The Use of Force and Getting It Right: Interview with Dr. William J. Perry

By Fred Schultz and Michael Collins

Proceedings : What would you say was your most significant accomplishment?

Dr. Perry : First, looking back at the ways we used force-or threatened to use force-during that period, I think we did get it right. But it's a multidimensional job, and it's hard to look at one element without looking at all the others.

One very important achievement, as far as I was concerned, was establishing a close working relationship with our senior military leaders, with the Service Chiefs, with the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and with all of the CinCs [Commanders-in-Chief], and then at the same time, establishing what I thought was a special bond between the Secretary of Defense and the enlisted personnel. I regard those as great achievements.

There's a third, entirely different dimension, which had to do with making dramatic improvements in the denuclearization process that was going on in the former Soviet Union. That's a long story, but it was a major goal of mine when I became Secretary, and we got rid of 4,000 nuclear warheads during those four years. That was a very substantial achievement.

And finally, we made major and dramatic changes in the management of the Defense Department, perhaps most dramatically transforming the acquisition system to make much more sensible use of commercial components and commercial buying practices. I think billions of dollars will be saved in the years ahead.

Proceedings : We have had a dynamic Department of Defense lab structure. How will streamlining and consolidating affect the lab system?

Dr. Perry : In our acquisition system, the labs have always been a contributor to the program managers' ability to be smart buyers. So that has played an important role, and will continue to play an important role. But in the late 1980s, we faced a reduction in defense spending as it turns out, about 40% in real terms and we had to make some fundamental decisions about how to allocate resources.

My predecessors, Dick Cheney and Les Aspin, and I all essentially decided that we needed to reduce force structure. We needed to reduce personnel in order to have enough money left to maintain high-readiness states. And as we brought the personnel down, that not only affected force structure, but it also affected personnel in laboratories and personnel in the acquisition system. So it was a major drawdown of the forces, both military and civilian.

And that's not quite completed yet. It's nearly completed, but some of the civilian drawdown is still under way.

Proceedings : With commitments becoming more isolated and spread far apart, some say U.S. forces are being stretched too thin. What do you see as the bottom line on force structure?

Dr. Perry : I thought we had reached the right level in force structure for the kind of problems and challenges we have in today's world. I would not look for any additional reductions in force structure, although I know that's being considered in the Quadrennial Defense Review. We might be able to make some further reductions in personnel, both civilian and possibly military. But in my judgment, these would be support people, and they would be cut only as we introduce management efficiencies that allow us to make those reductions.

I would not cut force structure any further. I think we're already stretched very, very thin for the tasks that we have to do.

Proceedings : What do you consider to be your biggest disappointments during your service as Secretary of Defense?

Dr. Perry : Most of the disappointments were in terms of not having been able to go as far as I had hoped to get on various initiatives that we were taking. We made, I think, very dramatic improvements in military housing, for example, but so much remains to be accomplished.

On a qualitative basis, I was disappointed that we didn't have a stronger flavor of bipartisanism when it came to defense matters. I have always approached defense and national security issues from a bipartisan point of view, and I think the country is better off when we do that. But it has seemed to me, in the last few years, that willingness to take a bipartisan approach has decreased. It has become much more stridently partisan, and some of the senators who were the strongest bipartisan proponents have left the Senate in just the last year or so. I think that is a real disappointment.

For example, Senator [Sam] Nunn [D-GA], Senator [J. James] Exon [D-NE], and Senator [Alan] Simpson [R-WY], who are now gone, were all people who took a bipartisan approach to defense matters. And I am concerned and disappointed to see a move, a trend away from bipartisanship.

Proceedings : Along that line, what do you think of former CIA Director nominee Anthony Lake's characterization that "Washington has gone haywire" with the confirmation process?

Dr. Perry : Well, I wouldn't generalize from that incident. I do believe that confirmation, as it's set up in the Constitution-that is, the constitutional requirement for Senate confirmation of Presidential appointees-is a very important principle. It is a part of our government that I strongly support. And I think, in general, that process has been well managed and well executed.

In Tony's case, it was not. I think there were excesses. For example, I think publicizing raw files from the FBI is not an appropriate way to approach confirmation. I think it's an example of what I meant when I said I think we're having a harder time dealing in a bipartisan way with issues.

Proceedings : Now that our presence in Bosnia has outlasted the original projected commitment, what do you foresee for the future of U.S. military involvement there?

Dr. Perry : I think we will have our forces there for the duration of the 18-month period for which we're signed on, and I do not think that they will sign up to go back in after that. That puts a very heavy premium on the civilian support functions in Bosnia and on accelerating and getting more done.

The reason the NATO force had to sign up for a second period in the first place was because so little progress had been made in rebuilding the infrastructure and in getting the economic and political problems of the country on a better course. All the NATO military forces can do is maintain the peace. They cannot create a new social order, a new political order, or a new economic structure. That has to be done by other groups. And, yet, that is required in order for peace to last in Bosnia without having a military force there.

So I think that the NATO military force, certainly the U.S. forces, will be leaving at the end of the 18-month period. I'm sure a phase-down plan for U.S. forces will take place over a three- or four-month period. By the end of that 18 months, I think we will be down to zero.

Proceedings : The scandal at the Aberdeen Proving Ground has raised some ugly allegations. Do you see that threatening gender integration of training and even of forces?

Dr. Perry : I think gender integration of forces has been a general success story, and I think we will continue it. I think what this incident at Aberdeen raises is a question as to whether we should integrate at the training level, and specifically, whether there should be male drill instructors training female recruits.

The Marines, of course, do it differently, and the Army is rethinking that question now, which is appropriate. I'm not going to try to second guess what their answer is going to be, but I do think it's a serious enough issue that it's quite appropriate that they rethink their original approach.

Proceedings : Aberdeen seems to have drawn attention to more than one issue, another being racial bias in prosecution. Do you think that our forces are dividing more along racial lines?

Dr. Perry : I have not seen evidence of that at the time I visited bases and talked with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. I think integration in both directions is, in general, moving forward and moving forward well. There have been anomalies, there have been problems, and this Aberdeen incident is an egregious example. We have to take it seriously, and we have to deal with it. But I don't think that is a reason for giving up on the principle of integration in the forces.

Proceedings : What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the Navy and the Marine Corps?

Dr. Perry : Let me say, first of all, that I think the Navy and the Marine Corps have been facing big challenges all along, and, in my judgment, they have been meeting them very well. When I look at the reason we have the Navy and the Marines-to deal with military threats to our nation-and I look back on how they performed over the few years I was Secretary, they met those challenges very, very well.

Every time we had to make a rapid deployment of forces, every time we needed carriers, they were there, and they performed very, very well, in the face of all of these other problems we're talking about.

The fundamental challenges that they are going to continue to face are the same as they have been facing. How do you get a carrier task force rapidly deployed to meet a crisis when it's needed? How do you get a Marine expeditionary force rapidly deployed as needed? How effective will they be when they get there?

The readiness and capability of the forces has been absolutely splendid in the last years, and the biggest challenge is to keep it that way. In the face of tight budgets and the resulting pressure on the force structure, to maintain that capability is the big challenge, because the country is going to continue to need it. We cannot say when and where, but we can say for sure that we're going to be calling on the Navy and calling in the Marines. And when we call, we want them to be ready and to be able to answer the call.

Proceedings : One of the biggest challenges we hear about is the fact that the Navy has a few more than half the number of ships it had ten years ago, and personnel tempos and deployments are more than some people can handle. What do you think of that?

Dr. Perry : First, I think number of ships is not a good measure of a Navy's capability. But what I will focus on in what you asked is personnel tempo. I think it has been too high in some of the units in the Navy, and that has been a problem. I think I would put that out as a fundamental issue of concern and part of the biggest challenge that the Navy faces.

But the matching of the force with the ships, both in terms of capabilities and numbers, has been remarkably good, and that has been born out by the Navy's ability to meet the nation's requirements when called upon.


Michael Collins, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, is publications director for the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association.

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

View All

From the Press

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Thu, 2016-05-05

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Thu, 2016-05-05

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership