MODERNIZING THE MILITARY
FEBRUARY 29, 1997
Charlayne Hunter-Gault discusses the technological revolution taking place within the U.S. military with one of the leading revolutionaries, outgoing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Owens.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It was a revolution that started during the Persian Gulf War. Americans watching television in their living rooms got a chance to glimpse a whole new array of high-tech weapons, smart bombs, advanced helicopters, and systems to control what has been called the electronic battlefield. There is a debate within the military about what some are calling Gee-Whiz Gadgetry, and the necessary military reorganization they require. But that has not stopped those charged with leading the revolution. Chief among them is Admiral William Owens, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I talked with him just before his retirement this week, which comes almost 38 years after he entered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is technology really going to be the driving force in future military conflicts?
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS, Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: Well, I think there are really two driving forces. One is our people, you know, and here we, we never lose track because we talk about technology, the great importance of these fine young men and women we have in our military and how important it is that we get the right ones into our military and that, and that we take care of them once they're, once they're with us. And so that's the first, the first mandate that we have for the American military in the future, but technology is enormously important now. The smart front edge of warfare that we get from industry, from American industry, gives us so much of an edge as we look to the future. And so I think the technology of being able to look at a very large battlefield and see it, that is a battlefield perhaps the size of Iraq or North Korea--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The whole country.
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: And see the whole thing 24 hours a day, all weather, i.e., through the clouds, all weather, real time, i.e., you see what's happening in the battlefield, real time, is with us in the next three to five years. And if that is true, and if we can then communicate that information to our soldiers on the ground, our pilots in the air, our sailors and ships at sea, then we can be enormously efficient in the way we do our war fighting in the future. War is not the same now as what it was in the past. Its contingency is, it's a variety of different kinds of operations. But the fact is that we are able with this kind of technology to do things in very efficient ways, i.e., it costs less, we will lose fewer lives of our most prized possession, our young people, and I think it will have a dramatic impact on those enemies or supposed enemies around the world who would want to threaten us or our allies if they know that we have these kinds of capabilities. So it's a deterrent function as well.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It costs less than what?
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: It costs less than the brute force approach. Now, if you're going to go with tank against tank or airplane against airplane, sort of brute force, force on force kind of equation, that's going to cost more than it will if we use all of our assets and the smart front end, i.e., the ability to see what's happening in that battlefield and reach out and touch them with sophisticated weapons, from a distance all four services working together will cost less, will save more lives.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you see as the greatest threats in the coming years?
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: It's very difficult to know where we will be fighting in the future, but you can be sure that the kinds of challenges we face will be different. We expect that the threat of weapons of mass destruction could be with us, chemical or biological or nuclear weapons. We hope not, but it could be. And we have to be ready for those kinds of things. And at the same time, we need to be ready for the kinds of new technologies like Cruise Missiles, these kinds of very smart missiles that fly for a few tens of miles to a target and then have a very precise seeker.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Looking ahead at the other fighting services, describe what is going to be their major innovative weapons.
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: The United States services?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mm-hmm.
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: Well, there are a lot of exciting things out there. I might just give you a couple of examples. I brought a few toys along. Is that okay?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Fine, sure.
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: We have today getting ready to go to Bosnia a vehicle called the Predator. It has come pretty much off the shelf, a new way of buying things. It is quite--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you mean off the shelf, just--
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: I mean, from American industry--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Going to Sears and Roebuck--
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: Not quite, but without military specifications, you know, not a very expensive, long-term development program, but simply working with American industry to develop something that is good enough and cheap relatively to give us new capabilities, so this Predator vehicle will fly in Bosnia. It has been in Bosnia before, but we're sending it back here in the next few weeks, will fly at 30,000 feet altitude and will stay up there for twelve to twenty-four hours. And while it's up there, it is looking at the ground through the clouds, and it is transmitting video of what it's seen, real time, direct, via commercial satellite that we rent to a soldier on the ground in the headquarters in Bosnia, for example. We hope not to be using weapons there, but if you needed to use weapons, you could see the targets on your screen. You'd be able to put a cursor on the location of the target and it would tell you precisely what the location of that target was.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And the margin of error?
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: And very close, very close, a few meters, and with that kind of information, you could, if you had to shoot at the target, you could use something like this army tactical missile system. It's the American Scud, except this one goes every time you push the button, and it goes exactly where you want it to go and so--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So it's not the dumb bomb that the Iraqi Scud was supposed to be?
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: No, it's not a dumb bomb. It's a very reliable, smart bomb, but it's ballistic, i.e., you launch it into a ballistic trajectory and so it gets to its target very quickly. It will go 200 miles in about five minutes. And when you think about how long it would take an airplane or a Cruise Missile to go 200 miles, it would be 30 minutes. So it gets there very fast. So with this thing, if you see the target, and if you transmit that information to the person who has one of these available, he can launch this, and five minutes from the time you saw the target, the smart weapon is on target, and so the potential for these kinds of things is very great in our future.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about the little guy you have over there, what doe he do?
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: Well, it's an interesting little guy. This is a little unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV, we call it. We call it the micro UAV. This is not a model. It's the real thing. It's designed for soldier in a fox hole who would launch it in a sort of high-tech way by launching it like this. It'll fly for about an hour. It has a tiny little camera on the front of it. It's about maybe 3/16 of an inch in diameter, and that little camera is a very good, has very good resolution. It flies at about 100 feet above the ground and it will give you good enough resolution to actually recognize a person a couple of miles from the location where the target launched the UAV. The soldier sees what it sees via a five-inch dish antenna, a five-inch tiny thing, and an IBM think pad. This costs maybe $500. What he has in his hand costs maybe $700. The total cost is a little over $1,000, but when you think of the capability this will give to even a foot soldier in the future, we, we have come a long ways.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Finally, let me just ask you this. We've talked about the new technologies and all the things that are going to help revolutionize modern warfare. Is it your position that our current military is wedded to systems that are outdated like aircraft carriers and things like that? Because I know one of your--
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: Just to name one.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Just to name one. I know that you propose something like a floating base out there, which some people say won't work or it's too expensive or too impractical. But is that your basic position?
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: Well, I think that there are categories of weapon systems that become somewhat obsolete when you start to see new technologies like these things that I've talked about here this morning. You know, we have manned aircraft that do this kind of thing, for example, and if this is so successful and we're building another one that is a little more capable than this now, that will be very inexpensive relatively, if that's successful, then perhaps you can do away with the manned aircraft that it replaced and save billions for our country. So there are some of those kinds of trade-offs. I'd be a little cautious about trading off aircraft carriers today or Air Force tactical air, or the capabilities of our army in the battlefield, because we genuinely have thinned down an awful lot the DOD, the Defense Department top line, budget top line, has come down by about 45 percent in about 10 years, so we have to be a little cautious, because we've already trimmed a lot. But these technologies give us some of the answers for how to retain our military capability as we look to the future, with a smaller budget, and I think that's a part of the answer.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So it's fine not to give the military more money. I mean, I don't mean to be flip about that, but, but you're saying that the military can make due with less, given the new technologies?
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: I am not asking for more money for our uniform military. I think we have enough. I would encourage our leaders in Congress to give us every bit of freedom we can have to manage it ourselves a little better. We'd like to privatize a little more. We'd like to have the ability to, to use our people in different ways, and we'd like to have a little more flexibility in the way we manage it, but I don't think we need to have more money in our military. We have it in us to do what we need to do for our country, with less money, and as I said, the DOD top line is down by about 45 percent over that 10-year period.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But there are rumors that you are leaving because you are frustrated, worn down about the failure of the services to cut overlap and cooperate more closely. Is that true?
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: It really isn't true. I'm leaving for purely personal reasons. I may appear worn down, but it's not, it's not for that reason. We, we genuinely I think have made tremendous strides in coming together. I think if you could see the Joint Chiefs and we had--a couple of days ago, we had a whole-day meeting to talk about these kinds of things that we're talking about right now, and I think America would be pleased to see how close together we are in terms of the common thrust to do the right thing. It's not always--it's not always smiles, but we're always talking about the right issues, I think, and we're trying to reach consensus to do things differently and more efficiently. And I'm not leaving for that reason.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Adm. Owens, thank you for joining us and all the best.
ADM. WILLIAM OWENS: Thank you very much, Charlayne.