and the support to do with work you have sworn to do.

Let me say, in closing, after nearly seven years in this office, there has been no greater honor, privilege or joy than the opportunity I have had to see our men and women in uniform do their jobs -- all kinds of jobs all over the world. I have also been very moved by how honestly and frankly and straightforwardly they have answered every question I have ever put to any of them.

In a very real sense today, the work the Congress did and the support that I and our administration gave to this legislation is purely and simply the product of what our men and women in uniform, from the highest rank to the lowest, told us needed to be done for them and for America. So again I say this is a day for celebration and thanksgiving. And more than anyone else, I feel that deep gratitude to you.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

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