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DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
April 22, 1997 11:00 AM EDT
AFB, Tampa, Fla., following the Secretary's acceptance of the Bull Simon's Award.]

Secretary Cohen: Thank you. As you did during your opening remarks today, you preempted everything I was going to say. So let me just thank you once again for your hospitality, General Peay. Thank you for the briefing yesterday. It was a pleasure for me to address SOCOM commanders this morning as well. And a special privilege to receive that award.

As I tried to at least indicate obliquely, it was not something I accomplished on my own, but rather had the helped of a friend and colleague, Senator Nunn and Congressman Dan Daniels. Without them, it wouldn't have been possible. There's also another individual who was in the audience who did not get mentioned, but that was Jim Locker, who served on the Senate Armed Services Committee staff, who was instrumental in helping to weave that legislation together and get it through the Senate and the House.

But let me entertain your questions.

Q: I have one. How does this shape up now in your eyes compared to 10 years ago when you envisioned it? What is your take on it?

A: Well, 10 years ago, the special forces were fragmented, they were scattered throughout the services. They had inadequate training in some instances, inadequate funding in almost all instances. They were not fully appreciated in terms of their talents. They were not integrated into the conventional forces command. And so that led to some of the incidents that I mentioned today. A failure to fully utilize their skills, which in fact could have resulted in far greater mishaps than occurred. We had a number a number of them, and we hopefully have learned from that lesson.

Grenada, for me, was the focal point for my efforts. I just became convinced that something had to be done. I was also trying to be as accommodating as I could. Initially, for example, it was recommended by the Pentagon that I simply include language that made it voluntary to create the special forces command, voluntary for the Pentagon to do so. And also that the commander be a three-star officer. I ultimately rejected both recommendations believing that if it were voluntary or simply a sense of the Senate that the Department of Defense create such a command, it would never take place.

And so looking at it back in 1987, I think that my vision for the special forces has become realized. And today, the special forces are still special, but they're not regarded as something of an adjunct. They are an integral part of our full command structure and they are called upon to perform many missions in many countries and today are deployed the world over. And they are called upon frequently. I suspect some of you may think too frequently in terms of their operation tempo, and that's another subject matter we're going to deal with. But they are fulfilling the vision that I and others had at the creation.

Q: Sometimes you hear complaints that in the grander scheme of things, a career person going into special operations is not the greatest career move they could make, that sometimes the secrecy, the small units, a lot of other factors harder to define limit their advancement. Is that still the case, less of a case than it used to be?

A: That used to be the case. That no longer is the case. I think special forces is no longer a detriment to one's career, but actually I think that it is considered as a career enhancement as such.

It's the same thing with respect to joint service. Joint staff used to be basically a dead end for someone's career, was not looked upon as a stepping stone to a higher position. Today, the joint staff occupies a very high position in the hierarchy in the Department of Defense. And so we talk a good deal more about jointness today. It's not something that's exceptional. It is the regular course of events for the joint staff to function. It's recommendation is planning. Same thing with special forces. They are an integral part of our conventional forces today. So it is not a detriment at all

Q: What do you see in the next 10 years? Do you see more involvement in counter intelligence?

A: What I see, as I just mentioned briefly during my remarks today, that the world is likely to unfold in ways that will call even more upon special forces. And special forces, we're not talking simply about combat missions. They are deployed today, forward deployed in countries carrying out liaison relationships. They are in countries advising their counterparts in the military on missions. They are conducting humanitarian missions as well. So they participate in the full spectrum of missions for our military.

And so I think that given the fact that we're likely to see a continuation of ethnic conflict, we're likely to see a continuation of the threat of terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, in all of these cases, special forces will continue to play an important role. So I think it's going to be a continuum of what we're seeing today and even more fully integrated into the forces.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I have a question that I think Bull Simons, who as you know was once a journalist would ask you. You've hinted today that these youngsters have become almost America's instrument of choice. And I think Ambassador Holmes calls them "America's force multiplier." But as you suggested, these youngsters suffer from brutal deployment schedules and as you know, they have suffered inordinate casualties compared at least to your conventional forces. Can you tell us specifically what steps are underway and what other steps might you propose to ease the incredible stress on their families because of those heavy commitments and because of those casualties?

A: Well, as you know, we're going through a process now called the Quadrennial Defense Review or the QDR. It is nearing its completion as far as this phase of it is concerned.

By May 15th, I plan to make a recommendation to the Congress about what I see for a blueprint for the future for our military. And that means proposing a strategy, also matching the resources with that strategy so that we have forward deployment, engagement, shaping the environment, also responding to the whole panoply of missions that one might be called upon to respond to. And then preparing for the future.

As part of that review, we are looking very closely at perstempo. This is something that is of great concern to all the services. There are specific units, and I would say that special ops falls in that category that are being utilized at a tempo that is not desirable. They are being called upon because of special skills and talents, but they're being called upon perhaps too frequently.

It's one of the reasons I've tried to urge caution in selectivity, in terms of our engagement throughout the world. It's too easy for others to call upon the Department of Defense to simply deploy forces to regions to either prevent conflict or to reduce tensions or to complete a mission, a combat mission. We have to be quite selective in terms of how we use our troops. Obviously, if you have vital national interests involved, you want to be prepared to act unilaterally if necessary. Hopefully, you would allies working with you. When you have important interests, you want to try to act in a combined fashion.

When you have humanitarian missions, we obviously will still be involved in humanitarian missions, but we again have to be quite selective in terms of where we commit our forces. So the perstempo is something we're looking at closely trying to find ways in which we can reduce that, also mindful of the fact that special forces also have special individuals who are not gratified or satisfied with their job unless they are active and engaged. And so it's a two-headed coin that we have to face. On the one hand, you want special forces to be highly trained, highly ready and can be deployed -- who can be deployed on a moment's notice. And on the other hand, you don't want to abuse it to the point where it starts to fray on the edges, where it has an impact not only on the men and women, but also their families. So it's a delicate balance we're trying to strike, but perstempo is something were looking at closely.

Readiness is another issue. We have the most ready forces in the world. And the question is can we sustain this level of readiness given our current budget restrictions -- I should say the constrained budget environment in which we have to operate. Can we sustain this level of readiness indefinitely in the future without taking money away from the modernization and procurement plans to sustain operation and maintenance.

So that's another area we're looking at. Senator McCain has suggested we look at tiered readiness. There have been other approaches, but trying to find our whether or not, again, we can balance by cutting back somewhat on readiness, not operating at quite the same tempos and yet not compromise our ability to respond on a moment's notice. And it's always that balancing act that we have to perform. But we're looking at it very closely.

Q: Sometimes the special operations, by necessity, is such a low profile that civilian neighbors here in the Tampa Bay area have no real appreciation of the importance of this place in world affairs. What should they know about just how important say, their neighbors right down the street can be in what's going on in the world at large?

A: Well, I think the more coverage that is given -- there was a fine piece in today's press about the 10th anniversary of special forces. I think to the extent that you have someone like General Schwartzkopf saying that special forces were the glue that held the alliance together that performed an extraordinary mission during Desert Storm, to the extent that there is greater public awareness of the special missions that are carried on, then obviously, that builds support for the special forces.

On the one hand, we want to make sure that special forces are also seen as an integral part of the overall armed force that we have. It's special, but it's also fully integrated. So we don't have simply a special forces over here which is separate and apart, they are fully part of our entire force capability. On the one hand, we want to promote the visibility of the special forces. On the other hand, say that they're simply one very important part of an entire panoply of capability that we have for all the members of the service.

Q: What's been special forces goal out in Colorado in looking for the A-10?

A: I don't have a good answer, Chief, for that. I've been on the road traveling since the A-10 was missing, went down, whatever. And I haven't been fully briefed in terms of what special forces are doing with respect to trying to find what if anything happened to that plane or where it might be located.

Q: Basically reconnaissance?

A: We obviously have been using overhead reconnaissance. I don't know what force has been placed on the ground. Perhaps General Shelton might have some more information. I'm not aware of any.

Yes, sir.

Q: Can you address the stability or lack of in two areas, please, Bosnia, the peace process there and the overall Korean (inaudible)

A: You want me to talk about Korea again? Let me --

Q: Bosnia, the peace process there.

A: Let me talk to both of them.

With respect to Bosnia, the military mission has been accomplished. When Secretary Perry indicated that we could achieve the military goal in approximately one year, he was right. That mission was completed in terms of maintaining peace between the warring factions for the past year. That mission has been extended an additional 18 months until June of 1998 at which time it is due to terminate by virtue of -- not the United States saying this, but NATO -- declaring that that's our date which we will complete that mission.

The difficulty is that while the military mission has been completed, the other half of Dayton, namely the civilian reconstruction, the civilian component has not. And it's been moving too slowly. There has been a lack of energy committed to the process itself.

We have not seen, for example, the creation of a highly trained, profession, local police and that there's an expectation that our militaries perform police functions, which it should not do. There's the expectation that the military will accomplish the resettlement of refugees, again, a mission it was not scheduled to perform and should not perform. It is not scheduled to perform the task of hunting down war criminals, but to create a stable environment whereby police officials can make the apprehension and bring them to the court of justice. But the pressure has been on for the military to assume those missions, which in my judgment, would be a mistake for them to do.

So what we have to do now, having declared that June of 1998 is our exit date, that we have to use all of our combined all of our combined creativities and the allies' to put pressure, to create the police force, to put pressure on the financial institutions to put the kind of capital in that needs to be put into that region to help rebuild its economy.

I was there just a few weeks ago and I saw a marked change from a visit I had made previously. I saw farmers in the field. I saw them planting crops. I saw factories starting up. And so I saw the end of sniper alley, etc. I saw the children that were not dying by sniper attacks. I saw that entire environment had changed. So we have performed that side of the mission. What remains is the civilian side.

And so I hope that we will see elections in September. It is my hope that we will be able to join forces with our allies in the region to create the kind of impetus and energy that will bring the civilian side to the same successful conclusion that the military has performed. But from my perspective, it's important that we exit at the end of June of next year.

I think we will have performed, by that point, our task by saying you've had three successive springs of peace. That should be sufficient for the parties to see that the benefits and the fruits of peace far exceed those of the ravages of war. But that's a decision they're going to have to make. And perhaps they do not want to hear that message, but that's one I think we have to continue to convey, that the burden is going to shift to them to maintain that peace.

We will have a train and equip program, which is underway. The Bosnians will be placed roughly in a parity situation as far as the Serbs are concerned. And then hopefully, we will see the police force established and stood up. We will see some resettlement of the refugees. We will see the war criminals, at least those that can be apprehended, apprehended and brought to justice. If that takes place, then obviously we can deem it to be a success.

But I also want to say something else that is being mentioned. It is being argued by some that if the parties go back to war at the end of June of '98 when we leave, then the mission has been a failure. I would take strong exception to that. The mission has been successful. The mission on the part of the military has been successful. And we have allowed the people a period of time, a pause for them to see whether they are willing to lay down their weapons, whether they're willing to forego digging fresh graves as opposed to giving up old grievances. That's going to be a choice for them to make in the future. And so we have allowed them three successive seasons to pursue the path of peace. And we are going to leave at that point. And we will leave having successfully completed the military mission. And for anyone to suggest there has been a failure, I think, is a mischaracterization. So we're doing our job. We will continue to do our job. And then at the end of June of next year, we will leave and allow the parties to pursue their own course at that time.

With respect to Korea, I know it's a long answer, but --

Q: May I follow up?

A: Sure.

Q: Are those parties moving together or has there been some recent deterioration in the (inaudible)

A: Sometimes the motion is molecular. Sometimes it moves forward, sometimes it moves apart. And it depends on what the particular incident is that day.

I think that so far, they've held together pretty well, such as far as the coalition is concerned, the federation. But obviously, there are deep seated animosities over there. And they've been going on -- those animosities have lasted for decades if not centuries. And so progress has been made, and I think it has been a tribute to the success that they have maintained a peace and we have been instrumental in helping them to maintain that peace for this period of time. But it depends. It will shift back and forth.

I think that so far, it's still on track, and what we have to do is to, again, convey and reinforce the message that if you work together and pursue this line of activity, it can be beneficial. If you chose to return to the savagery of war, then it will destroy much of what has been accomplished in the past 18 -- well, two and a half years. So the choice is going to be theirs. And hopefully, in the next 15 months, now, we'll be able to, again, rally our allies and put some pressure on our institutions, international financial institutions as well, to start doing the things on the civilian side that need to be done.

With respect to Korea, I just returned from Korea. It was a very productive trip. I had occasion to meet with the minister of Defense, the foreign minister and also the South Korean president. It remains a very tense, dangerous time.

Obviously, we have seen increased reports about the lack of food in North Korea and that' s of concern to us. And food has never been a weapon that the United States would use against a people. We don't seek to use food to starve innocent people. It has not been our policy. There are questions, however, on the part of the South Koreans and on the part of the Japanese government officials that I talked to as well and part of my own questions about whether or not there ought to be some change in the behavior of the North Koreans as well to carry out extensive and expensive military exercises at the time that their people are starving. It seems to me to be a misallocation of resources. But nonetheless, hopefully there are talks that will be started in New York. Hopefully that the North Koreans will participate actively in those four party talks and that we'll see some modification or some change in terms of the course of activities that the North Koreans have been pursuing.

What I saw was an economy that certainly was not thriving compared to what's going on in the south. And so they're hopeful, the South Koreans are hopeful that the talks will prove productive. I'm hopeful they will prove productive.

But we also have to be vigilant. This is a very dangerous area. They still have the fourth largest army in the world. They still have more than 50 percent of their forces forward deployed within 100 kilometers of the DMZ. And they still have a formidable capability to do a great deal of damage in the short term.

As I said before, were they to launch an attack, ultimately, I think it would prove to be very devastating to them should they do so. And hopefully they will not. And so the purpose for our diplomatic efforts is to work with our South Korean allies and to work in conjunction with them, in consultation with them so that we can have a unified approach. We do not want to see the United States split away from South Korea and try to take a leading role in this because this is really something that should be resolved between the North Koreans and the South Koreans. To the extent that we can be helpful in bringing the parties together, we want to do so. But ours is a supportive role and not a leading role.

Q: Why did you go so far as to recommend some sort of assistance to North Korea as a way of making a presumably a less hunger country a less dangerous one?

A: I think we already have. We've already indicated that we are sending food to the North Koreans. My concern has always been to make sure that we have international organizations to see to it that the food goes to the hunger civilians and not simply to reinforce the military itself. And hopefully, that can be achieved. We want to see people who are hungry, fed. By the same token, we would hope that the North Koreans would see that the allocation of their resources are disproportionately going to their military at a time when they have very hunger people in their country.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you quoted from a number of books in your remarks this morning. And this is a remarkable new book out called "Unconventional Warfare" from the Brookings Institution this month, written as it turns out, by a member of your staff, Dr. Susan Martez as part of her Ph.D. thesis and it reads almost like a thriller of political intrigue and intellectual courage. And she lauds you very highly for your foresight.

A: I wish I had that book before you asked that question.

Q: I would recommend it to you, sir. But while she lauds you for your foresight in forming the Nunn-Cohen amendment, she eviscerates military hierarchy and much of the Department of Defense's civilian hierarchy for resisting that change.

Given your current position, Mr. Secretary, may we ask have you found that those attitudes have changed significantly, that there is no -- not so much resistance or resentment of special operations? And if so, to what do you attribute the change other than the fact that you're now the boss?

A: Well I think within any institution or organization, there's always an internal resistance to someone on the outside of that organization dictating change. That was the attitude, I must say, when it came time to trying to reform the joint chiefs. When we went through the so-called Goldwater-Nichols reorganization. That was strongly opposed by the Pentagon. And it took considerable effort on our part with support from some outstanding leaders, who had served in the military previously, I might add, to really beat back the offensive that was being leveled against those of us who wanted to change the system. And we were being accused at that point of micro managing the Defense Department. And I can recall with some relish when General Powell would come to testify before the Senate Armed Services committee and I would ask him how's Goldwater-Nichols doing. And he would offer a rye smile and say that it was doing terrific. And I said, in other words, Congress can engage in macro management if not micro management from time to time.

And I think that that is always going to be the case, that people within any, be it corporation, private firm, a newspaper, whatever it might be, would feel some resistance of those on the outside being critical about internal operations. But I must say what I have found since I have been at the Pentagon is a willingness on the part of the chiefs and the deputies and all of the military personnel plus civilians.

To look as objectively as possible at what we need to do as far as the QDR process is concerned, to understand that we have to change, that we can't continue to function as we're functioning because we're living in a budgetary environment which is likely to remain constant.

Absent any kind of a serious conflict, we're not likely to see increases above where we are today except in constant dollars for inflation. And given that reality, how do we get from here to there? How do we have savings in today's environment so that we can invest in future technologies, so-called leap ahead technologies that will continue to give us the kind of qualitative edge that currently have and we'll need to have well into the next century. And I have found an openness and a willingness. There's some resistance to change.

Dr. Samuel Johnson said that all change is viewed as being inconvenient even though it's beneficial. And so it's inconvenient to change the ways in which you do business, but I think more and more today are willing to reexamine their first principles. This is something that's instrumental, that you go back and reexamine your -- the first principles and see whether they still stand up. And we've come up with what I believe to be an appropriate strategy, namely of being engaged in world affairs, of having a capability to respond to whole series of different types of missions, and then preparing for the future.

I think that we've got basically the right strategy. The question is how do you get the resources to match that strategy and how do you make savings that will allow you to stop taking money out of procurement and putting it into operation and support. That's what we've been doing is kind of robbing that account for the past decade or so. And it's got to stop. So we've got to make changes that allow us to save money to put it into investment and R&D for the future because the systems that we want to build for the future will not come on line until 2010, 2015. But unless we make those investments now, we won't have them then. So we're trying to pierce that veil and look into the future and say what's the world likely to look like in the year 2010. Who will be the near competitors? What kind of systems will be out there? What kind of countermeasures can we anticipate they will take against us? What will be the asymmetrical techniques that other countries will try to exploit, to look at our weaknesses? What will be the level of information warfare and what kind of counter -- all of these questions are now being examined. And I think it's being done with an openness of heart and mind that I find very encouraging.

And so it's going to be tough to change, but I think we've got some leadership now in the Pentagon in the uniformed services and the civilian leadership as well that will help bring that about. It's not going to be easy because we have something called the National Defense Panel also that will question what is being done. They'll say it's not visionary enough. And my problem is how you get from here to there. How do you deal with the short term? How do the threats change in the short term? And the answer is they're not likely to change in the short term. They may change in the mid term and the long term, but how do you maintain a force structure today that deals with today's realities as you try to evolve and prepare for the future?

Some will say that you're not bold enough, you're not visionary enough. And you say well that's great, it's great to have vision, but you've got to deal with today as well. So it's going to be balancing the needs of -- meeting the realities of today's threats with anticipating those of tomorrow and then try to structure yourself in a way that allows you to make the kind of investment that will get you there.

And so we'll have the National Defense Panel, who will be a second opinion basically, of the QDR. I have indicated publicly that I intend to create my own small task force. Jim Locker, who was here, may still be here today, will be part of that. Other people who look at what we call the tail, and that is OSD and the Defense-wide agencies. I need to spend a good deal more time focusing on how we can achieve real savings by consolidating some of these functions and eliminating some of the duplication. And it's going to be a very serious undertaking equivalent to corporations who look at downsizing. How do you do it in a way that still preserves your efficiency and squeezes the dollars out of current operations and allows you to put that money into the teeth as opposed to fattening up the tail. So that's going to be part of it.

And ultimately, we have to deal with Congress. I could come up with the boldest, most innovative, creative plan for the future as well as today and if Congress doesn't agree or simply tries to pick each piece apart until the plan is eviscerated, then we'll be doing the same thing today -- tomorrow that we're doing today, deferring procurement, borrowing from the procurement funds putting it into operations and maintenance and then complaining that too much is going to O&M, we're too high perstempo, we haven't made the kind of changes necessary. So this is going to be an evolving process. It won't be done in one year. But what I hope to do, and I think the reason that I was selected to serve in this capacity, is to help build a bipartisan or even non partisan consensus about a strong national security structure for the future. And if I can do that at the end of the four years, I will consider that to have been a major success.

Q: Thank you very much.