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interview: lawrence korb

He is vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, 1981-1985.
How do you define who the enemy is?

Right now the enemy of the United States and the world is instability. What we need to do is to preserve stability in the world. That stability is threatened in a number of ways. You have the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. You have countries that don't keep agreements like the non-proliferation treaty. You have countries that don't respect the waters of other countries. You have people who defy the laws and standards that are generally accepted by mankind. They wipe out people because they happen to be a certain race, creed, color or religion.

But what we have to do right now is maintain stability in the international environment. The military is one of those devices that we have to do that. We have no peer competitor right now. Our situation is unlike any we had at any time in the twentieth century, when you have the British and then the Germans became a peer competitor. We don't have any peer competitors. Could we have some in 10 to 15 years? Sure, we could, but we don't have anybody right now.

Many people say the most likely candidate would be China, but the fact of the matter is, it would take the Chinese a long time. They'd have to spend an awful lot of money to be able to come up anywhere close to us, and we would have plenty of warning to take the steps that we needed to if that happen. It's an absurd comparison to say that the Chinese military is bigger than the United States military. If you want to attack China, that becomes relevant. But why would we want to attack China? What you need to worry about is the power projection capabilities of the Chinese. They have a few submarines. They try to convert an old Russian aircraft carrier. But these things don't happen overnight. Look who surrounds the Chinese. They've got the Vietnamese on one side. They've got the Russians on the other side. They've got the Japanese.

During the 1990s the civilian leadership abdicated their responsibilities because it was too hard to make these tough decisions. . . . China, the theoretical peer competitor, is trying to join the World Trade Organization so that they can open up their society and be part of this international system. If the Chinese have a choice, if they want to continue developing economically, they're going to have to join the world, and its going to change them politically. If they change politically, they're not going to be the same type of threat. If they don't join and change politically, they're not going to have the money to modernize their military in such a way that they could become a threat.

If the US got rid of 2MTW--the policy by which we are prepared to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously--do you actually think we could survive with four to five divisions? Do you think that the force could be reduced?

Very definitely. If we got rid of two major theaters of war, we would put much more of the army into the reserves. You would cut the active force, and you would have the divisions in the reserves if worse came to worse and you needed to call them up. You would put most of your heavy forces in there.

You would also skip the actually production of this next generation of weapons systems, and go with the ones you have, as well as keep on doing research on your next generation. And if you saw the beginning of a crisis, you could call up these divisions. . . . A problem with the major theaters of war is that army divisions are too heavy to get there. That's why the army is trying to become lighter, which is something they should have done ten years ago, they had taken a look at the situation in the world. Even a medium-weight army division still has more firepower than any other division in the world. They were still thinking of fighting the Red Army rather than dealing with the forces that they would have to face.

How many divisions do you think we can safely deploy and still be able to survive and be safe in the world?

Are you talking about total army divisions and the active reserve mix? That's very important. What you have right now is basically the equivalent of about 15 divisions, if you count active and reserve. I would get rid of two active divisions and keep the same number in the reserves, but increase their ability to deploy. What you would then have would be 13 divisions that you could call on.

. . . We still have 100,000 troops in Europe. Why? No threat to western Europe exists any more. The Soviet military has a hard enough time in Chechnya. There's no way that they could threaten western Europe. Finally the Europeans are waking up and doing something they should have done ten years ago, which is to take more responsibility for their own defense. One reason they didn't do that before is that they said, "Oh, the United States is here, and isn't really demobilizing. So why should we do it?" As they begin to develop their own defense identity, you can cut back to maybe 25,000 troops in Europe. That's 75,000 you can put in the reserves or take out of the force that you wouldn't have to have in Europe all of the time. So what you should do is go down to about eight divisions, and make sure that the five that you have in the reserves are fully capable.

You need to adopt what Senator McCain called a couple of years ago "a situation of tiered readiness," where you have certain units that are really ready to go on short notice, and others that are not so ready, but that you can bring up. Right now we're trying to keep all ten active army divisions in the same state of readiness without making these gradations.

So is the problem the wanting to have a Cold War-type comfort zone?

Yes. What you have in the Department of Defense are four very powerful bureaucracies that want to continue to do what they do best. The army likes heavy divisions. Over the last ten years, while nobody seemed to be paying attention, they got heavier. The navy is still building aircraft carriers, rather than the so-called Cruise missile ship or arsenal ship, which they should be building. What you need is a platform that can use an awful lot of Cruise missiles, not more and more big aircraft carriers.

The navy is building a new generation of submarines, when the submarines they've already got are the best in the world. The navy is actually retiring them before they reach the end of their useful life. You have the air force that continues to build new fighter planes that are bigger and faster. The F-22 is a wonderful machine. If we had dogfights with the Soviet MIG-40 now, yes, they'd be great. But not only is that not what they are liable to do. They can't do very much on the ground, which is where you're going to really need them to provide close air support.

So what you've basically done is allow the services to continue to do what they do best. I don't blame them. Any organization will continue to do what it does best until somebody comes in and say, "Hey, you've got to move." They'll do what they do best until you really come down hard on them.

Some outside groups have looked at it--the National Defense Panel, and the Hart-Rudman Commission. And if you look at the their members, you've got some hard-liners. The National Defense Panel has several people on it who are retired military. Several people worked with me at high-level positions in the Reagan administration, and they said it doesn't make sense. Then you come along with the Hart-Rudman Commission, which includes, among others, a former secretary of defense, and they're saying it doesn't make sense. What you're basically saying is that these bureaucracies have been pretty much left on their own for ten years. They've continued to do what they do best, because nobody has really wanted to confront them.

Is there a necessary trade-off between investing in manpower and new weapon systems?

Any organization in the Pentagon has to deal with the same things--to make a balance between what it spends on today and what it invests in the future. That's the so-called "readiness versus investment." Look at the Pentagon's investment strategy. They're spending an awful lot of money on new weapons systems that are already improving on what's already the best in the world. And so you're spending $200 million on an M-22. The Marines are spending over $80 million on the V-22 helicopter. You can buy a Blackhawk helicopter for $6 million or $7 million. The navy is going ahead with the FAA team E and F, when the FAA teams C and D are already the best in the world.

So you're spending an awful lot of that to deal with a threat that no longer exists. And that means that you are short-spending on things like spare parts and ammunition. Now you have a situation where, because you're so concerned about the future, you're not taking adequate care of the present, and you're not getting the most out of your defense dollar. You're going to have problems, but the problem is not the amount of money. It's where you're putting it and how you manage it.

The Bush political campaign advocates skipping a generation of weapons; putting money into R&D, basically not recapitalizing certain legacy items, and trying to get a jump on the twenty-first century. And the Democratic candidate is saying, "You're going to shortchange the force and make it so that we're not ready to fight." It's almost seemed like the tables have turned here.

They certainly have turned if you look at the politics of defense. In Bill Clinton's campaign, he talked about how he was going to cut the military and free up money for other things. He took as his benchmark the five-year plan of the Bush administration. If you take a look at what George Bush proposed for spending through the end of this decade and you look at what was actually spent, Clinton spent more. The Democrats don't want to be considered soft on defense. . . . They want to show they're just as strong on defense as the Republicans.

If you take a look at the debate between Bush and Gore, what you have is a situation where I think Bush is right. We don't need to continue developing this generation of systems and put them into the system, because the ones you have are already the best. Nobody is even close.

The Democrats are trying to say that you would put our troops at risk because they wouldn't automatically have the best systems. That is a philosophical debate. I think the Bush people are more correct, and what Gore and his people are ignoring is that you're already very good.

What would the military like to happen? They would like to have the Gore position. They don't want to worry about the future. They want to get the stuff now, because they don't know what's going to happen in the future. So you have a situation in which probably the military would be more sympathetic to the Gore position.

But are there programs that the army could also cut back on? . . .

During the last decade, the army squandered an awful lot of money in building Cold War-type weapons. The Crusader, for example, is this huge artillery piece that couldn't even fit in any of the air force's transport planes to get there. They have heavied up their M-1 and A-1 tanks, and have spent money converting them again to make them better than they needed to be. Now, as they make this transformation which is ten years too late, they're going to have some financial problems, because they're going to be competing with the other services.

But in one of the great ironies of the drawdown of the 1990s, the army, navy and air force all cut their manpower by exactly the same amount. That says that you haven't transformed your thinking to the new era we're dealing with. . . . If all of the services cut their men and women on active duty by exactly the same amount in a changing world, we're going to have problems.

In terms of where we should spend our money--is it a military problem or is it a civilian leadership problem?

The leadership must come from the president and the secretary of defense to change the military, because if you leave the service alone they will do what they do best. And I don't blame them. If you are a career officer in one of those services, you've got to believe in that mission and in the essence of that service, or you wouldn't have stayed.

Basically, what's happened during the decade of the 1990s is that the civilian leadership abdicated their responsibilities because it was too hard to make these tough decisions. For example, the arsenal ship was something that should have been pushed. When the chief of naval operations tried to push it, he met resistance from the submariners, who wanted to put the Cruise missiles on there. He met resistance from the surface people, who wanted to put it on their cruisers and destroyers. And he needed the backing of the people at the secretary of defense's level or even the president.

Let me give you another example of how civilian leadership abdicated. When Senator Cohen, who became Secretary of Defense Cohen, was in the Senate, he said that the F-22 fighter plane is exactly the wrong system for the end of the Cold War. He wrote a wonderful op ed piece about why we shouldn't be doing that. He becomes Secretary of Defense Cohen. Some of his former colleagues in the Congress agree with him, and they try to cut it. What happens? Secretary of Defense Cohen gets the chiefs together. They go over to the Hill and say, "We need this. You shouldn't have done this. You didn't consult us on it."

He knows that he has a crisis. Even if he gets all the money that they're expecting to get, you can't buy three new tactical aircraft. The Congress gave them a way out. Then he goes and gets the president to threaten to veto the bill. If they're cut, the F-22 stays. The army chief of staff, for some reason other than the fact that he wants everybody to support him, signs the letter, saying, "We need the F-22," knowing that if he does that, he's not going to get enough money. So, yes, there's a problem. You had a chance. And nobody is stepping forward to make these tough decisions.

We've just had the biggest increase in the military budget since the Reagan era. Does it concern you?

It concerns me that we're throwing more money at the Pentagon at this time because that validates the fact that, over the last ten years, they haven't done their job. Admiral Bill Owen, who was the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has basically written a new book about this whole subject. He argues that if you give them more money, that's going to show them they were doing the right thing, when in fact they were doing the wrong thing. They were basically going on in Cold War model, and developing these weapon systems whether in fact you need them. They were using a strategy that's no longer appropriate.

The Democratic Party is terrified of being considered soft on defense. They're willing to give the Pentagon the money, because we have a budget surplus right now. You really don't have to take it from any place else. It's easier to do that than to confront the hard questions.

General Shinseki announced army transformation about seven months ago. What do you feel about his attempt to change the army?

I think General Shinseki is on the right track. The army, as it exists ten years after the end of the Cold War, is too heavy. It's so heavy that it can't get to where it needs to go. It needs to become lighter in the sense of what these divisions carry and whether they can fit into the planes that are going to fly them. So he is on the right track. And the real challenge for General Shinseki is, will there be enough money now for him to do what he wants to do? Because it's going to mean buying different type of weapons systems, and spending more on investment than seems to be in the army budget.

The estimates are $40 billion to $70 billion. Do you think that is money well spent?

That's money well spent. But I would say to him is, "You've got to make some trade-offs. I'll let you make the army lighter, but it's got to be smaller. I want you to cut a couple of divisions. I want you to use the money you save from that to modernize. I want you to make some hard choices about your weapons systems. Do you really need all these Crusaders? Do you really need the Comanches? Do you need the Wolverine and all these other systems that you were building?"

An interesting thing happened this year. In order for the army to do this, they knew they had to cut some things. The chief of staff did not seem to have the political clout to take on the armor or the artillery barons. They kicked it up to the office of the secretary of defense. The office of the secretary of defense made some suggestions. They were cut in the army budget, but then those people went over to the Hill, trying to get Congress to restore some of those weapons systems.

I would make them cut out the weapons systems they don't need, and cut the size of the force. Then I would also make the decision to take some of the forces out of Europe, which would decrease the strain on the army.

He's arguing that he needs Wolverine, and he needs Grizzly. He's cut the Crusader order in half and asked for it to be lighter, and he's keeping the Comanche order. Do you agree with those decisions?

Basically, I find it very hard to make a case for the Grizzly and the Wolverine in this new medium-weight army. In the environment that we're talking about, I'm glad that he's cut the Crusaders. The great irony is he's cut the Crusaders, but he hasn't saved that much money, because they had too many of these heavy Crusaders. So he's really not saving any money when he cuts the Crusaders because he's got to transform them at the same time.

But the real key to getting the money for the army is to cut the size of its active force. If he doesn't do that, it's going to be very hard for him to get the money in the current budget environment.

When you say that there is no peer competitor and we're the most powerful, who, then, are we escalating against? What is our situation in the world in terms of arming?

Basically, when the United States buys new weapons, it develops weapons that are better than the ones that the United States already has. It's not against any likely competitor. And so what you're saying is, "I've got to buy an F-22 because it's better than the F-16. We need an F-22 to compete with the F-16, which is our plane, and which . . . we sell around the world."

The Navy needs an FA-18 E and F even though the C and D is already better than any other naval aircraft in the world. You have to ask yourself, who is the E and F going to fight--C and D? It's the same way with our submarines. We're building a new generation of submarines even though the Soviets, for all practical purposes, have stopped building submarines, and nobody else out there is building submarines.

If you forget about the rest of the defense budget and you compare what we spend on procurement research and development, it's $100 billion. The total budget of the Soviet Union and China, even if I cost them out in western standards, is about $100 billion. So that's for everything that they're spending combined. And that's just our investment budget.

Critics say that peacekeeping operations or a small-scale contingency force diminishes the war fighting capability of the force, stretching the force too thin. Is that how you see it?

We need to be involved in certain peacekeeping operations, using two criteria. One, when the humanitarian situation just violates every norm that any human being has--genocide for example, and ethnic cleansing--and when it has some connection to our strategic interest. In other words, if the humanitarian situation may not be that bad, but it does have some strategic implications, like the Balkans. We need to be prepared to do that. We can do that without stretching our military. Everybody says we're over-committed. We have 100,000 troops in each theater, in Europe and in Asia. We have about 30,000 people deployed around the world. That's out of a total force of 2.4 million. We use a lot of reservists in these missions. If you can't figure out how to put 30,000 people some place out of a force of over two million, you don't have a readiness problem; you have a management problem.

You could say, "When we put them in there, their readiness to fight these major regional contingencies gets degraded." Then you're arguing that these Cold War standards you have for readiness will not be met. I have no doubt if you took our forces out of Kosovo for example, they'd be more than a match for the North Koreans. . . . You could argue that the forces in Kosovo are not doing the same type of training that they used to, or that our forces flying into the Persian Gulf are just sort of monitoring things there. Are the North Koreans training very much? I don't buy that argument at all.

The problem I have with the peacekeeping operations is the political leaders are not explaining to he American people why they're doing that. And the military leaders are confusing the troops because they don't like those operations--they don't see them in their self-image. And what happens is when those youngsters go over there, they tell them, "Well, you're not ready."

How would you like it if you were in Kosovo--as we had a situation a couple of months ago--where the parts of the units that are in Kosovo get a report that your divisions are no longer ready because we have a brigade here. That's demoralizing. I'm trying to do something good. I can see the good I'm accomplishing, and somebody comes out with a report because you haven't been to the tank range in the last month that your division is no longer ready. Even if you disregard the standards that they're using for readiness, you do have a problem.

The military doesn't know what it's really supposed to do, because it has one vision, and now it's being used differently. No wonder it's having trouble recruiting. Do you want to join an organization in which they tell you you're going to do one thing? You actually end up doing something special.

Fred Kagan defines the problem as our need to decide what we want to do as a nation. Is that the central problem?

When you have a military force and you design it, equip it and train it, you have to ask yourself, what do you have it for? What is the threat? If you look at the world of the twenty-first century, what you see as the threat to our vital national security interests are instability or chaos in the international system. And so what you want is a force that can to deal with those situations that cause chaos, whether it's a humanitarian-type of situation where people are killed because of their race, creed, color, ethnicity, or whether a nation violates the borders of another nation or acquires weapons of mass destruction and threatens their neighbors. That's what you really need to have the military for.

That military is going to have to deal with a whole gradation of situations. Somewhere we would call it peacekeeping or small-scale contingencies, for example, just to stop slaughter. Somewhere you have to go and separate the warring parties. And you have to have the capability to be able to fight a large conventional war if the situation should get out of control, such as in the Gulf or the Korean peninsula, for example.

So that's actually to design your military. If you design it only to deal with the high end and not the low end, you're going to be spending money on the wrong things, and you're not going to be equipped to do what you need to do. Conversely, you can't design it just for the low end. You always have to have in your bag of tricks or an arrow in your quiver that has to deal with the high end. Our problem has been that, in the last decade, we have focused only on the high end because that's what we got accustomed to do during the Cold War. And that is something that the military feels most comfortable with.

What is the future of war?

If you look at the world in the twenty-first century, the chances of military force being deployed are much greater for the small-scale contingencies or the peacekeeping contingencies rather than the large war. In the 1990s, since the end of the Cold War, the military has been used primarily in these so-called small-scale contingencies. What they try to do is take a force that was designed for large contingencies, and adapt it. And it hasn't worked well. And because it hasn't worked well, we've wasted an awful lot of money, and you've demoralized an awful lot of the men and women in the service.

What were some of the lessons of Task Force Hawk?

During the war in Kosovo in the spring of 1999, the army made a futile attempt to get its Apache helicopters into Albania, so they could be used in Kosovo. That's a metaphor for what happened to the military, in general in the army, particularly in the 1990s. The Apache is a very sophisticated aircraft. But you have built up such logistics for it, that by the time you got it there, it was no longer capable of doing or no longer needed to do what it, should have done. And you ended up with not having the appropriate weapons to stop the real problem of people being run out and killed Kosovo, because it took so long to get it there.

That's a metaphor for how heavy the army is; if you can't get it to where you want to, it's no good. And I'm sure if this was a war with the Koreans or we had to fight with the Soviet Union on the plains of Europe, this would have been a heck of a situation, and you'd want to be that heavy. But you didn't really need to be that heavy in Kosovo.

Recently the army opposed changing 2MTW as a military policy. Why?

The Pentagon reviews its strategy every four years. In its last quadrennial defense review, there were some documents floated earlier on that, which basically said, "Do we really want to keep planning for two major theater of wars? Because what we're ending up with is this unbalanced force. And maybe what we ought to do is, rather than saying two major theater of war, simultaneously sort of back off a bit and say, 'We'll handle one and be able to hold in the other.'"

The army argued vociferously against it, saying that we couldn't be a great power if we didn't do that, and that we would send the wrong signal to the enemy. And we actually went public with this, through leaks to the press, because if you adopt that strategy then I can't justify a ten-division heavy division army. And they raised such a ruckus about it that the civilian leadership and the Pentagon backed off, because they did not what to have a confrontation with the army over this situation.

Will things change in the next quadrennial defense review?

The next quadrennial defense review will take place in 2001, when there will be a new administration. That will really be the chance to change the direction of the Pentagon, because a new administration will come in with a mandate--or at least permission--from the Congress of the American people to make certain changes.

What you're going to need is a president committed to taking on the vested interests in the Pentagon and in Congress, and a secretary of defense really ready to take the hard choices. That did not occur in the decade of the 1990s, and the real question is, will it occur in 2001? And if it doesn't occur in 2001, it won't occur for four years or eight years in that administration, because when you come into office is the time to make significant changes. Ninety percent of the changes that any administration makes in defense are made in the first year. After that it's very hard, because you've got congressional elections and you have to deal with the Congress and the vested interests. But if they come in with a plan and they move quickly, they can really make the changes that are necessary.

In 1947, 1948, we had a significant a deep change in national security strategy. Do you think we're at a similar turning point now?

You have a window of opportunity in 2001 for two reasons. Number one, you have a new administration with new people who can bring a fresh perspective and who will not be tied to the decisions of the 1990s. The second is that you have some breathing time because there is no peer competitor. There is nobody out there that can take advantage of the changes that you would make and to threaten the national security interests, so this is the really the maximum time. We don't know what it would be like if we have an eight-year administration, or what the world will look like in ten years.

The defense budget, at this point, is basically untouchable. There's nobody really in Congress who speaks up and says that it's time to cut. Are you sort of the point man, way out there alone in the wilderness?

I think I understand the reasons why we don't have the debate that we should. The Democratic Party, which would normally be very critical of the Pentagon, doesn't want to embarrass a Democratic president. And so they more or less go along with what he wants, and the president does not want a confrontation with the military because of the baggage that he brought to the office.

The Republicans, many of whom would be very suspicious of some of these weapons systems, want to keep the Democrats on the defensive on this issue, so they don't want to join the debate. I suspect that after the next election, you're going to go back into what you might call the liberal Democrats and the Eisenhower Republicans, and both are going to make some of the same points that I've been trying to make. You see whispers of that in the Bush campaign, by saying skip a generation of weapon systems. I do think if you had a Republican president, particularly if the Democrats controlled the House, then you would see them say, "Wait a second. Why is he spending all of this money on defense and not enough on these other areas?" So I suspect that after the election, you'll have the more traditional debate. But right now when you say these things, people will tell you privately that they agree with you, but nobody's going to come out publicly.

How would you rate General Shinseki's chances of success?

I think he has more than a chance of succeeding. But I have been very disheartened by the reaction within the army so far to his changes.

What do you specifically mean?

What you have is, basically, by making the army lighter, you're going to take on some of the barons in the army--the people who control the branches, the artillery and the armor--who like a lot of the systems he is trying to make smaller or get rid of.

And you see that basically as resistance to the change? . . .

Very definitely. There's always resistance to change, especially when you're changing the essence of the service. If you want it to happen, you can't have the chief of the service out there by himself. He's going to need allies within the office of the secretary of the army and the office of the secretary of defense who are willing to take on these vested interests. And I haven't seen anybody really charge up the hill with General Shinseki so far.

Isn't the world a more dangerous place then it was before?

The world is a more unstable place than it was during the Cold War, but it's not a more dangerous place... If you look at NATO expansion, if you look at the expansion of European Union, all of the Warsaw Pact countries, which were [Russia's] main allies, have basically joined the West.

The situation in the Balkans, for example, wouldn't have happened during the Cold War. But it's not a threat in the sense that the Soviet military charging through the plains of West Germany was. So the world is more unstable, but it's by no means more dangerous than it used to be.

Back in 1991, Colin Powell said he's running out of demons. But aren't there rogue states?

Back in 1990, Powell recognized that we have to downsize the military. But in order to keep it at what he thought was the appropriate level, you need specific enemies. He identified six states: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba and North Korea as rogue states. Now, what are the characteristics of these states? Well, they are states that resort to terrorism. They are states that don't accept the usual norms of international weapons. They like to get weapons of mass destruction, for example.

Now look at these six rogue states . . .and see how much they spend on defense. They're spending like $14 billion combined. Now, people will say "Well, yes, but they don't pay their people as much as we do." But give them our pay scale, and they're still not going to get up very, very, very high. So what is the military capability of that? It's not anywhere near, for example, like a Soviet military. Do you have to watch, and be prepared to use force against them? Sure. But if you look at our military and you say "It's one-third the size, or two-thirds the size it was in 1990," compared to those countries, it's still a much, much greater capacity.

But anybody with a shoulder-fired missile can be a hero?

These countries are a threat to some of the things that we hold dear. But you're not going to deal with them by building a new aircraft carrier or a new fighter plane. What you need is good intelligence to stop the terrorism before it starts. What you need to be able to do is get the rest of the world to join with us in putting sanctions against these people.

What you have to do is be prepared to use force quickly and decisively if they should violate any of these rules, and we're prepared to do that. We have 37,000 Americans in Korea. We've got another 60,000 in Japan. That's 100,000 to add to the South Korean military that you could deal with if need be. But if somebody brings a bomb and plants it on the subway in Washington or New York or Boston, that's a completely different type of threat. If somebody upsets our information systems, like cyber warfare, that's different. That's a different threat, and that's not handled by the Pentagon.

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