FRONTLINE Interview with Admiral Frank Kelso, former Chief of Naval Operations FRONTLINE Interview with Admiral Frank Kelso, former Chief of Naval Operations

At the time of Tailhook, Kelso was Chief of Naval Operations and also attended the convention. He joined in the public and Congressional outrage and implemented measures to end sexual harassment of women in the Navy and offer them opportuity to serve as combat aviators. His career was short-circuited by Tailhook and he took early retirement in April 1994.

Q: Your assessment of where the Navy is in the Persian Gulf War? You're right there, watching that. What's happening with the Navy?

KELSO: In many ways, it was a war that was not a naval battle. It was a war that was going to take place primarily on land and in the air, and we could support the air side, but there weren't too many navies to have to take. The one thing people tend to forget is that there was not one ship or one method of supply that was touched by anybody during that war. So that's the Navy's role, is to make sure that provisions get to the Army and to the Air Force during the war. That clearly took place. I think we learned that we had to do more in the future to make the battlefield seamless between sea, air, and land, for the Navy. And we had to increase and improve our communications to do that. And I think we've done that today. Since the war, we've added that capability that we needed more of during the war.

The world had changed. The Cold War was over. We had to adopt our tactics and what our role was going to be in that war. It hadn't changed the idea that we had to deliver the heavy material, because most all of it goes by sea, and protect it no matter where we might be engaged again. But for the day, the idea that we were going to be supportive in the tactics of the battle with our friends in the Air Force and the Army, we had to change the way we looked at things. We had to change the kind of munitions we bought in the air, for example, to buy more precision guided missiles, to have more of them available to do the job. So we learned a lot from the war. We had to do more in the ability to keep mines from being a problem and to sweep them once they were a problem. So that changed the way we spent our money after the war. And I think we're doing that successfully.

Q: Were you happy with what had happened, how the Navy had executed its mission in the Persian Gulf War?

KELSO: Absolutely.

Q: The role of aviation?

KELSO: Yeah. I think they did extremely well with the tools that they had, and did a very fine job.

Q: I've heard from other aviators that there was a sense of unhappiness at the end of the war--this wasn't their unhappiness with the Navy. This was their unhappiness with the way things worked out, that here was one aging weapon system or airplane was going out of business at the end of this war; that they hadn't gotten in as many--

KELSO: That decision had not been made at the end of the war. It was made well beyond, subsequent to that.

Q: But there was unease. These guys were saying, "Hey, is this really going to happen? Is this going to go away? Gee, we didn't get to fly as much as we really wanted to fly over there....it looks like the Air Force got a lot of headlines...it looks like women are going to jump into combat roles. " They had a list of grievances coming out of that war. Your reaction?

KELSO: Well, there's no doubt, if you talked to them, some of them felt that way. It was clear that the funding for defense was going to change. The Cold War was over, and we were not going to spend the kind of bucks we had in the past for military hardware. And so the Navy, like all the other services, was going to have to adjust to the times in which we live. We did subsequently make a decision to put the A-6 out of business. We had hoped for a replacement of the A-6 with the A-12, which was lost. We had to reduce the number of airplanes the Navy had, just like we had to reduce the number of ships. If you were going to reduce an airplane, the age of that airplane clearly made it the airplane to reduce. And that was the decision that the Navy made.

Now, that decision was not made by guys who don't fly airplanes. They have certainly had an input into how we were going to reduce the funding we spent. I remember one young pilot (well, he was a captain at the time) came back from that war, and he said, "You know, Admiral, we should never buy anything but a dual purpose airplane again." Some of them felt strongly that we needed to have an airplane that could be either a fighter when necessary, or it could go air-to-ground when necessary. And the F/A-18 was that airplane that we were buying at the time. So we made a decision to go with more F/A18's and let the A-6 go out of the inventory. We wanted to reduce the number of airplanes that the Navy had in total, because it's expensive to maintain lots of types of airplanes. We wanted to build what we considered was the new F/A-18... Where do we find the money to do that? So you have to make some decision like that.

Those who rode in the back seat were worried about their jobs during this period of time. If you bought a new F/A18 type airplane, would it have two people in it or one person in it? It created a great deal of anxiety in that area. There's no question that there was an anxiety ... females going to be taken into combat. We made that decision. I think that was the right decision to make. It was not a decision that was acclaimed by all as the right thing to do. The world passes on, and we do things differently. And so those anxieties were there. As you make change, people have to learn to live with the change. And so I'm not surprised that those anxieties might have been there. There were reasons for the anxieties, and we're continuing to live with change.

Q: Tough to downsize a great big outfit like the Navy?

KELSO: Yes, it is difficult to downsize a great big outfit like the Navy, because the toughest part is to downsize the people. We took almost 200,000 people out of the Navy. It went around 400,000, plus a lot out of the civilian side. You can't do it without making a lot of them unhappy. Fortunately, the Congress was generous in giving us ways for them to leave without leaving either a lump sum or a small pension if they left the Navy during that period of time. And I think in the Navy we were able to not push anybody out that we didn't retire or provide one of the benefits that the Congress gave them during that period of time, which I felt was very necessary that we do that now. But we had to select people out that were very capable, particularly in the senior officer ranks, like captains, which was very, very difficult to do. It's not much fun to go from almost a 600-ship Navy to a 330-ship Navy. It's tough to think about the young officer who's on a ship that's been decommissioned, or the young petty officer on a ship that's being decommissioned. He didn't plan on that, and how he's got to move. Maybe he's got to move across country, pick his family up, and do all that sort of thing. It was necessary, but not much fun to do. It's a difficult period of time.

Q: What do you figure it does to the psychology of the Navy, to have this kind of a big shock ?

KELSO: I'm not sure that anybody can answer that yet. From my standpoint and my belief is at this point in time that people in the Navy said, "Okay, this is the way our country has told us to do," and they picked up the ball. I can't remember an deployments we've missed. You went out to sea on one of our carriers, they were operating pretty well. That carrier was overhauled during this period of time. One of the finest overhauls any carrier's ever done, because we had great, great people on it, that made that take place. If you look at the Navy inside the Beltway, you always get one view. It's kind of like reading the Post or the one in my hometown. You'd think you were in different countries. It's kind of the same way here. And Navy people are resilient. They do terrific jobs. And I think they've carried this downsizing off in an amazing way.


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