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DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
May 29, 1997 2:00 PM EDT
[This media availability occurs at Strategic Command Headquarters, Offutt AFB, Neb., where Secretary Cohen is by Senator Bob Kerrey and Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, commander in chief, USStratCom.}

General Habiger: Ladies and gentlemen, thanks very much for coming out this afternoon. It is our great pleasure and honor to have the Secretary of Defense visit United States Strategic Command.

Secretary Cohen has honored us by coming to visit us in one of the first visits he has made to the unified commanders. We have had a tremendous time showing him what we do, how we do it and, most importantly, the quality people we have here at United States Strategic Command who made our national security policy of strategic deterrence work.

Mr. Secretary, thanks very much.

Secretary Cohen: General, thank you very much and let me thank you and the men and women of the Strategic Command for hosting this eventful visit of mine. I've only been here a very short time but I can assure you it has been quite packed, very well packed in terms of the briefings. And I must say how inspirational it is to see the caliber and the quality of the people that are serving here.

I want to thank my friend also and former colleague, I have to always insist upon former now in my new position, my friend and former colleague, Senator Bob Kerrey for being here as well.

The StratCom motto is "Peace is our profession." The deterrence that StratCom provides is the key foundation of our national security. Earlier this month, I sent to Congress the Quadrennial Defense Review which provides a road map for guiding our military into the 21st century.

That strategy is key to that entire document and the strategy is summed up in three words, basically, shape, respond and prepare. To shape the environment by being forward deployed, we have roughly 100,000 men and women who are serving in the Asia- Pacific region, roughly 100,000 in the European theater, and we intend to keep them forward deployed as such to shape the environment in ways that are advantageous to the United States. We also have to be prepared to respond to any level of challenge, be it a simple humanitarian operation, to a small scale contingency, to a major conflict. We have to have the flexibility, capability of responding to the full spectrum of challenges that would face the United States. And, finally, we have to prepare our forces for the future. In the preparation of our forces, we have to find ways in which we can stop the migration of approximately 12 to 15 billion dollars on an annual basis from going for the procurement that we need to provide the kind of equipment and the technology that will keep America's armed forces one or two generations ahead of any potential enemy.

And so that is the goal of the Quadrennial Defense Review and even though we have a much better relationship with Russia today than we had obviously during the Cold War, even though General Habiger and others are entertaining Russian leaders, military leaders, coming here to see exactly what StratCom does, even though I also serve in that capacity of entertaining ministers of defense and civilian leadership as well, we nonetheless have to maintain a strong nuclear deterrent and that deterrent is found right here in terms of the role that StratCom plays in our lives. This is where deterrence begins.

And so before we take your questions, I'd like to call upon my friend, Senator Bob Kerrey, who is truly an outstanding member of the United States Senate. He and I served together. I had the privilege of serving with him on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is one of the most gifted members of the Senate, also one of the most independent members of the Senate, and he is truly non-partisan, not only when it comes to matters of balancing budgets and trying to deal with other factors involved in our lives which he has been a leader of in trying to come up with a balanced budget in a bipartisan fashion, but also when it comes to national security issues, there is never any hint of partisanship in Senator Bob Kerrey.

He is a hero of this country, he's a great patriot and he is performing an outstanding service to our country. So it's a pleasure for me to be here and to have him welcome me on his home turf.

Senator Kerrey: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, we very much appreciate in your first few months on the job as the secretary of this nation's defenses that you have chosen to come to StratCom.

In the time that we have left our car to walk in here to hold this press conference, it would have been possible for Russia to re-target its missiles on the United States again. They're currently not aimed at the United States, but they could re-target in a very small piece of time. And of all the threats that we face as a country, there's only one that could annihilate the United States of America and everybody living in it and that's the nuclear weapons that face us in the nation of Russia.

We are working much more closely. The president signed an agreement between NATO and Russia. The document signed in Paris on Tuesday is a very important document and it gives us a great deal of confidence that we're going to have a new relationship with Russia. Still, the strategic mission performed by StratCom is the most vital of all the missions measured by what this threat of nuclear weapons could do to the people of the United States of America.

Secondly, the 'Fighting 55th' that flies the RC-135s is a vital source of intelligence for men and women who are out there operating in the field. Measured by customer demand, it is the second most important platform in the military service and it is absolutely vital that we continue to modernize and to deploy that platform.

Third, the joint intelligence center here at StratCom is also performing an extremely valuable mission delivering intelligence to the Secretary of Defense, to the Commander in Chief as well, and I just want to say, Mr. Secretary, I appreciate very much your service in the Senate and your willingness after 24 years of public service being willing to tackle what is arguably the toughest job of all in public service in the United States of America, being the Secretary of Defense.

We welcome you to Nebraska and we hope that you have many more opportunities to come back. We welcome you to Nebraska and we hope that you have many more opportunities to come back.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Boris Yeltsin created quite a stir when he announced the new targeting initiative of the Russian nuclear weapons concerning NATO countries. The President of the United States reportedly favors some type of reciprocal gesture. What types of things are under consideration and do you favor doing anything with our nuclear weapons in response?

A: Well, it remains unclear to me, based on the reports that I've seen, exactly what President Yeltsin had in mind. It may be simply a reaffirmation of the policy that was announced previously that Russia would no longer target American cities or facilities. That may be just simply a reaffirmation of that.

Of course, as Senator Kerrey just pointed out, that is something that can be changed in a matter of a very short period of time. There was some suggestion that perhaps he was talking about taking warheads off his missiles. I think there has been some retraction or backtracking on that. I'm not quite sure. Perhaps Gen. Habiger, who is more familiar with this issue, might want to comment in terms of his understanding of what President Yeltsin has said.

I think we have to be very cautious here. I think it is important that we establish as good a relationship as possible with our Russian counterparts and that we have military-to- military contacts, that we find ways in which we can act in concert, ways in which we can always reduce tensions between our two countries, ways in which we can minimize the risk of an accidental launch, a miscalculation, any type of incident that might precipitate the possibility of a nuclear weapon being unleashed.

But we have to proceed with great caution to make sure that we know exactly what is taking place, that the ground rules will be, what this means in terms of our own security. So I don't think we should see any immediate reaction or take precipitous action. I am sure that President Clinton is going to look very closely at what President Yeltsin has recommended, try to get clarification, and then find out what might be the basis for reciprocity on our part. But I would urge caution here that we not make grand gestures before we know what the facts are.

Q: From the Secretary of State there have been some comments that have been less than categorical about the removal of U.S. troops in Bosnia by the July '98 deadline. You've been very firm on this point. Is there a disagreement between the Pentagon and the State Department on this issue? Do you see opening of negotiations at any point to extend U.S. commitments in Bosnia?

A: There is no disagreement with respect to the NATO mission. NATO has indicated it would extend the mission until the end of June of '98. President Clinton has indicated that that is the mission. I simply have testified on Capitol Hill that it is my belief that we will be out of Bosnia, as far as SFOR is concerned, by the end of June of next year, or roughly at that time, within a matter of days.

But that is, I believe, the policy of this government. I believe it is the right policy. There are activities, obviously, that we need to do in the meantime. What we need to do is to focus our energies and all of our creativity on enforcing the other part of Dayton.

The military has done its job. The military has, in fact, seen to it that peace has been sustained, that we put an end as such, or enforce the end of warfare between the various groups, the ethnic rivalries, as such. So the military has done an outstanding job. I was there in February, and everyone in this country should be very, very proud of the men and women who are serving in Bosnia. They are doing an outstanding job.

But the other half of that equation hasn't measured up, and that is we haven't seen the flow of capital going into the region as far as the international financial institutions. We have not seen the formation of an international police task force that can help in carrying out the mission of resettling the refugees and helping to monitor the elections that are coming up in September.

We need to put more effort, and to work with our allies, to make sure that we coordinate and intensify our activities in the next 12 or 13 months. That's where our focus ought to be and there is no disagreement on the part of anyone in our government -- the State Department, the President, the Defense Department. We all agree that is where our energies ought to be focused.

Q: Is there any scenario that you could support to have U.S. troops in Bosnia beyond June of 1988? Is there a discussion going on about that anywhere in the U.S. Government?

A: There is no discussion going on about what takes place after June of '98. What we have discussed is how we can intensify our efforts to bring about the kind of civilian implementation of Dayton, the things that remain to be done, in the next 12 months. That's the focus of our discussion at this point.

Q: What was the original pull-out date for Bosnia?

A: Originally, it was a year. When the president announced the decision our forces were to be there, IFOR was to be there for a period of one year. And then last November, a decision was reached by the NATO members to extend that mission another 18 months. And so that's the mission that was agreed to by NATO itself and IFOR has become SFOR and the mission is scheduled to end at June of '98.

Q: Do you put a lot of faith in that decision?

A: Well, I think there's very strong Congressional support for ending the mission of SFOR at that time. Obviously, Congress needs to be part of this process or has been part of this process.

There have been efforts underway in Congress to force a withdrawal prior to that time. I think that would be a mistake. I think we have the NATO alliance that is committed to staying until the end of June of '98 and that we ought to focus our energies on doing what we can to help implement Dayton fully during that time. But that's a decision that was reached by NATO. We will carry it out and I think it would be a mistake to mandate in legislation a withdrawal date prior to that time.

Q: You know, to the American public, Bosnia has become almost back page news. The American public seems to have forgotten the original pull-out date. There was quite a bit of controversy when we went there in the first place. How do you justify this to the American people to keep troops there?

A: Well, the American people can take some satisfaction in saying their troops, along with those of our allies, along with those of the Russians, as a matter of fact, have contributed to saving the lives of thousands upon thousands of people. That's something that I think most of the American people would continue to support. There is some end to our commitment in this particular case because it is costing us a good deal of money.

We will have spent by the end of next year in excess of $6 billion, and I believe that those kind of resources have to be devoted to other matters, particularly our modernization programs. So that's where Congress, I think, will insist that we try to focus our energies in the next year upon completing the Dayton Accords, so that we, when the mission ends, can leave and know that we've been successful.

I disagree very much with the notion that somehow if fighting were ever to break out in that torn region some time in the future that the mission has not been successful. It's been a very successful mission. The military has done its job. It continues to do its job day in and day out.

And as a result of their commitment and sacrifice, and I would say patriotism over and over again, the people of that region have had an unusual opportunity for the past three successive springs of no slaughter, no ethnic conflict, houses not being bombed and the sniper's alley being quiet and children not being targeted. They have had a unique opportunity to have peace and, hopefully, they'll be able to build upon that.

Q: The QDR raised some concerns about the ability of some Soviet states to control their nuclear stockpile. How serious are the concerns within the Pentagon about the control of those weapons and what efforts are being made to make sure they are more secure?

A: Well, recently, I had occasion to meet with the now departed Minister of Defense, Mr. Rodionov, and he assured a press conference held at the Pentagon that they have control, adequate control, over their nuclear stockpile; that they continue to devote substantial resources to their strategic nuclear forces; and that the reports about their problems were inaccurate as far as lacking control over those systems.

I think --

Q: (Inaudible) reference to the Quadrennial Defense Review?

A: Well, the reference is to the potential, but there's no assessment made by the QDR that they have anything less than adequate control over their military -- their nuclear forces. It's something obviously they will be concerned about in the future. That's one of the reasons why we want to have the Duma, the Russian Duma, ratify START II, so that they can move on with us to negotiating START III and get down to lower levels of nuclear weapons.

And so obviously they want to move ahead. They should want to move ahead because it's very expensive for them to continue to maintain that level of nuclear stockpile. It's also expensive for us. So we would like to see the Russian Duma ratify START II.

I believe as a result of some of the conversations that General Habiger had recently with the new Minister of Defense that there will be even greater impetus for ratifying START II. And that will be to their benefit, it will be to our benefit. But based upon the conversations that I've had and talking with the General, I think that he also perhaps could say a few words about this. We are satisfied that they continue to focus their attention upon maintaining sound practices of control over their nuclear stockpile.

Q: I have a question sir, if I might about the future of Strategic Command?

A: You're addressing me?

Q: Yes.

A: Since you're right here.

Q: At a time when the United States is committing itself to an expansion of NATO and, at the same time, destroying non- conventional forces, are we going to see a greater reliance upon the mission of the strategic forces?

A: The answer to that question is no, we will see a continued reliance upon our strategic forces; that as we have some drawdown -- and I would point out the drawdown is not significant in terms of the overall capability that we have -- we will continue to maintain a very robust, adequate deterrent -- nuclear deterrent -- to make sure that no one would be foolish enough to ever attempt to fire a nuclear weapon at the United States.

But that we are exploring new frontiers of conventional capability that I think will give us the kind of power and precision that will make nuclear weapons perhaps less relevant than any time in our history. We are developing systems that are going to have enormous precision capability and power and lethality, and that will be in the non-nuclear fields.

But the answer is we will maintain a robust, adequate, nuclear deterrent and we will also be developing a conventional capability that will far surpass anything that any potential adversary might possess.

Thank you.

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