the future of war
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interview: senator joseph lieberman

He is a member of the US Senate Armed Services Committee. [This interview was conducted before he became the Democratic vice presidential candidate in the 2000 election.]
In the Senate Armed Services Air-Land Subcommittee hearing, you asked General Shinseki to articulate the Army's vision of itself, compared to the German general who rebuilt the German army in the 1920s. . . . Why did you ask that question?

We know that warfare has always changed, based on what's happening in the world around warfare--particularly industrial or technological capabilities. So obviously the world is changing dramatically. High technology, all sorts of biological capacities, chemical capacities--we haven't had those before. Therefore, you have to assume that warfare will change. We are now dealing with an army force that feels like it's not ready for the future. We're not going to face another pitched battle with tanks in the desert like Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. We're out of a different timeframe than the Cold War, when we were getting ready to defend western Europe against a massive movement of Soviet forces across the European continent.

So I was really asking General Shinseki, "What's your vision for the future? Where do we want to go? And how do we best get there, particularly since we're trying to do a lot of things at once and we only have so much money?" We're trying to maintain what the military calls the legacy force--the current troop skills and equipment. Yet we're trying to invest in the future as well.

. . . Some of these questions . . . don't have a clear answer. If we're asking him what's your objective, what's the goal, what's the objective force, we may not really be able to answer that yet, because we're not quite sure what the threat will be a decade or more down the road.

. . . But he answered that he has a lot more things to worry about than the German general had in the 1920s. How did his answer strike you?

I didn't have anything particular in mind. And I've got to say that I'm a great admirer of General Shinseki's....Usually, in Congress, we feel that we have to press the Pentagon. It's a great institution. But it's big and it doesn't move quickly, while the world around us . . . is all changing rapidly. So usually Congress has to push. General Shinseki has grabbed this, and he's rushing toward the future. We find the subcommittee to be in the unusual position of saying, "Wait a second, slow down. Maybe it's not clear where you're going yet, and particularly not clear that we can afford it all at once. So let's do a little more evaluation. Let's keep moving forward, but let's do a little more evaluation."

Where is he moving too fast? And how is he moving too fast?

We thought that there ought to first be a look at this medium force, as he goes to this interim step. The whole aim here is to make the army more agile--to be able to move more quickly to troubled spots around the world, and to have it be more lethal and take advantage of modern technology in the fullest sense. But we also want the army to recognize that we're more likely to be facing more Kosovo-type situations than Desert Storm and the Gulf type of situations. That's what this is all about.

Is General Shinseki trying to do this?

He's trying to do it. I almost feel apologetic, because it's not my nature or norm to say to folks in the military "Slow up." But we were concerned that when you try to do everything that he's trying to do--maintain the current force, get us to the future, the army after next, the objective force--maybe you've got to look at the interim. Maybe you should say, "You know, we've got some medium-weight vehicles in the inventory. Maybe we could use them instead of rushing ahead to buy or lease new equipment." So that's one of the things we said to him. "Do a comparison of what you could do with existing equipment--medium weight, not heavy weight--and compare it to some of the new stuff you want to get for the army. Also, build in more evaluation. Take a look and report back to us on how you're doing. Maybe as time goes on, you're going to have a clearer understanding of what our object is."

We're going in stages. And even this doesn't happen that quickly, because we're talking about getting to the objective force here and where we want the army to be in 2012. That's more than a decade down the road.

. . . Is the subcommittee concerned about where the money is going to come from? Somebody will have to give up certain legacy weapons in order to move to this interim and to the objective force. Otherwise, you're funding three forces at once.

Yes. We've got a problem here. We're increasing the military budget this year for the first time in 15 years. But as you look forward to what the army wants to buy, it's hard to see that any congress is going to appropriate enough money to buy the future-oriented systems and also maintain the current systems. Therefore, a crunch will occur. We've been quite generous this year. Even while we put some evaluation requirements on the army, we've said, "Take a look at what you've got in your inventory now. See if you can use that as you move towards the army of the future." We've given them money to buy a lot of what they want to buy. But I think we're also trying to say that this can't go on. We've got to make some judgments. And some of it . . . we can't afford now . . . if we're going to be ready for ten years from now.

Like what?

I'm not prepared to say at this point. Those are tough decisions that we're going to have to make together. The broader point that I want to make is that we are in a post-war status now. The Cold War ended. Unfortunately, history tells us--and hopefully history might be wrong--that war has not ended. We see this, certainly, in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor and other such places. There's plenty of evidence that the capacity of humans for killing each other has not come to a close. And history also says that America will not be the dominant superpower forever. We will face peer competitors, and other large societies--countries that will challenge us in this age where power is disseminated. We will face even more threats, because a country that is smaller, much weaker, and much less rich than we are may be able to concentrate its investment into forms of military capacity that will strike at our vulnerability.

Nobody can wear a suit of armor all around the body any more, and so we've got to be ready. I'll state it brutally and pessimistically. In this time between wars, we've got to begin to transition from what worked in the last period. We can't keep paying for Cold War military. The Cold War has been over for more than a decade. We've got to look forward to the threats of the future, and invest in being ready for them, so we are ready when the inevitable peer competitor to America arises. Some smaller rogue nation will develop the capacity to do damage to us by ballistic missiles or chemical warfare or God knows what; laser weapons may strike at our considerable resources in space today; or cyber warfare could strike at civilian systems dependent on the Internet. That could incapacitate the country as much as an actual conventional airborne attack.

Governor Bush's campaign has a proposal to skip a generation of technology. That's how they intend to settle this problem of being locked into this ball and chain of legacy weapons. You've been advising the Gore camp. What does the Gore camp say about looking at the post-Cold War military?

Vice President Gore made a very good speech at West Point a while ago on graduation day. The ... much longer part of the speech had to do with exactly the topics we're talking about--how do we use technology to make the military of the future as effective as the military of the present?

The vice president doesn't want to skip a generation. The vice president's thinking is actually very much in tune with the transformation going on in the army now--let's move first to an interim force, which is better than what we've got now. It's more modern, and more likely to be able to deal with the Kosovo-type threats that we face. But let's keep moving rapidly forward to the objective force, which is the military of the future.

You mentioned the largest military budget increase since the end of the Cold War. Discretionary military spending is now going to be over 50 percent of the federal budget. . . . Are we starting another military spiral upward?

These are the responsibilities that come with being the world's superpower. We are the strongest, wealthiest, greatest country in the world, and we benefit from stability around the world. And we also have the responsibility that comes with strength--to try to keep the peace around the world. Everywhere, people turn to us for help in dealing with their conflicts, and that doesn't come cheaply. We can't do it all. But a lot of it is in our self-interest to do, so we have to spend on it.

As entitlement expenditures go up--as we spend more money to take care of retired Americans--there's going to be less and less for what we in Washington call discretionary spending. That's both on the military, and on what most of us think of as government: the Transportation Department, the Education Department, housing, health. That means that the military will never have as much in the way of resources as they could make an argument for. It really puts pressure on those of us in Congress who work with national security defense questions, and particularly on the Pentagon, to not be wasteful. To not continue to spend on military systems that were Cold War systems, and to not tolerate the kind of inefficiency that comes with force services that don't cooperate enough.

We call this "jointness." I've been working with colleagues in both parties here to try to force the military to jointly decide what we need in the future. War fighting is joint. We don't just send the army out to fight. It's the army and the air force, the navy, and the marines. That's the way it works. So we ought to have them all sitting at the table together, deciding, "Okay, what do we need? What are we going to need 10 or 15 years form now?" instead of having each of them develop their own plane or tank or communications system or intelligence system. Then have them experiment together. Have them train together, so they're ready to fight together. And in the midst of all that, they're going to save some money for all of us.

The policy decisions are very hard, because you're trying to see the threats coming in a world that is changing. And in a way, it's even harder for us as the big guy on the block. We've got to be ready to face the widest array of military challenges to us. And then we've got to afford the systems that will protect us in the future, and that's not going to be cheap.

You were saying that probably next year, or very soon, "Push is going to come to shove." What do you mean?

Maybe I'm being pessimistic. Maybe the federal surplus will continue to grow and there won't be this sense of pressure. Maybe it'll look more secure for Social Security and Medicare in the future, and we'll continue moderately to increase spending for the military. But it just can't go on forever like that. So they're just going to have to make some tough decisions about things that were built for an earlier conflict situation. . . . In the first instance, we have to leave it to the army. But they're going to have some tough battles inside the Pentagon. They can't have it all. And naturally, the military is cautious, because they have a lot on the line. They have the safety and lives of their soldiers, and their own reputations on the line.

Here's the challenge. In the near term, when the US is so clearly dominant in the world militarily, are we willing to risk disinvesting in some of the current systems which will be outmoded, so that we can invest in new military systems that we're probably going to need a few years down the road?

. . . Is there redundancy or waste in the idea of spending over $350 billion in the next ten years on tactical fighters?

Yes, and the tactical fighter program is under serious review and oversight. It happened to come before our subcommittee. We're pressing in the program. In one sense, it's a shame, because this is a joint program. This was an attempt by the services to get together on the design of a tactical fighter plane. . . . The three tactical fighter planes that we're now funding can't all be acquired in the numbers that were planned. We don't have the money. The marines ought to be given some credit, because they yielded on the first generation of tactical fighter planes, saying that they'd put all their hopes into their version of the joint strike fighter.

Some of the best thinkers or most creative thinkers on the military make one argument. They say that, increasingly, we may want to do a lot of research and development, but not produce too many copies of tactical aircraft. They say if the world is changing so rapidly, then we've got to fund the technological surges and be ready to invest our money elsewhere, if that's where science and research take us.

. . . There's this idea that you let the technologies lead us where they will?

We have to explore that more. . . . We are tending--particularly in submarines, but also in other places--to build platforms. And the platforms are going to last for a long time. We're building them so that they have interchangeable parts. You can take out an electronics system if there's a new one made that is so much better. You can just take a piece out and put the new one in. You don't have to buy a whole new submarine. I think that increasingly we're going to be doing that as a way to try to economize. But the bottom line is that it's a fast-changing world, with threats from all over. We can't afford it all. It means we're going to have to make tough decisions. It means that Congress is going to have to make tough decisions--which we haven't always been capable of doing, either.

The enemy is us, in this internal stuff--Congress and the Pentagon. The Pentagon is actually protecting the bureaucracy, and Congress is usually protecting local industries. That's not a recipe for progress. The private company in a fast-changing world wouldn't make the kinds of decisions that we often make around here.

You said . . . that you thought the army's transformation was the biggest change in the century. And then you said that it almost would appear that doing it now, in peacetime, is counterintuitive.

That's right. Here's the problem. We are the strongest military in the history of the world. We are very successful. The hardest time for an institution to change is when it's successful, so it's counterintuitive. But what we're seeing is frankly what the best leaders in the private sector are saying. When I talk to the most successful leaders of the most successful companies in the private sector today, I don't find them resting on their success. I find them almost frenetically pushing people in the company to figure out where the competition is going to be two years from now, and five years from now, and where the technology going to take us. If you don't keep moving, you're not going to be successful. That's the model for the military. So though we could say that the army we have now is the most successful and powerful in the history of the world, we also can say that if it doesn't change, it's not going to meet the threats 10 or 20 years from now. And that's why we have to change.

So is General Shinseki pushing and going fast?

Yes, and this is the irony of this moment, and that's why I think we've come to a pretty good compromise with General Shinseki. We're lucky to have a man like General Shinseki take over the army, see the need for change and be ready to push it real fast. He uses the term "irreversible momentum." Within his limited time of four years has as chief of the army, he wants to create an irreversible momentum toward the army of the future, so that whoever comes in after him, or whatever Congress's inclinations are, they can't stop it. That's a wonderful commitment. We're lucky to have such a man. He's a quiet man, but he is very forceful.

So it's with some apologies and respect that I say to him, because I love this kind of energy and drive in the military, "Wait, let's just do some evaluation here. Let's make sure we're headed in the right direction, because we're not sure right now what that objective force that you're aiming toward in 2012 really is going to look like."

There is the danger that you may move so rapidly, that you'll commit to an approach which we may find four or five years from now is not going to work. And then you won't have irreversible momentum. So Lord knows we shouldn't try to stop General Shinseki. We should encourage him. But we should say, "Let's go 90 miles an hour instead of 125 miles an hour."

The Washington Times quoted unnamed generals, active and retired. And all of them were unanimously in opposition. It really seems like he has a terrible opposition.

He's got a battle. I promise you that as this goes on, there's going to be no doubt that, certainly we in our subcommittee, and I hope the full congress, are going to be arm in arm with General Shinseki as he tries to push the rock up the mountain. . . . That rock is his effort to make the army a lighter, more lethal, more effective force. He has opponents. And in some sense, we're trying to work with him, to protect him from his opponents. Part of what we try to do is set up these stop signs, these requirements for testing and evaluation along the way. At the same time, we fund a number of his unfunded priorities, so that we're saying, "We're with you." And we're going to be with him as the years go on, because he's doing the right thing.

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