PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. Ä Defense Secretary William Cohen watched Marine recruits shimmy down ropes and practice self-defense moves Thursday before declaring the United States has the best military in history.
However, Mr. Cohen told reporters another round of base closings will be necessary to keep the nation at the forefront. And he said he would defer to the individual services to decide what method of training male and female recruits is best.
"We have the finest fighting force in the world today - in fact, the finest fighting force in the world ever," Mr. Cohen told a group of about 400 recruits wearing camouflage trousers and brown T-shirts.
Mr. Cohen said he visited "to see for myself and satisfy myself we are still producing the best and the finest in the world."
Earlier he got a firsthand look at helmeted recruits battling with pugil sticks - sticks with heavy padded ends, one marked in red to signify a bayonet.
"Use the stick! Swing the stick!" drill instructors in yellow T-shirts shouted as recruits fought in an enclosure covered by a camouflage net.
First several groups of women battled, then men squared off.
The Marines train men and women separately. Earlier this year, Mr. Cohen visited Fort Jackson in Columbia to get a look at an Army base where men and women train together.
"I have taken the position I should defer to the service to make a determination how they feel they can produce the best product," Mr. Cohen told reporters. "For the Marine Corps, the separated training appears to be working very well."
Mr. Cohen, who served 24 years in Congress before becoming defense secretary this year, said he will try to convince former colleagues that another round of base closings is needed.
"As painful as it is ... nonetheless, if you look at what needs to be done, we have to rid ourselves of excess capacity," he said.
He said the nation needs to cut its defense infrastructure by about 15 percent. Congress will have to choose between paying to maintain that infrastructure or ensuring the military has the best possible equipment for troops, he said.
Mr. Cohen flew to Parris Island from Orlando, Fla., where he urged an American Legion convention to support NATO's plan to add three more nations to its peacekeeping forces.
"When you speak out in support of enlarging the alliance, the Legion and each one of you personally play a critical role in carrying this message back to the community," Mr. Cohen said.
The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland likely will become the next three members of the 16-nation alliance. NATO leaders announced plans to add them at a July meeting in Madrid.