An Interview with Gen. David C. Jones, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
AIR FORCE Magazine: After four years as the nation’s ranking military leader, you’re about relinquish the Chairman’s office and end a forty-year military career. This is a monumental milestone and impels some questions. First, Sir, what is the state of the armed forces at this time in relation to the threats we face and in relation to America’s foreign policy objectives? Specifically, are we superior, equal, or inferior to the USSR in strategic nuclear and conventional capabilities? Secondly, it has been suggested that there exists a strategy/policy mismatch. Is this so?
General Jones: In regard to the overall strategic balance, there are differences of opinion among honest, well-informed people as to whether today there is a rough parity or a significant Soviet advantage. It depends on the measures one uses and how one views the utility of nuclear forces. If you measure just raw destructive power by such factors as megatonnage and throw-weight, then the Soviets are ahead. But this is just one area of measurement.
I have not tried to come to a simple judgment of who is ahead by such measures, because that approach ignores the most important question. What I should rather say is that we have the capability today to deter the Soviets, and that is our objective. I wouldn’t trade forces with them. I said in Congress I would trade ICBM forces, but not our bombers and subs. What concerns me is not so much the state of where we are today, but the momentum and the trends that have led to the current balance. Our programs—while not reversing those trends—are now at least arresting them. The important thing is not to allow the Soviets to translate their strategic power into direct influence. If they continued to grow without our reestablishing the momentum in our own programs, then at some time they could use this raw power to intimidate us or our allies.
The Soviets also have conventional force advantages over us in many areas. It’s not just related to forces, but also to geography. If we were to fight in Africa or Latin America or Southeast Asia—far from the Soviet Union—it would give us an edge, because we have better long-range power projection capability. But many of our vital interests are very close to the Soviet Union—Western Europe and Southwest Asia in particular. The Soviets have a conventional advantage in Europe, although I don’t think it’s as great as many people have estimated because I’m not sure they can fully depend on their Warsaw Pact allies fighting shoulder to shoulder if hostilities occurred. But they do have an advantage.
They also have an advantage in Southwest Asia. They are improving the capabilities of their twenty-plus divisions opposite Iran, and we are many thousands of miles away. We’ve been making considerable improvements in our power projection capability, but we’re not able to match them in conventional air and ground capability in this region. So, basically, we must let the Soviets know that we do have a credible capability to confront them in other ways, and that invasion of Southwest Asia would mean a conflict with the United States—one that they might not be able to contain on their own terms. If our vital interests were at stake, the threat of escalation—nuclear or otherwise—could not be discounted.
AFM: Are you referring to the “horizontal escalation policy”
General Jones: Well, in one sense that’s a non sequitur. It’s better not to define what kind of escalation, where, or under what conditions. The uncertainty creates a much better deterrent.
Now as to a strategy/force mismatch—that term has been used a lot; and there’s some truth in it, but my concern is that some people think the solution is to change the strategy. Strategy is largely dictated by our interests and how they are threatened, as opposed to something that we develop as totally free agents. After World War II, we could afford to be regionally oriented. We could fight a war in Korea, and literally decimate our capability in other parts of the world. We could fight a war in Vietnam, draw down our capability in Europe, draw down our strategic forces by putting B-52s in the strategic superiority and the Soviets had a very limited power-projection capability.
The days are now gone when we could concentrate so much of our forces in one area while denuding others. Today our strategy really has to be one of being able to protect our vital interests in multiple locations—and maybe with simultaneous actions. That’s a requirement forced on us by the treat—it’s not something we can change because we don’t have the capability to meet a multiple threat. The shortfall is a measure of risk, and the risk will continue to increase in proportion to the board. There will always be some strategy/force mismatch—some degree of risk—because, for example, we can’t match the Soviets’ twenty-plus divisions in a given location such as Southwest Asia. In that area there’s a mismatch. That doesn’t’ mean that we can’t reduce the level of risk and continue to deter, that we can’t put up a good fight.
AFM: As you look back on your two terms as Chairman—and certainly that was a uniquely eventful and critical period—did you achieve the goals you set out to achieve, and are there omissions, commissions, decisions, and policies that in retrospect look less than 100 percent correct
General Jones: Well, no, I didn’t achieve everything I set out to, and I think that if anybody in a job like this ever achieved what he set out to achieve, he had pretty low goals to start with. But there are a lot of things that I would liked to have seen done. I’d like to be further along on refining our organization to meet the challenges of today’s world than we are right now. There have been accomplishments, but there are also many things left undone.
AFM: What are the key challenges that are likely to confront your successors and what advice, if any, might you have for him in that regard
General Jones: One is the growing antinuclear feeling—not only in the United States, but in Europe as well. There are calls for a “nuclear freeze” and a move toward a “no first use” policy. Unless those concerns are adequately addressed, there may be political actions taken that aren’t in the best interests of this country. Initiatives have been taken recently to renew arms-control negotiations on all levels—strategic, nuclear, intermediate-range nuclear, and NATO-Warsaw Pact conventional forces. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have been and will continue to be very strong supporters of arms control.
SALT consumed a great deal of my time early in my term, and General Vessey faces a very active period in arms control as he takes over. The perception that all our military leadership wants to do is build more weapons is simply not correct. We strongly support equitable and verifiable agreements calling for major reductions on both sides. But it is important to communicate to those with valid concerns—such as the antinuclear movement—that prospects of unilateral restraint on our part do not contribute to the arms-control process. On the contrary, Soviet actions over the past decade have proven that they undermine the process by removing the Soviets’ incentive to negotiate in earnest.
General Vessey will also be faced with other challenges that greatly complicate our ability to deal with an increasingly dangerous world—growing nationalism, ethnic and religion differences, nations trying to solve territorial disputes through forces—such as in the South Atlantic—and a growing sense of isolationism in this country. I had hoped we had learned from two world wars that it is best not to have our defense begin at water’s edge. But there is a growing frustration and feeling that our allies should do more militarily—frustrations resulting in movements to bring our troops home. I think that’s a terrible mistake to vent our frustrations that way. If talk of withdrawal is being used as a threat, I don’t think it will work. We don’t respond very well to threats from our allies, and we should not expect them to act any differently.
I think it is more likely that they could lose confidence in us and be pressured into accommodation with the East. If we actually did pull our troops out, or any substantial part of them, it would weaken NATO’s conventional defense at the very time we need to build it to raise the nuclear threshold. The irony is that we could end up spending more money on defense and be less secure if we create alienation within the alliance by a pull-back of our troops or other counterproductive actions. We would lose our past investment, have to spend more on our own forces, and be less secure. I think it would be very shortsighted.
AFM: By and large, aren’t these factors pretty well outside of our control, except, for the proposed resurrection of the Mansfield Amendment?
General Jones: The part that is most serious to us is within our control—that’s dealing with our allies. We ought to understand that we are going to have differences in an alliance of free nations. We ought to try to work them out as well as possible, but not expect to agree on everything, and not make every difference in the alliance a litmus test of its survival.
AFM: Arms reduction, as you already said, once again is much in the news with START, theater nuclear force reduction talks, and even the comprehensive test-ban proposal being discussed. What should be the specific role of the military in advising the Administration and Congress on these matters?
General Jones: Well, we are playing a major role—we contribute to the formulation of proposals, and provide military assessments of alternatives that may be considered within the arms-control negotiations. We’re full participants in the whole action, and not just in a narrow military way, but in the total context of arms control.
AFM: There were some forces in Congress that felt that the military has supported SALT II beyond proper bounds. Do you agree?
General Jones: The Joint Chiefs unanimously supported SALT II and said it gave us a modest but useful outcome—modestly useful. And that was our candid advice. It wasn’t a perfect treaty, but we judged that we would be better off with it than without it. Our position wasn’t developed as a result of any pressure by anybody.
The Chiefs will continue to provide advice to the National Security Council and will make comments to the Congress when asked. The Joint Chiefs will play a very constructive role. Despite its drawbacks, we had a better SALT II treaty because of the Joint Chiefs’ involvement. And I am pleased that this Administration decided on a policy from the beginning—one in which we had a role to play—that the United States would do nothing inconsistent with SALT II as long as the Soviets didn’t.
AFM: We now have an Army, a Navy, a Marine Corps, and an Air Force. Should there be a Space Force? If so, should that be a unified, specified command, or should there be a completely separate structure
General Jones: I don’t think there ought to be a Space Force in the sense of a fifth service at all. I even have reservations about having a separate command for it—say an Air Force major command. Our problem today is that we have too many separate organizations and at least two different lines of authority. The services are the developers and the providers of our forces, while the unified and specified commands are the fighters—the headquarters that have the operational missions to employ the forces. We have enough difficulty coordinating the input and output sides today and anything that increased the span of control would further complicate the situation.
We could find ourselves in a situation similar to General Marshall’s at the time of Pearl Harbor—he had to reorganize the Army’s organization to cut his span of control from sixty-one to six so that he could concentrate on the war effort. There is a need to focus on our expanding space role much better, but, philosophically, I would move in the other direction of consolidation rather than proliferation. It’s hard to do. I did some of it when I was Air Force Chief. I was successful in some areas, but failed in others.
AFM: Are you saying, General, that space is a place where you conduct all sorts of military business, but that it should not become a purpose unto itself?
General Jones: Exactly. Just as land, air, and sea define mediums, not missions, space simply adds a new medium—or rather extends an existing one. You could end up with some sort of unified system for space, where there are multiservice roles, but I don’t see a dramatic difference dictating a separate command now. Perhaps there will be a need in the future, but rather than just create another command, I would address the issue as part of a major restructuring of commands.
AFM: One of the most complex and perhaps at times wrenching problems confronting military leaders in our society is the question of how one expresses disagreement with national policy if there is the conviction that a given policy is harmful to the national security interests. What are your views on how a military leader copes with this sensitive problem that has occasionally risen?
General Jones: It’s my belief that this issue has been very much overdrawn and that it isn’t the problem that a lot of people perceive. In some cases, like the Panama Canal or SALT II, some people felt that the Chiefs were actually opposed to those treaties, but were pressured to go along with the Administration. That’s just wrong; it ignores the realities of our position with respect to both the President and the Congress. We are the advisors to both, but the relationship differs.
The President, as the elected Head of State and Commander in Chief, is our superior in the executive chain. Military officers, as they get into positions of command, expect the people who work for them to be loyal, responsible, and forthright, and they in turn act accordingly in serving the Command in Chief. We make our case fully and forcefully in terms of the military implications, but the President is the decision-maker with broader responsibilities.
Once we’ve made our case it is inappropriate to go out and campaign against a decision by the President—to try to overthrow that decision or to try to work back door as we may be encouraged to by various parties. A case in point: We had a full opportunity to make our case on the B-1 in 1977. The President gave us every opportunity to make that case but ruled against us. The Air Force leadership agreed that it would not be appropriate to attempt to overturn the decision of a President.
But we also have responsibilities to Congress, and when we are asked for our professional views we can express them clearly without violating our responsibility to the President, even when they’re at variance with the position of the Administration. I recently did so in response to a congressional question in the case of MX basing, and I have done it a number of times throughout my career. It was always done in a way that did not try to circumvent a decision by the Commander in Chief or try to undermine that decision. I think that’s the proper role.
AFM: In a more personal vein, how do you feel about the past forty years and the rewards and drawbacks of a military career
General Jones: Well, I’ve enjoyed it very much. I’ve never had a bad assignment. I’ve been stationed in some remote areas, and some places were a lot better than others, but I always felt that each assignment was a new challenge, a new learning experience—regardless of who I worked for or what the conditions were. I wouldn’t trade that for any other life. I’ll have no problems in adjusting to retirement; I’m not one to look back, but it’s been a great forty years and it’s given me experiences that I could not have had in any other profession or any other life.
AFM: You have come out strongly in favor of a change so far as the roles of the Chairman, the Joint Chiefs, and the Joint Staff are concerned. Congress has had rather extensive hearings on this recently. Are you optimistic about the outcome
General Jones: Well, I think the system will change. The only question is will we do it in a calm, reasoned way, or wait until there is another disaster or debacle which forces us to make a change in the midst of a crisis. Every time we have had a major conflict, we’ve found that we have had to make ad hoc adjustments to our organization, but then we have fallen back into bureaucratic patterns even though the organizational arrangement wasn’t adequate to deter conflict or cope with it. We went through major reorganizations after the Spanish-American War and World War I, and both during and after World War II. And still our organization in Vietnam was a nightmare. But because we weren’t involved in a world war, we could offset the problems by applying more resources without really addressing the organization difficulties.
I’m convinced there is going to be a change; as to when, that’s hard to predict. I’ve had virtually unanimous support in the public sector and the press. In fact about the only criticism has been—“Are you going far enough?” The business community has been supportive. Within the military I would say that more people are supportive of change than not, but there are some strong opponents. Institutional resistance to change is very great. Institutions don’t like to change. Change is a risk—both to an organization’s personal image as well as to its interests.
The outcome remains to be seen. There is so much concentration on the defense budget right now that people don’t want to spend time on something like this. In many ways, though, reorganization is more important than the budget issue because it will determine to a great extent whether we use the money that’s appropriated wisely. We don’ get a full dollar’s value now. I’m not advocating reorganizing just to be more efficient in spending dollars, but that will be one of the outgrowths—much greater effectiveness, much greater combat capability for whatever resources we spend.
I’m convinced it’s the most important national security issue facing this country. We spend too much time on an intramural scramble for resources and not enough on ensuring good solid combat capability. A great deal has to be done, and in my last few days in the military, I’m trying to develop momentum so that the subject won’t be dropped when I leave.
AFM: That certainly is a major undertaking. Any particular point that you would like to bring up that we haven’t talked about, sir?
General Jones: I’m proud to be a Life Member of the Air Force Association, and plan to continue my involvement in the military, not just with the Air Force, but working on joint issues and the overall needs of the country. This is a fine magazine and a fine association, which have also supported these broader needs, and I just wish all the best to all its readers and members.
AFM: Thank you. And we, of course, with you all the best in your retirement, Sir.
General Jones: Thank you.