Harold Brown's experience is unique. He was a physics lecturer at 20, nuclear weapons scientist at 25, and first director of defense research and engineering (DDR&E) at 33. Despite his nuclear background, he championed conventional weapons and precision. Brown's tenure as Air Force secretary covered deployment of precision-guided munitions; his term as defense secretary saw the launch of the F-117 and B-2, Assault Breaker reconnaissance-strike complex and Lantirn, ancestor of today's targeting and designation pods. Brown discussed his work with Senior International Defense Editor Bill Sweetman in Washington.

Defense Technology: You made a big shift in your career, from being a nuclear weapons scientist to an advocate of precision and what was then called 'zero-CEP' (circular error probable). How did that come about?

Brown: Zero-CEP was one of the last big effects of nuclear weapons development at the strategic level, and came about because we needed a warhead small enough to fit inside a missile that would fit inside a submarine. When I became DDR&E in 1961, I concentrated on conventional capability, which surprised and disappointed some people, but fit with the Kennedy administration's approach.

How would you advise defense leaders to deal with today's budget environment?

It's harder now because the political environment has become much more dysfunctional. It goes beyond defense. In the 1960s and 1970s there were moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats that could work together, and with whom I could work. Today, in all government programs, and it is markedly true of defense, there's a constituency that supports them, with subcontractors in many districts. To some extent, it's deliberate. And there is no question that we have a lot of bases in pleasant areas in the southern U.S. That's where senior officers retire.

What can be done without running into those barriers?

The Pentagon is bloated in terms of levels of management, and every extra level has two effects—more people and more sand in the gears. Every reform creates risks in that area. For example, in the last 30 years we have seen the growth of unified and specified commands (Centcom, Pacom and so on). It's a good change that blossomed into waste. They were created to be the tip of the spear, but the spear has started to grow streamers. They became independent political actors and established Washington staffs to be their lobby. It has to be pared back.

The services have also been encouraged to think longer-term—and maybe we've gone too far with that. The unified and specified commands have started to do their own long-term thinking, but in principle it's the Office of the Secretary of Defense that should be the strategists. The problem is that the combat commanders have difficulty thinking about equipment.

How do you view the probability of conflict with China? How would such a conflict differ from the Cold War?

China does not have a world view that is revolutionary. The Soviets did—it was a religion and it colored everything they did. That's not the Chinese. They think that they are better than everyone else, not that everyone should be like them. But they are a rising power, not defenders of a status quo. However, the rivalry is moderated by nuclear weapons. War is less likely but would be more catastrophic.

A difference is that China is not going to be able to intimidate or dominate its neighbors through its conventional capability as the Soviets dominated the Warsaw Pact, because there is no major land boundary. But it is quite possible that the Chinese and Japanese will fight, because China may over-estimate its capability. We had better be ready with a plan to de-escalate that kind of situation.

What else can be done to maintain security and avoid conflict?

Each side needs to control the elements within it that like to emphasize dangers and risks and the awfulness of the other side. Neither side has done terribly well at that. However, I really worry that the Chinese don't control their military as well as they should. There have been several incidents where communications between tactical operators and higher headquarters have been really poor.

When our military has pressed the Chinese military to start discussions, they have been very unwilling to talk. In the past I have ascribed that to the Chinese perception of inferiority that they can offset by secrecy, and that makes a lot of sense. We've talked about doing it at sea—establishing some rules of the road for the North Pacific—but that's off the table as long as the China Sea issues are where they are.

Harold Brown

Counselor and trustee, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Age: 85

Birthplace: New York

Education: BA, MA and PhD (physics), Columbia University

Background: Was a director of Livermore Radiation Laboratory; first director of DR&E; Air Force Secretary, 1965-69; Defense Secretary, 1977-81. Chairman, Foreign Policy Institute, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. Joined CSIS in 1992.