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Harold Brown, former secretary of defense & Air Force, shaped both institutions

  • Published
  • By Amaani Lyle and Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
Harold Brown, the 14th secretary of defense who also served as the nation’s 8th secretary of the Air Force, died Jan. 4 at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California. He was 91.

The first scientist to be named defense secretary, Brown lead the Department of Defense from 1977 to 1981 under President Jimmy Carter, drawing heavily from his experience as Air Force secretary during the Vietnam War under President Lyndon B. Johnson to shape the military in ways that continue to be felt today.

A brilliant physicist who trained under Edward Teller, Brown was deeply fluent in defense policy, weapons design, and was a strong advocate for innovative policies, practices and technology.

“Today, our nation is safer and more secure because of Secretary Brown’s steady hand as the 8th secretary of the Air Force and later secretary of defense,” said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson. “We mourn his passing but are grateful for all the good he did as a scientist and public servant.”

While Brown’s legacy is apparent across the breadth of the United States military, his impact on the Air Force is particularly prominent.

“One of his most significant contributions came Aug. 22, 1980, at the Pentagon when Secretary Brown announced ‘a major technological advance of great military significance,’” Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson said. “He was announcing stealth technology, an innovation that is a central tool of our defense capabilities today and, in the words of Brown, ‘a formidable instrument of peace.’”

Brown’s technical ability and skill helped the nation navigate a perilous time defined by the Cold War. His policies strengthened the nuclear triad, emphasizing deterrence and fostering resolute partnerships with allies and alliances.

In 1980, Brown was at the forefront of joint operations when he stood up the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. The headquarters could activate forces from several services and command them in crisis situations while developing contingency operations plans and maintaining capabilities and readiness.

Brown’s career encompassed science, academia, government and private industry, and it spanned 10 presidencies.

Strategically, he sought to enhance U.S. military forces and strengthen security with a focus on arms control, including support of the 1979 SALT II Treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that curtailed U.S. and Soviet militaries to 2,250 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. He espoused “essential equivalence” a principle that states Soviet strategic nuclear forces would not become usable instruments of political leverage, diplomatic coercion or military advantage if nuclear stability was maintained and U.S. and Soviet force characteristics remained balanced.

Attention to Weapon Systems

Brown’s attention to weapon systems — including intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic bombers — influenced major administration decisions, including Carter’s backing of the MX or LGM-118 Peacekeeper missile, intended to replace the Minuteman and Titan intercontinental missiles increasingly susceptible to a Soviet first strike in the mid-1980s.

Brown also was a proponent of upgrading B-52 Stratofortress bombers by equipping them with air-launched cruise missiles, and he green-lit development of stealth technology that enabled the production of aircraft with very low radar profiles.

In allied force matters, Brown saw NATO’s fortification as a critical national security objective, prompting him to reinvigorate the organization with the “3 percent solution.” The strategy had NATO members pledge in 1977 to increase their individual defense spending 3 percent per year from 1979 to 1986. The overall goal, according to Brown, was to ensure that alliance resources and conventional and nuclear capabilities would balance those of the Soviet bloc.

In 1978, NATO leaders endorsed a long-term defense program that included priority categories such as enhanced readiness, rapid reinforcement, stronger European reserve forces, and improvements in maritime capabilities – most remain in current-day policies.

Strengthening U.S. Ties

Brown advocated strengthening U.S. ties outside of NATO, particularly with Japan and South Korea. He was the first U.S. defense secretary to visit China and to establish military-to-military relations. Brown played a key role in the United States formally recognizing the People’s Republic of China in 1979, nearly 30 years after its establishment.

Middle East affairs also proved complex, and Brown played a key part as conciliator in the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations leading to the Camp David Accords, the culmination of a 14-month effort to develop bilateral agreements between the two nations that ultimately led to a peace treaty the following year.

After leaving the Pentagon, Brown joined the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies as a visiting professor and later the university's Foreign Policy Institute as chairman. He continued to speak and write widely on national security issues and in 1983 published “Thinking About National Security: Defense and Foreign Policy in a Dangerous World.”

In later years, Brown was affiliated with research organizations and served on the boards of a number of corporations.