Interview: Caspar Weinberger

Proceedings : If you were Secretary of Defense today and were in charge of allocating the funds, how would you do so?

Weinberger : First of all, I’d try to get more funds, because I don’t think anything yet warrants the assumption that we no longer fully need the strong defenses that we regained and built during the 1980s.  I would try to meet the principal needs as we did during the time I was secretary.  We would rely on recommendations from the services, but they would obviously not be final.  We would make our own decisions, but we would try to maintain both conventional and strategic strength, and we would do it on the basis of what we felt were the capabilities of potential enemies, such as the Soviet Union, which has an enormous capability militarily, which has not been reduced at all.

I noticed recently in The New York Times that it was just assumed that the Soviets are about to move six divisions out of Europe.  That’s a comforting assumption for anybody who wants to cut the defense budget, but it is, at this point, based entirely on rhetoric—nothing that could not be changed or reversed, even if they should go beyond the rhetoric.

Proceedings : Speaking of rhetoric, and borrowing some from Ronald Reagan and his presidential campaigns, would you say that the U.S. armed forces are better off today than they were five years ago?

Weinberger : Oh, yes, without any question.

Proceedings : And how is that?

Weinberger : Because we invested the amount necessary to make them better off.  We regained a great deal of readiness, we had substantial modernization, we increased stocks of ammunition, and we added a lot more training time, steaming time, and maneuver time.  All of those things have sharpened and strengthened the armed forces very much.  I measure it from 1981, when we took over.

The real worry is that in the last four years, some reductions have begun, which, when the items already in the pipeline are delivered and no more are forthcoming, could weaken the armed forces.  And I’m sorry to see those reductions coming.  But I think right now our Panama activities are excellent proof of the readiness and strength of the military forces, just as were the Grenada operation and our attacks on Libya.

Proceedings : Do you think five years from now you would say the same thing?

Weinberger : I would worry very much about that, because you can’t maintain the kind of strength that we have, or that we need, if cuts of the magnitude being talked about very casually now are actually made.  You cannot maintain or reacquire military strength without spending money.  While a lot of the public and a lot of people in Congress would like to do that, it simply can’t be done.  So I think inevitably there will be a serious weakening of the military strength if these cuts are put into effect.  A lot of people say we won’t need this much military strength.  That, too, I think, is a very dangerous assumption to make on the basis of what we’ve seen so far.

Proceedings : How do you feel your six tests for use of military force have stood the test of the past five years?

Weinberger : I think they’re good guides and that they’ve stood the test quite well.  Fortunately, we’ve not had to make those decisions very often.  We made them, for example, in the Persian Gulf, where I was a strong advocate of our going in to help Kuwait keep the oil flowing through the Gulf.  That was actually not a combat situation in many ways, but it was a situation in which we committed the armed forces to activities in which the risk of combat was there.

We went to Panama in response to what appeared to be, and what were, attacks, and perhaps continuing attacks, on the authorized American military presence in the Canal area that was fully warranted within the six tests rule.

Proceedings : Do you think these tests will hold up five years from now?

Weinberger : I think so, yes.  I think they’re a proper set of guidelines to have.  You have to bear in mind there are a lot of people in the United States, some in the government, who want to use U.S. forces very quickly and without any careful, mature consideration of either the risks or the propriety of such use.  Many people feel that you can make some kind of a diplomatic showing if you send a battalion or two into a tense situation.

My feeling has always been this: Vietnam demonstrated that you should not commit U.S. forces to combat unless the situation is serious enough to require it from our overall national interest and security viewpoint, and unless you’re willing to commit enough military power to win.  The idea of simply committing U.S. forces because you hope their presence will frighten somebody into doing what you’d like them to do is, I think, a very wrong approach.  I would never want to be Secretary of Defense and have any kind of situation in which I asked American servicemen and women to commit their lives to combat unless we planned to support them and to win.

Proceedings : I believe one of the tests concerns popularity among the American people.

Weinberger : No, one of the tests is whether or not there is some reasonable anticipation of public support for the action.  The point that I made was that you can’t fight a war against an enemy and against Congress at the same time.  As a matter of fact, it’s true of all the actions of our type of government.  You have to have public support.  You should have it.  If you don’t have it, you shouldn’t continue.  Those points were made at the time when some people were talking very casually about our possibly beginning attacks on Cuba or things of that nature.

My point is that you can’t expect the American people to support a military action when, for example, they open their newspapers some morning and find that we’ve invaded Cuba.  The American people must have some kind of understanding of how important any decision to commit Americans forces is; and that it must be a decision required by our national interests, as, for example, the Persian Gulf activities were; and that we’re going to commit enough resources and have enough staying power to win.  We are not going to do what we did in Vietnam, which was to add more and more incrementally but never with any intention of winning.

Proceedings : Of all the services, which do you think should get the franchise for low-intensity conflict?

Weinberger : I don’t think that it’s a question of giving anybody the franchise.  First of all, it’s a question of availability of trained forces for specific missions.  The Marines are clearly in that category and would receive some assignments.

The next question would be: How close are the forces?  Can they be inserted into the area, if required, as quickly as possible?  I don’t think it’s bad that Marine Corps and Army infantry capabilities overlap—in the sense that both are trained and able to do amphibious landings, and both are trained to be inserted behind lines or in low-intensity conflicts, or to deal with terrorist incidents.  To my mind, whoever gets the call would depend a great deal on the availability, combat readiness, and preparedness of the troops in that particular situation.

Many stories going around are total myths, such as the one that Grenada was fought under a plan that required the use of all armed services to satisfy all of the Joint Chiefs.  This is total, complete nonsense.  We used Marines and we used paratroopers because both were available.  Marines were available because they were under way, combat-loaded to replace a Marine unit in Lebanon, and they were turned south toward Grenada.  The Army units, the paratroop units, were there, were ready, and were used because they were needed to get into the airfields.

It depends on a great many factors.  I never thought of the services as being that separate; I think of al of them as being committed to serve the national interests of the United States.

Proceedings : How would you adjust service shares of a future budget, if you were in that position now?

Weinberger : According to needs measured by the nature of the threat.  We need a capability to do a number of things, some of them simultaneously, perhaps.  People used to talk, years ago, even in my confirmation hearings, about whether we should be prepared to fight one-and-a-half wars or two-and-a-half wars.  I always thought that was total nonsense.  We have to be prepared to do whatever the situation requires.  The Soviets are perfectly capable militarily—were then and are now—of mounting two wars at once and perhaps a few other small subsidiary actions.  We have to be prepared to be strong enough so that they will never be able to succeed in those.  That’s the essence of deterrence.

So I would think we need a counterterrorism capability, for which we have very well-trained people; we need some swift reconnaissance capabilities for situations of great risk, such as the SEALs [sea-air-land teams] are able to do; and we need carrier battle groups because we may not always have airfields in areas where we need them.  We must be prepared for many different kinds of situations, and we try to anticipate those by measuring the capabilities inherent in potential enemies’ military forces.  What we acquired in the 1980s were the things necessary to deter anyone—not specifically the Soviet Union—from feeling they could make a successful attack against our interests anywhere.  That’s what we must have.

Proceedings : We’d like to ask you to anticipate a little bit, to look into the future.  Somebody’s got to sit down and say, “The Navy gets this percentage, the Army gets this percentage…”

Weinberger : Well, it varies from year to year.  It varies on the basis of readiness, how much deferred maintenance there is that needs to be made up, whether or not this is a year in which carriers are coming to completion, whether or not you have a new Navy plane that is going to require heavier expenditures than the year before.  You can’t do it by any kind of a percentage allocation; you have to do it by need.

The principal problem we had in 1981 was that we needed everything.  People used to ask me about our highest priority.  Our highest priority was to regain overall military strength to deter attack.  That required the allocation of very large sums for virtually everything.  It was truly unfortunate that we got ourselves into a situation of that kind, because when you cut back, as we did in the 1970s—more than 20%, measured in real terms—then you get yourself in a situation where, in order to make up and regain your strength, it’s a lot more expensive than if you’d kept pace a little bit better all along.  We would never have needed 7%, 9%, and 10% increases in the defense budget if we’d maintained, on a regular basis, a 3% increase over inflation all through the 1970s.  Instead of that, we had a 20% decline.

Proceedings : So what you’re saying is, if all the pieces of the pie are spoken for, you make the pie bigger?

Weinberger : It isn’t a question of anything being spoken for.  Nobody has any right to any particular portion of the total or any percentage.  I never went on the basis that all the services could have everything they wanted, although, again, that’s one of the myths that you read about.  What we did was give a little more discretion in carrying out policies made by the Defense Department to the services—but we didn’t abdicate responsibility to them and let them pick their own budgets, or say, “Everybody get a third and you can do what you wish with it.”

What you have to do is recognize that in some years, one service will need more than the others.  For example, the Air Force was assigned the ground-based missiles.  So the Air Force needed enough money for a modernization program to get the MX.  That created an increase in the Air Force budget, not because it was the Air Force, but because that mission of the Air Force needed a great deal of money that year.

For the Navy, we had one year in which we had authorized two carriers, which saved us close to $2 billion by getting them both authorized the same year.  That required a fair amount of money in year one, and an increasing amount of money in years three, four, and five.  And increased the Navy budget.  The same was the case with the 600-ship navy.

The Army needed a great deal of modernization on the conventional side, and the Army has some nuclear responsibilities, as well.

So all of these things are going to make the service shares different from year to year, and what you have to look at are overall needs.  Those needs are measured best by looking at the overall threat, not just the threat based on comforting rhetoric such as we’re getting now from the Soviet Union, but the threat based on military capabilities that the Soviet Union still has.

Proceedings : Speaking of comforting rhetoric from the Soviets, over-caution is sometimes worse than recklessness, particularly in driving a car.  How can we apply that analogy to U.S.-Soviet relations?

Weinberger : Well, by always having enough.  That’s one of the things I always insisted on in the actions that we took in Grenada and Libya, and in the Persian Gulf.  The Joint Chiefs would come in with some recommended force levels and force strengths, and I would invariably double it.  I never wanted to have a situation, such as the attempted rescue of the hostages from Iran, with not enough military strength on hand to do the job.

As far as the overall totals are concerned, we have to be sure that we have enough to deter attack, and we deter attack because the other side recognizes that they do not have enough to win, if they should attack.  You must try to get inside the minds of the Soviet Union or any other potential enemy.  And that, in turn, means that you are going to have a very difficult time computing the equations of deterrence.  How much is enough?

But the other problem is that you will never know that you haven’t got enough until it’s too late to do anything about it.  So yes, you err on the side of caution.  You err on the side of having perhaps more than some people sitting down in some academic atmosphere will say you really require.  I never felt sufficiently confident in my own ability, or anybody else’s ability, to say what was precisely enough.  So I always felt that we should have at least enough so that the Soviets, by any kind of calculation, would never feel that they could make a successive attack.  This is not an offensive force; it’s a strong enough defense so that they would be, in effect, deterred from launching an attack.

Proceedings : Many recognize the political climate in the Soviet Union now as undergoing a real change from past years.  How far must the Soviets go for you to trust them?

Weinberger : What we’re seeing now, first of all, is confirmation of the fact that the Warsaw Pact nations were never a very reliable set of allies for the Soviet Union.  Of course, it’s very gratifying to know that people who have had to live under the thumb of communism for 40 years, who have never known anything else, hate it so much that they’re willing to take major risks and ultimately win their own freedom.  But as far as my thinking was concerned, I never regarded the Warsaw Pact nations as terribly reliable allies for the Soviets, except in the sense that they had been sufficiently intimidated by the Soviets and had sufficient Soviet troops in their own countries, so it would be difficult for them to be in open revolt against the Soviet Union.  I just didn’t think they would ever be very strong allies.  But the Soviets have nearly 40,000 troops in East Germany.  They have two divisions or more in Poland, and have had them there since the end of World War II.  That gave them—and still gives them—a very strong base from which to launch an offensive.

As far as the Soviet Union itself is concerned, we have not seen any major reductions in the Soviet military strength.  The only thing we’ve seen is that in compliance with the INF [International Nuclear Forces] treaty, they are bringing home some of the SS-20s, as required.  They’re supposed to bring them all home.  They may very well be going to do that.  But some of these missiles may still be available to them in the future.  The Soviet Union has a system of government under which they could take out the 500,000 people they’ve talked about from their military and turn them into farmers.  But they could turn them back into an army the next day without any kind of a vote or any kind of discussion or any kind of a roll call or any debates or editorials or anything else.  We don’t have that kind of system.  We don’t want it.  But it gives the Soviets a degree of military leverage that we have to recognize.

So it’s more than just the rhetoric that would be required.  I would want to see a very substantial dismantling of Soviet military strength and a real change in the kind of military capabilities that they retain, a truly defensive military strength.  They talk about that.  They say they’re doing it now.  But from the Soviet point of view, the idea of defense means moving out from their homeland, farther and farther, in rings that pretty soon cut all the way out to the Pacific areas, including the Fijis, for gosh sakes, as a means of defending their homeland.  That is a much broader concept of defense than we have.

I’d like to see a lot of changes of that kind.  But so far all we’ve heard is some totally different kinds of rhetoric than we heard in the 1980s.  That’s encouraging, but it’s nothing that warrants dismantling our commitments to NATO or our own military strength.  It is, in fact, a much more sophisticated, clever Soviet tactic for doing the same kind of thing they wanted to do since the end of World War II, and that is to decouple the United States from Europe, and weaken and ultimately dismantle NATO.  They were unable to do it by threats, because NATO and the United States quite properly responded by developing a strength that made the Soviet threat impossible to carry out.  But now they are achieving their objective by demonstrating, through rhetoric, that there is no threat, so you don’t need this activity that is so unpopular in democracies, of keeping military strength in peacetime.

Proceedings : In a tighter budget situation, which programs do you think are marginal and, thus, possibly expendable?

Weinberger : I think the second Midget [small intercontinental ballistic] missile is totally marginal and basically undesirable.  It costs a huge amount of money and it isn’t going to give you nearly the kind of strengths that continuing with the MX programs would.

I haven’t gone through any of the current plans for two years, but a number of bases are finally being closed now.  I would not dismantle overseas strength, and I would not dismantle modernization, because the Soviets have not only a very large advantage in numbers, but have a very much greater advantage in modernization.  I don’t think you can, or should, make significant cuts in our defensive strength or defense budget.  I think that when everybody accepts the fact that that is going to happen, then you make it a foregone conclusion and you remove the whole issue from debate.  I don’t think it should be.  I think this idea of “peace breaking out” is all very nice, but it’s really a license to some congressmen, who always oppose defensive strength, anyway, simply to spend more money on more politically popular domestic programs.

But there are a few things that you could cut.  There are many things we recommended to be cut.  The Congress regularly adds a great many things that we don’t want and don’t need.  They require you to continue production of an aircraft, for example, for a long time beyond what you need, because they are made in somebody’s district.  That means you have a lot of things in the defense budget that the Defense Department and the services don’t want.  Those are things that could go.

Proceedings : If you could have done anything differently during your term as Secretary of Defense, what would it have been?

Weinberger : I suppose to have been more persuasive with the Congress to continue the defensive strength that we needed.  They started to cut back in 1986 and we still had a lot to do at that time.  There are probably some other things, but you can’t take actions every day for seven years without having something that perhaps could have been done differently.  And that’s one that comes to mind.



Weinberger’s Six Tests

The following are Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s six tests for weighing the use of U.S. combat forces abroad.  They were delivered in a speech to the National Press Club in November 1984.

  • The United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies.  That emphatically does not mean that we should declare beforehand, as we did with Korea in 1950, that a particular area is outside our strategic perimeter.
  • If we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning.  If we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all.  Of course, if the particular situation requires only limited force to win our objectives, then we should not hesitate to commit forces sized accordingly.
  • If we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives.  And we should know precisely how our forces can accomplish those clearly defined objectives.  And we should have and send the forces needed to do just that.
  • The relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed—their size, composition, and disposition—must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.  Conditions and objectives invariably change during the course of a conflict.  When they do change, then our combat requirements must also change.  We must continuously keep as a beacon light before us the basic questions: “Is this conflict in our national interest?”  “Does our national interest require us to fight, to use force of arms?”  If the answers are “yes,” then we must win.  If the answers are “no,” then we should not be in combat.
  • Before the United States commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress.  This support cannot be achieved unless we are candid in making clear the threats we face; the support cannot be sustained without continuing and close consultation.  We cannot fight a battle with the Congress at home while asking our troops to win a war overseas or, as in the case of Vietnam, in effect asking our troops not to win, but just be there.
  • The commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort.


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