Speeches by Jim

U.S. Military: Strength Through Flexibility

January 13, 1988
Hon. James H. Webb, Jr., Secretary of the Navy
National Press Club, Washington DC

Countless commentators have already marked 1988 as a threshold year, and certainly we are in a period of rather uncomfortable transition as a nation, a period whose dynamics we do not yet fully comprehend. Certain realities are more apparent than others however, and I would like to talk to you today about my view of the realities facing the Navy and the U.S. military as a whole. Reality seems to indicate that we need to make some adjustments in our military posture around the world, and the good of the country mandates that we do so in the best way that will serve our future as a nation, not merely as a service or as a Defense Department.

First, the realities:

We are not as rich, compared to other nations with whom we are allied, as we were when we sketched out the basic framework of our international military presence just after World War II. In the decade following that war, our country consistently produced more than 40 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. In recent years, that figure has been about 25 percent.
Nor is the Defense Department as well off as it was even a year ago, and the future looks equally difficult. As most of you know, last month the Department of Defense was required to reduce an existing fiscal 1989 budget by more than 33 billion dollars.
We are being told in no uncertain terms, and from many different fronts, that due to fiscal realities the U.S. military of the future must be smaller and more efficient.
We are also hearing, quite frequently and with equal fervor, that in the aftermath of the INF agreements the conventional threat in Europe will be larger, and that conventional force structure there should receive more emphasis.
We also know, and there is no question about this, that our future as a nation is very closely tied to Asia in economic and political terms, and that we must do a better job of attending to the economic, political and security issues here in our own hemisphere.
And the overriding reality is that it should be obvious that a smaller United States military, no matter how efficient, cannot attend to all of these matters by itself, at least not in the same way that it has over the past 42 years.

The key question for our national leadership as it struggles with these realities is not one program or another in the budget, as has so often been the case, but whether, and how the United States can maintain its commitments throughout the world, while at the same time reducing the size and force structure of its military. It is a little bit easier to point out what we cannot do. The first answer is that we cannot do it at all without a great deal of risk, in both diplomatic and military terms. The second, and I have been saying this for much longer than I have been Secretary of the Navy, is that it would be impossible to do it with any degree of effectiveness and at the same time reduce the size of our Navy. And the third answer is that we cannot do it without the increased cooperation and help of our allies.

The only clear answer to our dilemma is for us to take a fresh look at the world and our place in it, and to seriously debate the posture of the U.S. military in that context. In other words, we need to “zero base” our military commitments, and to justify to ourselves the force structure, roles and missions, and location of our military units based on a reassessment of where things stand in the world. This debate would be most helpful to us if it began immediately. It needs to be done honestly, absent the usual parochial veil that surrounds even the most minor of such discussions. It should f low from certain logical principles, from an examination of our history, and of the evolving relationship of the United States with the rest of the world. National resources, changes in world economic structure, recent political changes, and the improved capabilities of many of our allies, dictate that we must, perhaps for the first time since the late 1940s, seriously debate the posture of the U.S. military around the world, and the roles and missions assigned to our military services.

We all know that our worldwide posture was undertaken in a different era. While it may be correct to term that period as one of unprecedented strength for the United States, a more accurate description may be that it was one of unprecedented weakness for many nations who historically have been strong, and who had either been ravaged or exhausted by World War II. We held things together while they got back onto their feet. We continued to hold things together after they got back onto their feet. They now have regained their strength, almost, without exception due to the generosity of this nation under the Marshall Plan and other economic recovery programs, and under the umbrella of our military protection.

The extent of our military involvement around the world since we undertook these obligations has been unprecedented in our history, particularly with respect to long-term, static defensive positions that have drained both our economic and military resources. It can be fairly argued that the economic recovery of other nations has not uniformly been met with a complete re-assumption of their obligation to join us in protecting the way of life, and the values, that we share.

This is not to suggest that major changes could take place immediately, but rather that we must establish the guideposts that will take us into the next century. The current defense posture has been important to worldwide stability for more than 40 years. But the world is changing, and if we do not address these changes and others yet to come, then events will rule us rather than the reverse.

I mentioned logical principles. I would like to lay out what I believe are the most important premises, the touchstones, if you will, for any analysis of what our defense priorities should be, and thus where our military forces should operate, and at what level. There may be disagreement with portions of what I am about to say, but allow me to advance the following thoughts as an analytical beginning.

First, although a great deal of energy and money is dedicated to our NATO alliance, and although this alliance is one of the keystones of our military structure, we need to remind ourselves from time to time that we are more than a European nation. We are a global nation with largely European antecedents, continuing European interests, and national loyalties to Western Europe’s fundamental objectives. We must remain strong in Europe, but we also have the obligation to view the Soviet military threat in global, rather than regional terms, and to address that threat worldwide.

The United States and the Soviet Union must face each other at many other points on the globe. Many of the most critical points of tension, and certainly many of the evolving areas of confrontation, are far from Europe. The United States has a requirement, contrary to European nations, to view the Soviet military threat in Europe through more than a European prism. And to be fair to the other areas in which we must operate; there is no region better equipped through its resources, large population base, strong economy, and military tradition to reassume a greater share of the burden of its own defense than Western Europe. Logic, then, should call for greater responsibility by the Western Europeans for their own defense.

Second, the United States is becoming more intertwined with Asia, and the issues involving Asia are moving to the forefront in the world community. In 1986 the United States did 219 billion dollars gross trade in Asia, 75 percent more than its gross trade with the Atlantic nations. In economic, cultural and political terms, we are becoming increasingly more tied to Asia, and it is imperative that we match those ties with the military capability to protect our interests and honor our obligations to friends and allies in the region.

Asian strategy is more difficult to define and to resource than European strategy. The countries of Asia are at great variance in economic, political and cultural terms. Vast ocean areas separate them. Still-evolving political structures left over from the colonial era cause the sort of turbulence that has claimed more than 100,000 American lives in Asia since World War II. But East Asia is an indispensable part of our country’s future, and it requires the same careful development of friendships and alliances that we have cultivated in Europe. Nor should we forget that it provides the only point in the world where the direct military interests of the Soviet Union, The People’s Republic of China, The United States, and Japan converge.

The Soviet Union is also placing a greater emphasis on East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Southern Asia. While Soviet force structure in Europe has remained relatively constant over the past decade, they have made marked advances in Asia. The Soviets have achieved the historic Russian dream of owning a warm water port in the Pacific, and on any given day two dozen Soviet ships are in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, as are fighter, bomber and long range reconnaissance aircraft. They have increased their Far East Command by ten divisions over the last ten years, and now have 530,000 ground troops in East Asia, in addition to another 200,000 spread through Mongolia, the Transbaikal, and Central Asia. The Far East military region has 85 Backfire bombers, and nearly 2,500 combat aircraft. The Soviet Pacific Fleet is now the largest of its four fleets, with 840 warships as opposed to 750 a decade ago. These ships include two Kiev class aircraft carriers, a Kirov class nuclear guided missile cruiser, 41 percent of the heavy surface ships in the entire Soviet Navy, 37 percent of the combat aircraft in Soviet naval aviation, 40 percent of all their SSBNS, and extensive amphibious capabilities.

The Soviets are militarily entrenched in Vietnam. They are said to be looking for naval bases in North Korea. They have pursued in recent months a defense relationship with Thailand. They have for three years running attempted to offer a dry dock facility for the Australians in Perth. They have become active in Polynesia and Micronesia. They have continued a close defense relationship with India that began in 1971, during which the Indians have increased their Army by 150,000 men to a size of 1.1 million — much larger than the United States Army; their Air Force by 35,000 people to 115,000 and by 136 combat aircraft to a total of 761, and increased the force structure of their Navy to include two aircraft carriers, 11 submarines, 21 frigates, and 18 minesweepers. Just recently, the Soviets committed themselves to providing the Indians a nuclear submarine.

And they have done all of this while pursuing vigorously a rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China.

Clearly, we cannot allow force structure reductions to affect our commitment to the most dynamic and volatile area in the world. In fact, our responsibility to meet Soviet pressure globally might logically dictate an increase in our Asian presence that would match their obvious shift in priority.

I element in this equation, obviously, must be the responsibility of the Japanese as a friend, ally, and world power to assume a greater portion of the regional military responsibility in Asia. Most of us are fully aware of the dynamics of this issue, and I will not dwell on the intimate details. We know and are sensitive to apprehensions in the region due to Japan’s activities 50 years ago. We understand the emotion that surrounds the constitutional provision regarding Japanese self defense, and the famed “one percent” threshold regarding defense spending. But we also know that the Japanese have fully recovered from the spiritual and economic devastation of World War II, and that most of our countrymen believe it is time for the Japanese to assume more of the burden of defending the way of life we now share together as allies.

The Japanese have made measurable progress on this score, and have increased their defense spending for several years in a row. Regional security demands that they do more of this. Japan clearly has the resources and the national interest to pick up more of the defense load in Asia. Japan is becoming the largest creditor nation in the world. More than half of the oil that passes through the Straits of Hormuz goes to Japan. I personally recommended as early as 1973 that Japan include the defense of its sea lanes, even as far as the Indian Ocean, in its constitutional interpretation of “self-defense.” Ocean-going activities of that sort would aid in our alliance without inciting the concern of other nations in the region that attended its land occupations of forty-five and fifty years ago.

Third, we must consider the Soviets themselves. No analysis of our own future defense priorities can leave them out. There has been considerable discussion of late regarding changes taking place within the Soviet Union. It would be inappropriate for me, and beyond the scope of this speech, to address these changes in any detail, but two observations seem inescapable. First, Soviet convent on a force structure around the world has been growing, and if force structure cuts are to occur in our own military, we must be careful to signal to the Soviets that this is a refinement of our capabilities, rather than a reduction of them. And second, an improved situation in Europe, absent a stand-down of conventional forces taken out of that theater, may well increase rather than decrease Soviet pressure in other areas.

Fourth, we must pay greater attention to our own hemisphere, and to the Third World as a whole. I mentioned that we are becoming more intertwined with Asia, and the same is true with Latin America. This nation’s principal movements, in economic, cultural and political terms, are west and south. The changing ethnic makeup of the country itself shows this. Fully 86 percent of our legal immigrants over the past ten years have been from either Asia or Latin America, 42 percent from Latin America itself. And these, as I said, are the legal immigrants. Latin America’s problems are rapidly becoming our problems, and we have been pushing them to the back burner at great peril. The Soviets and Cubans have been more adept at understanding that than many of our own policymakers.

In the Third World as a whole, the Soviet Union has long emphasized a policy of using “cooperative forces” of Third World allies, along with Soviet and other advisors, in order to take advantage of age-old rivalries, and to assist so-called revolutionary movements which invariably end up as totalitarian regimes. In Latin America, the Soviets operate roughly 7,600 military personnel in Cuba, and another 230 in Nicaragua and Peru. During 1986 alone the Soviets provided more than 600 million dollars of equipment to the Sandinista regime as well. The Cubans contribute another 2,500 troops in Nicaragua. Discounting our Southern Command in Panama, the United States has some 2,300 troops in Guantanamo Bay Cuba, and 932 operating personnel elsewhere in 27 Latin American countries, 643 of those in Honduras.

Through troop presence and arms transfers, the Soviet Union and Cuba are heavily involved in Africa. The Cubans maintain military and technical personnel in 17 African nations, with major combat units in Ethiopia, Algeria, Congo, Angola and Mozambique. The Soviets now maintain a continuous naval presence off the coast of West Africa.

Additionally, key water routes and bases around the world continue to be at risk. American basing rights will be subject to negotiations in the near future, including those in Panama, Greece, Portugal, Spain, and the Philippines. It is reasonable to assume that we will lose our lease in Guantanamo Bay in 1999. The southern reaches of the Red Sea have been bracketed by the Soviet influence in Ethiopia and its presence in the People’s Republic of Yemen, particularly on the island of Socotra, which dominates the Gulf of Aden. Nor do I need to spend a great deal of time today on the importance of protecting international waterways into and inside the Persian Gulf. This essential lifeline to Europe and Japan is now benefiting from the strength of American resolve, and the manifestation of American sea power.

The analysis I have just offered is by no means exhaustive, but it does indicate the enormity of the responsibilities that our military forces will continue to face. For those of us who view the Soviet threat seriously, and who believe we must improve our efforts in assisting the Third World, this is a very full plate. It will require extremely careful use of a reduced United States force structure, as well as a more enthusiastic participation by other friendly nations, in order for us to meet such challenges. It will also require, quite frankly, that we modify the architecture of our defense structure over time, creating the best combination of air, ground, sea and space assets to do the job.

The overriding guidepost for the future is that our conventional force structure must provide us the most utility and the most capability in the global arena. This requires versatility in terms of military mission. It means that forces dedicated to static defensive missions must be scrutinized and altered when possible in favor of units that can deploy and fight wherever they are needed. An example of this type of unit is the Third Marine Division on Okinawa, forward deployed not for the local defense of Okinawa, but as a maneuver force available for immediate commitment throughout Asia.

A world environment with many demands for the use of our forces, ideally in correlation with the forces of other nations but potentially alone, requires this sort of maneuverability. To the greatest extent possible, forces of the future should be free to deploy and to maneuver, to concentrate at a crisis point and project military force at that point, without the necessity of negotiating base rights or the unavoidable involvement in local conflict that such base rights imply. A smaller U.S. military force structure demands, by logic, that a greater percentage of that force structure be available to do more things.

Consequently, post-INF thinking that conventional forces in Europe be increased because conventional forces in Europe are arguably more at risk without the intermediate nuclear shield does not necessarily mean that this should be a U.S. buildup, or for that matter, that such a buildup should occur in Europe at all, or even that it be a land-oriented buildup. In fact, given the resource reductions clearly facing this country’s defense establishment, just the opposite might be true.

Strategy does not dictate that pressure applied by an adversary at one point be countered at exactly that point. The regional preoccupation that produced the strategy of the “Maginot Line” and of the “Schlieffen Plan” is seductive in Europe, but history has repeatedly demonstrated its incompleteness. If the interests of the United States and its allies are threatened or attacked by the Soviet Union in one part of the world, the United States could and probably should react at the point most beneficial to its own strengths, anywhere in the world.

And this of course is the great strength of sea power, and why we should recognize its validity in terms of our geopolitical place in the world. We are not a continental land power, except on our own continent, and we never have been. It simply hasn’t been necessary, given our existence as a maritime nation. We have never even fought a true continental war, except the War Between the States. This is one reason MacArthur warned against land campaigns in Asia, but it is true elsewhere as well. Our armies have been most effectively used in history in combination with other armies. We tipped the balance in World War I, but only on the margins, at the very end of the war, and at the expense of some 55,000 combat dead, while the French lost 1.7 million dead, the British Empire lost almost a million, and the Germans lost 1.8 million dead. In World War II we fought essentially a rear guard action on the ground, losing 290,000 servicemen of all services in all theaters, while the Germans lost 3.7 million and the Soviets lost 7 million — soldiers, dead.

By contrast, our place in the world has been guaranteed by our maritime power, particularly during this century. We are a maritime nation by virtue of our geographic position, economic necessity, and political commitment. American sea power maintains unimpeded access to world markets. It denies our adversaries the use of sea lanes for expansionist or imperialistic reasons. It maintains international security and stability, including protection of those nations whom we count as friends and allies during crisis. It enables us, when war comes, to reinforce allies, to multiply the effectiveness of their armies, to inject our own ground forces when appropriate, to become supreme on the land through control of the sea. It provides us the single greatest deterrent to nuclear war, with a nuclear submarine force that fields one-half of our nuclear capability at one-fourth of the overall cost for the strategic nuclear Triad.

A credible sea power, which means a naval force that can deploy immediately, stay for as long as necessary, and fight at whatever level of conflict the situation demands, can affect world events quickly and decisively. Our Navy and Marine Corps meet those criteria. Aircraft carrier battle groups coupled with an amphibious power projection capability can represent the interests of the United States at the exact point of crisis without the necessity or expense of negotiating base rights, and without the vulnerability that so frequently attends static defensive positions. This is exactly what we will need more of in the future, if our commitments unfold as I have just described them.

The Navy and Marine Corps are structured, and essential, across the full spectrum of military use, from forces in being through low intensity conflict all the way to nuclear war. At every step of the way, a large percentage of the Navy and Marine Corps force structure is available, on a task organized basis, to perform. Furthermore, while the Navy and Marine Corps participate along with the other services in exercises designed to test wartime readiness; they also are continually participating in real world operations that are essential to keeping the peace — today. They were in Lebanon. They have operated repeatedly off the coast of Libya. They have been in the Indian Ocean since 1979. They were off the coast of Iran throughout the entire hostage crisis. They are on duty even as I speak in the Persian Gulf. At this moment, of our total fleet of 569 ships, which includes the naval reserve, 157 are at sea, 112 outside of their local operating areas, 91 them forward deployed at potential hot spots around the world. These numbers are actually a bit low, due to the respite of the holiday season.

And we need not speculate on what would happen if we cut back naval force structure. Those who claim that the last seven years have shown the greatest peacetime buildup of the U.S. Navy forget that the decade that preceded this buildup gave us the greatest evisceration of the Navy in its history. When I was commissioned in 1968 there were 931 combatants in the U.S. Navy. By the time we inherited the Indian Ocean commitments in 1979, the greatest Navy in the world had been cut in half, to a force of only 479 combatants. Operational commitments, so often driven by national command authority needs, did not decrease.

The Navy did it with less, and the result was a hemorrhaging of manpower and material the likes of which this country has never seen. Aircraft carriers deploying to the Indian Ocean commonly spent four months and longer at sea, without so much as seeing land, much less visiting a liberty port. The Nimitz spent 146 days continuously at sea. The Independence went 210 days, with only nine days ashore. By 1980, the-Navy was short 22,000 noncommissioned officers. The standard joke among my contemporaries was “make Commander and get your divorce,” because you were going to spend the next four years at sea, away from your family.

I’m not sure we’d be lucky enough as a service to survive that sort of misfortune again. And yet, in an ever more complex world environment, and with a U.S. military force structure that we are told will be smaller, we can expect national command authority commitments, or what the budgeters euphemistically call “un-programmed contingencies,” to at least remain the same, and perhaps to increase. It would seem illogical to reduce the size of our sea services at the very moment in history when they should be assuming an even greater role in our international security posture, unless our leaders wish to consciously acknowledge that we will be unable to meet the contingencies of the future.

I would hope that a different decision will be made. I would hope that we will instead have the courage to fully debate the nature of our obligations, as well as the nature of our allies’ obligations to us, and to sort out exactly what it is we are defending and how this defense can best be accomplished.

Thank you.