An Interview with Gen. David C. Jones, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
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.
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.
AFM: Are you referring to the “horizontal escalation policy”?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
AFM: In a more personal vein, how do you feel about the past forty years and the rewards and drawbacks of a military career?
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?
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.
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.
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.
General Jones: Thank you.
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