'About Fighting and Winning Wars': An Interview with Dick Cheney

The Defense Planning Guidance embodied some of this.  It was a basic shift away from the old scenario, based on assumptions that a war would begin in Europe and quickly go nuclear and just as quickly go global.  We shifted away from that to a so-called regional strategy, where we focused upon the need to deny an adversary the ability to dominate a region vital to the United States.

Underlying that, clearly, was the assumption that we would have adequate warning time to reconstitute forces before we faced a truly global threat, such as we had faced during the Cold War.  From that flowed a whole series of decisions embodied in what we called the base force.

Proceedings : How valid now is the requirement to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously?

Mr. Cheney: When I was Secretary of Defense, we felt it was.  I think it is still, based on a regional outlook—the notion that if you get committed somewhere such as the Persian Gulf, for example, you still need to be able to deal with one other contingency.

Proceedings : Could we have fought in Korea, for example, while we were fighting the Gulf War?

Mr. Cheney: I don’t know whether we can do it today, but that was the thesis.  Even as we developed the base force, I think it was never with the notion that we would go below a force of sufficient size to be able to deal with two contingencies simultaneously.

Proceedings : Are we below that now?

Mr. Cheney: My concern now is in logistics.  Even if you have enough force structure, your ability to deliver it to the battlefield in a timely fashion is what is now suspect.

Proceedings : What current trends do you see in defense spending, and what changes do you see for the future?

Mr. Cheney : Given the drive for a balanced federal budget, I do not expect any increase in defense spending in the near future.  The only change would come in response to some fundamental shift in the international situation—a sudden, rapid run-up in the threat level.

I have been pleasantly surprised that spending has stayed relatively even in the midst of what obviously are very serious efforts to cut back all aspects of federal spending.  But the only reasonable expectation is a level of nominal spending on defense, which will mean some real decline, based upon inflation.

Proceedings : Specifically, whom do you see taking the biggest hits?

Mr. Cheney : The impact has been enormous already.  All services have experienced significant reductions in terms of force structure.  I think there is a need for a fairly major restructuring in the Reserves and the National Guard, which is a very tough political problem.  We attempted to make some changes there while I was Secretary, and we ran into a brick wall—the combination of the Guard and Reserve lobbies and the Congress.

But those forces really do need to have a mission, and many of those units that we wanted to reduce in size and scope no longer had a mission, once the European scenario went away.

Proceedings : General Carl Mundy, the former Commandant of the Marine Corps, has challenged, in effect, the Navy’s control of blue dollars that funds Marine Corps requirements—such as the V-22 Osprey.  He strongly urges that the Marine Corps ought to control more of its own funding.  How does that strike you?

Mr. Cheney : I guess I would not be an enthusiast of that notion.  Fragmenting and pushing more authority out to more units or centers means that it just becomes more and more difficult to make the tradeoffs and the judgments that need to be made.  And everybody ends up with their piece of turf to defend rather than some sort of coherent policy being applied.

Proceedings : How would you rate the ongoing move toward jointness?  Has it gone the way everyone seemed to envision when it began?

Mr. Cheney : I think significant progress has been made, looking back over the past ten years.  I think Goldwater-Nichols [the 1986 Department of Defense Reorganization Act] gave it a major push.  We certainly tried during my watch to promote jointness to the extend we could.  I think General [Colin L.] Powell’s tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff served to nail down and solidify some of the concepts it embodied, making the Joint Staff a significant part of the operation.

Proceedings : So you think it’s good that the Chairman’s role has become stronger?

Mr. Cheney : Yes.  I absolutely do.  Of course, I suppose I’m biased.  I selected General Powell to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and worked with him for nearly four years.  I think prior to that time there was no real accountability from the civilian perspective.

You could look at the chiefs collectively, but what you got with a strengthened role for the Chairman, I think, were clearer lines of authority.  And because the relationship among the CinCs [Commanders-in-Chief] inside the military was better defined, it was easier for the civilians to relate to it.  The Chairman was authorized to function as the principal military advisor to the Secretary and the President, rather than being just the lowest common denominator of whatever the Chiefs collectively could agree upon.  It was a significant improvement, and I think it made the military and the interface between civilians and the military more effective and more functional.  Those lines are clearer, as established in Goldwater-Nichols.

Proceedings : Some critics have maintained that it gave the military too much power.  Do you consider that to be a problem?

Mr. Cheney : No, I don’t buy that analysis.  I had fundamental disagreements with my predecessors on that.  Frank Carlucci, Cap Weinberger, and I agreed on most things, but they both were adamantly opposed to Goldwater-Nichols.  I really think that legislation—which I voted for as a member of Congress and came to appreciate once I got to the Department of Defense—significantly improved the way the place functions.

Among other things, the policy we established requiring service on the Joint Staff prior to moving into senior leadership positions turned out to be beneficial.  We did not want anyone on the Joint Staff who did not have significant prospects back home in their own service.

Proceedings : It’s getting more difficult to clear all those wickets to get there, though.

Mr. Cheney : It is getting hard to clear all those wickets, but the fact is that the Joint Staff is an absolutely vital part of the operation.  From the standpoint of the President and the Secretary of Defense, what you want is an effective, smooth-functioning military operation that you can, in fact, use to promote the nation’s interest.

I hear a lot of the same arguments even today against Goldwater-Nichols: too many billets, the need to fulfill all the joint requirements, or too much centralization of authority.  The fact is that the Department of Defense is difficult enough to run without going back to a system that, in my mind, served to weaken the civilian authority of the Secretary and the President in terms of their ability to interact with and use that organization.  I think that Goldwater-Nichols helped pull it together in a coherent fashion so that it functions much better today than it ever did before.

Proceedings : Was Goldwater-Nichols a significant aspect of Operation Desert Storm?

Mr. Cheney : I think so, especially if you look at the way we functioned and the enormous authority that resided in [Commander-in-Chief Central Command, General] Norm Schwarzkopf.  It was not perfect, obviously.  You can go back and always find places where you might have been able to improve performance.  But I think we had clearer lines of authority in that operation, which avoided problems that had occurred previously—for example, in Grenada and in Lebanon in 1982 and, in fact, all the way back to World War II.  We had a CinC, we had a unified command, and we had clear-cut lines of authority that ran from President [George] Bush to me through General Powell at my option out to the CinC in the field.

Within the Defense Department itself, many talented people were outside the chain of command.  But nothing went into the theater that the CinC had not approved.  None of the services could come in through the back door and urge a particular course of action, or deploy forces, or get involved in ways that violated the basic, fundamental chain of command.

Everybody, for good reason, wanted to get into the act.  One of the biggest problems we faced was deciding who would go and who would not.  We had a lot of very senior four-stars who were dying to have some influence on the decisions being made.  There was a way for them to do that, in an advisory role, but there was never any question how the chain of command worked, who was responsible for it, or who had the authority to decide what did and did not go into the theater and how it was used.

We had one single air plan.  [Air Force Lieutenant General] Chuck Horner was, in fact, the guy running the air war.  It didn’t matter whether you were a Navy pilot, an Air Force pilot, or a Marine pilot; if you were not part of that air-tasking order, you did not fly.  We had one well-integrated campaign plan for the use of those air assets, and my own view is that the air war was decisive in the Gulf.  I think much of that goes right back to the principles embodied in Goldwater-Nichols.

Proceedings : Some have said that the air-tasking order was more a matter of coordination than a directive on how to fight the war on a day-to-day basis.  How do you react to that criticism?

Mr. Cheney : The last time we fought a major air was Vietnam—not a notable success.  With CinCPac [Commander-in-Chief Pacific Command] out in Hawaii running the naval air war and the Air Force guy in Saigon executing his own plan, the lines of demarcation got clouded.

Again, from the civilian perspective, what we had in the Desert Storm air campaign plan was an initial package, a strategy that was pulled together and presented to the Chairman and me.  We took it to the President and signed off on the basic, broad outlines of the strategy.  It was developed and refined extensively over a period of months, as targets were identified and plans laid out for hitting those targets.  That facilitated the President’s ability to pursue his strategy.  At the same time, it precluded anybody outside the chain of command from trying to second-guess and interfere with target selection, for example.  It gave us a much more coherent kind of approach, I think, toward how we were going to use U.S. air capabilities to pursue our objective.  And it was all knitted together, all the way from the President, to me and the Chairman, to the CinC and Chuck Horner out in the Gulf, and all the units that were part of it.  I am sure it was not perfect, but we had never done that well before in our history, in terms of putting it all together.  It may have been just “coordination,” but that counts for a hell of a lot.

Proceedings : What do you think the last Secretary of Defense Les Aspin’s “Bottom-Up Review” accomplished?

Mr. Cheney : This may not be totally fair to Les, but I felt we had already done a very good job of starting that process—moving to a post-Cold War force.  The Democrats refused to recognize that.  Their whole stock-in trade for so many years has been, “You Republicans want to spend too much on defense.”  They could not adjust, psychologically or politically, to the fact that we had already started formulating what the new force ought to look like.

We had eliminated 400,000 billets on my watch, selected 800 bases and installations around the world to be closed, and shut down 120 production lines.  There had already been a vast shift in the emphasis and the approach within the Department during the Bush administration.  When the Democrats came to town, there was no way from a political standpoint, I suppose, that my friend Les could say, “Well, they’ve already got a great start.  We’re going to build on it.”  They had to scrub all that and say they were going to start all over again with something called the “Bottom-Up Review.”

From my perspective, I don’t think it moved the ball that much farther down the road.  I was a big fan of Les’s.  We were good friends and worked together very closely while he was Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and I was Secretary, but—I’ll leave it at that.

Proceedings : Now that you’ve gone to the private sector in a big way, what would you say is the secret of maintaining public support for a strong defense?  You’re seeing it from a different perspective now, obviously.

Mr. Cheney : In my time, before I ended up in the Defense Department—I had been in Congress and served in the Ford administration—we had a pretty good rationale for why we needed a strong military.  It was called the Cold War.  Most people could understand that.  Not everybody agreed with the funding levels we wanted or how big the forces ought to be—whether we should or should not buy the MX missile, for example.

Based upon the international situation, the consensus in this country was that we needed to remain strong and maintain fairly robust military forces.  Now, we’ve reached the point where it’s difficult from a political standpoint to articulate a rationale that justifies a need to retain significant forces.  I sometimes have the feeling today that the strongest impetus out there to maintain adequate military forces has less to do with any view of the international situation or our security requirements as much as it’s tied to what I would say are “small p” political considerations: “Don’t close my base.  Don’t shut down my production line.  Don’t demobilize my unit.”

For now, this is about as good as it will get in the current political environment.  I hope that over time we will be able to develop a stronger public rationale for why we still need to retain significant military forces.  It’s difficult.  If you look at the ’92 election, the ’94 congressional election, and I think even the 1996 presidential election, there has been almost no discussion—this will be the third election cycle without it—of the U.S. role in the world from a security standpoint, our strategic requirements, what our military ought to be doing, or how big the defense budget ought to be.

Proceedings : In retrospect, what, if anything, could you have done to keep the A-12 program from being cancelled?  Or do you think that was a logical course of action at the time, given the situation?

Mr. Cheney : Technically, what happened—the lawyers tell me I still need to be very precise about this; it’s still in court—is that the request came for me to use my authority as Secretary to modify the terms of the contract and then notify Congress that I had done it.  I refused to do that.

At that point, the Navy terminated the contract for default on the part of the contractor.  All of that is subject now to a lawsuit.  From my standpoint, my initial take on the A-12 was that it was a system we needed, that it was important to the future of naval aviation.  When we made the first pass through the major aircraft review, we reduced the total size of the buy, but we kept the A-12.

Only after I had gone back to Congress and testified that we wanted to continue the A-12 program—albeit at a lower level—were we informed by the contractors that they were not going to be able to complete that phase of the contract on time, or in effect, meet the terms of the contract.  That is what then triggered the subsequent decision to terminate the program.

My conclusion, after we went through that second go-round—once the contractors came in and said they would be unable to produce it on time—was that we were a hell of a long way from being able to complete that program.  We needed some fallback, so we ended up going with the modifications to the F/A-18.

Proceedings : Several times, the Navy put money in the budget for upgrades and modifications to the F-14, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense [OSD] consistently refused funding for it.  In light of the F-14’s getting older and its recent problems, what was the reasoning for this refusal from the OSD viewpoint?

Mr. Cheney : Part of the whole story revolved around the traditional debate between the F/A-18 drivers and the F-14 drivers; everybody loves his own airplane.  From our standpoint, the prospect of buying new F-14s was a weak one.  The production line had been pretty well shut down, and it was not really an option.  It was a big airplane; it was heavy, non-stealth, and the maintenance hours were much higher than the F/A-18.  The F/A-18 was cheaper and newer, production lines were still open, and to the extent that we could move in the direction of a common aircraft on the carrier deck, it was going to reduce the cost of maintenance and upkeep significantly.  When we started to make those kinds of tradeoffs, the idea of spending a lot of money on the F-14 was never very attractive.

We used to have this debate with advocates in the Congress.  My buddy [Congressman] Duke Cunningham (R-CA) used to hammer me repeatedly on the F-14 versus the F/A-18.  In the end, we went with the F/A-18, which is pretty much where we are right now and where I think we ought to be.

Proceedings : In your view, how are we going to pull out of Bosnia at the prescribed time and still leave an effective command-and-control structure in place for United Nations and NATO forces?

Mr. Cheney : I need to be clear on the record here that part of my company, Brown & Root, does not have a private army in Bosnia supporting the United States, contrary to what was reported recently in Time magazine.  We have the logistics contract with the Army and had it long before I arrived here.  Our job is to build and maintain the camps for the 1st Armored Division troops in Bosnia.  So we are heavily engaged over there, providing logistics support—food service, water, bathing facilities, housing, that sort of thing.  We did the same thing in Haiti and Somalia before this.

Having said that, I opposed sending U.S. troops to Bosnia while the war was still on there.  Ultimately, I reached the point where I thought we would probably have to follow through on the President’s pretty firm commitment to providing peacekeeping forces as a follow-on to a peace agreement.  I think it would be very damaging for the United States, especially its relationship with NATO and our NATO allies, for us not to carry through on that solemn commitment.

So far, I think that has gone reasonably well.  The thing I worry about is how we do get out.  What is the strategy here for disengaging?  What is going to happen a year from now that will allow our withdrawal without reigniting the civil war?  What is going to take our place once we pull out?  I do not yet have confidence that we’ve solved that problem.

Proceedings : Republican Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan would pull many people home from many places, not just Bosnia.  How do you feel about that?

Mr. Cheney : I would not pull any forces back from overseas.  I disagree with my old friend Pat.  In Europe, we have gone from about 330,000 when I took over down to roughly 100,000.  That is about as low as we can go and still have any significant presence in Western Europe, where U.S. presence is critical.  I think we are the key to European security.  We are the key to NATO.  I think the ability of the Europeans to manage all of that by themselves is extremely limited, as demonstrated by what happened in Bosnia before the United States got involved.

I am also very concerned about the situation in the Pacific, because I sense that the United States and Japan are drifting apart.  For the 50 years, the cornerstone of the security in the Pacific and the Western Pacific has been U.S./Japan security arrangements, the forward deployment of U.S. forces—Marines on Okinawa, the air base up on Misawa, the Navy at Yokosuka—and it would be a real tragedy for the United States and for our friends in the region if we were to withdraw from that relationship.

Unfortunately, the controversies in Okinawa surrounding our presence there and the alleged rape of the young girl last year have inflamed a lot of emotion.  I worry that we may be at the beginning of a process that could run for several years, but that support for the U.S. presence in Japan is gradually eroding.

Proceedings : We now have left the Philippines.  What other countries do you consider to be suitable for placing U.S. forces?  Was Cam Ranh Bay ever considered?

Mr. Cheney : We used to joke about going back to Cam Ranh Bay.  I went to Vietnam last August.  I don’t think a U.S. base in Cam Ranh is beyond the realm of possibilities at some point.

In the Philippines, we had no choice; in the end, they told us they refused to renew our agreement.  So we withdrew.  I am less concerned about that than I am about the deployments in Japan.

Given our modern capabilities, the fact is, we can go just about anyplace in the world and project power in relatively short order.  Forward bases are not quite as important as they once were from a purely military standpoint.  We have arrangements with Singapore; we deploy aircraft there on a regular basis and train their aviators.  If we had to get into Thailand or other places in that region, we could do it.  We got into the Persian Gulf without having any significant presence there before we went.

What I worry about is that U.S. forward presence in Japan has strategic ramifications throughout the region.  It is reassuring to the Japanese that we are there, and we are committed to their security.  It is also reassuring to everybody else in the neighborhood, many of whom worry about the Japanese.

Proceedings : What about the Chinese?  Are the Chinese reassured?

Mr. Cheney : That last time I talked to a senior Chinese official, which was about a year ago, he was more concerned about Japan than anything else.

The fact is that U.S. presence serves as a stabilizing factor; it discourages the development of instabilities that might lead people to pursue more aggressive courses than would otherwise be the case.  There are other problems, obviously, in the area, but if the United States were to withdraw, clearly that would create a vacuum.  And I think such a vacuum would sooner or later be filled.  From a broad, strategic standpoint, the political statement made when the United States remains committed to the area with forward-deployed forces is as important as the military benefits.

So there are many reasons for us to want to stay there.  I think that is qualitatively different from what happened in the Philippines.  Subic Bay was a great facility.  My guess is that, in a crisis, if we had to get back into Subic again, we probably could, depending upon the nature of the problem.

Proceedings : At what stage is the offshore mobile base project that your company has been developing?

Mr. Cheney : One of my good friends, [recently retired Admiral] Bill Owens, was my senior military assistant when I arrived at the Pentagon.  Bill was one of the big advocates of those systems.  I inherited him, the first uniformed officer I dealt with after I got sworn in as Secretary, from Frank Carlucci.  He had been there with Frank for about six months, and then he stayed on for about a year and a half on my watch and did a superb job for me.  Then we sent him out to the Sixth Fleet.  Eventually, of course, he became Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and did a great job.

I think the mobile offshore bases have a lot of potential.  Again, it’s something Brown & Root engineered over the years, and there has been some study work done it.  Whether or not it will ever get off the ground is a judgment the Department of Defense is ultimately going to have to make.

It’s an interesting concept.  These units offer a secure, stable operating base at sea capable of storing vast quantities of material and fuel.  There are places in the world—the Persian Gulf comes immediately to mind—where that kind of facility would be very valuable.

Proceedings : Admiral Owens was an airship backer, too.  Did you ever hear a persuasive case made for an airship while you were Secretary?

Mr. Cheney : No, but we still don’t have any, and there is no sponsor for the airship now that Bill’s departed.  Bill was one of the most creative military thinkers I encountered while I was in the Pentagon.  He really had a great ability to back off and think about problems and come at them in new and interesting ways.  He was a great officer.

Proceedings : As you must know, Tailhook instigated a lot of fallout, and the former leader of the Blue Angels, Commander Robert Stumpf, is the most recent casualty.  Even though he was apparently acquitted, now he cannot get promoted.  How do you feel about that?

Mr. Cheney : I don’t know the specifics of Commander Stumpf’s case, and I would be reluctant to comment on his case in particular.  Tailhook obviously was a disaster for the U.S. Navy.  Some say that the standard has changed over time and that when Tailhook started, such behavior was acceptable.

In the end, the conduct that was alleged to have occurred at Tailhook certainly is no longer acceptable.  The necessity was to find out what happened and to hold people accountable for inappropriate behavior.  But there ought to be a way to put it behind us and move on.

I sometimes had the feeling that the Navy was going overboard in trying to demonstrate that Tailhook was atypical.  Now, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and the mere hint of suspicion has led to decisions that would not have been made except for the environment created by Tailhook.

Proceedings : The 12-12-5 policy, instituted to fill service vacancies with certain percentages of various minorities, is controversial on several fronts.  How do you feel about it?

Mr. Cheney :  It’s a quota system, and a quota system is unacceptable to me.  I think the U.S. military has done a better job than virtually any other institution in our society regarding minorities, creating opportunities, and trying to operate as an equal-opportunity employer.  We’re not perfect, and I don’t think anybody would allege we are, but I think that if you look at the track record of the U.S. military and the Department of Defense over the last 15 or 20 years, you would see that we’ve done a better job than virtually any other institution in our society.

You always come back to the proposition of trying to remind people what the military is for.  The military in the end is about fighting and winning wars.  You have to be very careful not to impose requirements on the military that interfere with that basic fundamental mission or, in some cases, not impose requirements on the military that you do not impose on any other segment of the society.

My personal view is that women are an extraordinarily important part of the force, but I think we’ve gone further than I was comfortable with in respect to combat roles for women.  For example, I would not have supported putting women on aircraft carriers.

You also run into the problem of having women, in the Navy especially, who are unable to deploy or cannot deploy as readily as the men.  This places a heavier burden on the men, and they end up having to spend more time at sea.  Their tours are longer, because you have to make up for the fact that you’ve included a significant number of women in the force who are not deployable.

These are difficult issues, and there probably is no one final right or wrong answer in many of these cases.  But I do think we have in recent years often lost sight of that basic fundamental fact of life that the military is a unique institution, there specifically for the purposes of defending the nation and going to war if need be.  You always have to remember to evaluate any prospective policy based upon that fundamental mission and how that policy might affect capacity to perform.  Sometimes we simply do not do that.

 

 
 

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