Secretary of Defense
Remarks on "Building the First Link to the Force of the Future" (George Washington University)
George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, Washington, D.C.
Good afternoon. Can you hear me? Good. President Knapp, where’d you go? Thank you very much for that introduction. It’s a pleasure coming here to George Washington University to be with so many current and future contributors to America’s national security.
Now, Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris tell us, as our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of those acts and their families, that this tragedy also steels our reserve – resolve. We need to – and we will – deal a lasting defeat to this organization.
Times like these have always inspired Americans to action. Whether it’s an attack like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, or a natural disaster that strikes on the other side of the world, it’s never been our nature to stand aside in a crisis. Whether it’s pulling on a flight suit to fight a foreign enemy, or pulling on hospital scrubs to help fight Ebola, Americans have a long history of stepping in and stepping up to contribute – contributing to making a safer and a better world.
And as you sit at home or in your dorm room, watching those inhuman images unfold on your screen, I’m just guessing it’s likely that you stop and think to yourself, what can I do? How can I possibly make a difference?
And today I want to offer you some answers to those questions, because one of my core commitments as Secretary of Defense is to help more of our fellow citizens make that difference in the world, and in as many ways as possible. I know not everyone wants to wear a uniform, and that’s okay – though I do want more Americans to be exposed to that possibility. And not everybody’s going to want to contribute to public service for their entire career, either – some may want to do so only for a time, or on and off over their lives. And that’s okay too. You don’t often hear these thoughts from a Secretary of Defense, but they’re critical thoughts to building what I call the force of the future – the kind of Defense Department, both military and civilian, that some of you right here today, or watching online, might in fact choose to serve with or in during your own careers.
When I talk about the force of the future, I always start with one vitally important fact, and that is this: our force of today, our force today is the finest fighting force the world has ever known. And we’ve been that great for a long time, going back, if you want to count that long, 240 years, to when the namesake of this very university, George Washington, launched what has arguably been the most successful startup in history: namely, the United States military. It secured freedom from an empire and sustained our union. It vanquished fascism, fought for freedom around the globe, won the Cold War, and went after the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. And it drove forward technological innovations that have benefitted not only our security, but our entire society. Think about it – helping create the Internet, GPS, and in an earlier era, spaceflight and the jet engine. In so many ways, it’s shaped all of our lives.
Now of course, a lot’s changed since Washington’s time. And our military has changed, too – in recent decades, shifting from a draft to an all-volunteer force, reforming so that the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines could work together more effectively, and adapting to counter terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. And our institution has evolved, to draw strength from our entire pool of population, on a voluntary basis. Throughout all this, the one constant has been that our military’s people have always mastered change with excellence – continuing to defend our country and help make a better world.
But that excellence isn’t a birthright. It’s not guaranteed. And we can’t take it for granted in the 21st century. We live in a changing and competitive world, and we have to earn that excellence again and again. Because our force of the future has to be just as great, if not even better, than our outstanding force of today. Our security depends on it.
Take technology as one example of change that affects us. When I began my career, most technology of consequence originated in America, and much of that was sponsored by the government, especially the Defense Department. Today, much more technology is commercial. And as many of you know, the competition is global. Lots of other countries are trying to catch up with our advances, the ones we’ve enjoyed for decades in areas like stealth, and cyber, and space.
But as we innovate to stay ahead of those threats, we also have to make sure we keep bringing the best people to use that technology into the military and the department, because they’re our most enduring advantage – our people. Even more important than the technology. Nations like Russia and China can try to shrink the technology gap, and they sure do try, and terrorists can try to sow fear, as they did last week in Paris and Beirut, but none of them will ever match the strength and ingenuity of the American spirit if we marshal it properly. And as long as our military continues to harness the best talent America has to offer, we will always come out ahead. I’m confident of that.
So I have a project that I call the Force of the Future, which is about staying the best when it comes to our people. Now I’m going to tell you about that today.
The force of the future isn’t meant to address every issue in the military today regarding our people. And it’s separate from our determined focus on a host of matters of urgent importance to the force today, which I won’t be speaking about, but I’m very committed to – like sending them into danger only wisely, like caring for our wounded warriors and families of the fallen, like eliminating sexual assault in the military, like supporting our military spouses and families, and helping veterans find good jobs where they can keep making the difference.
All those are critically important too, and will always be a top priority, but I’m equally committed to making sure that our force of the future will still be the best in the world – that I leave to my successor as Secretary of Defense, and his or her successor, and so forth, as fine as a force it’s my privilege to lead today.
I made that commitment to President Obama when he asked me to serve as Secretary of Defense, and so shortly after I was sworn in, I visited my old high school, in Abington, Pennsylvania, to outline my vision for the force of the future to high schoolers. And I talked about how, in the face of generational, technological, and market labor changes – I’m sorry, labor market changes – we in the Pentagon must think, as I put it, outside of our five-sided box, and try to make ourselves even better at attracting talent from new generations of Americans. In the months that followed, I went to places like Silicon Valley and St. Louis, and heard from companies like Facebook, and Boeing, and LinkedIn about what they’re doing to compete for talent in the 21st century.
Throughout this process, we’ve always been mindful that the military is a profession of arms. It’s not a business. We’re responsible for defending this country – for providing the security that allows everyone else – all of you and your parents and your friends and your fellow citizens – to go to school, go to work, to live your lives, to dream your dreams, and to give the next generation a better future.
The key to doing this successfully is leveraging both tradition and change. While the military cannot and should not replicate all aspects of the private sector, we can and should borrow best practices, technologies, and personnel management techniques in commonsense ways that work for us, so that in future generations, we’ll keep attracting people of the same high caliber we have today – people who will meet the same high standards of performance, leadership, ethics, honor, and trust we hold our force to today.
So with that in mind, let me tell you here today about the first link we’re building in the force of the future, which is intended to make our future Defense Department better connected to 21st century talent.
And for starters, let’s take people – maybe some of you right here – who aren’t now involved with DoD at all, but think you might want to give it a try. Let’s start with you first.
For you, we’re going to create what we call on-ramps to make it easier to contribute to our mission. This is important, because today less than 1 percent of our population serves in uniform, which means fewer people are connected to those who do. For my generation and my parents’ generation, 3-in-4 had a family member who served in the military; for your generation, it’s only 1-in-3. And this trend is likely to continue, so we want to provide more opportunities for those outside DoD to get to know us and to contribute to our mission, even if only for a time.
And it starts with what we’re doing for students like you, to improve and enhance our internship programs. With more young Americans pursuing internships today – including 9-out-of-10 GW graduates – this is imperative for attracting civilian talent. That’s why we’re making our internship programs better managed, and also more effective at transitioning promising and successful interns into permanent employees – so that if you’re an intern with us and do great work, we can do better at connecting you with job openings. We offer internships in all sorts of areas – at our Army and Air Force research labs, for example, and also at the Pentagon. If you want to apply or learn more, you can – go to the Defense Department’s LinkedIn page; to get there fast, defense.gov/LinkedIn. And since many college students don’t even realize what kinds of civilian job opportunities we have to offer, we’re going to do better at getting the word out on campuses, too.
We’re also going to be bringing in more of America’s best and most innovative talent in their fields – because when you consider doing something with DoD, I want you to think of it as a place where America’s top talent comes to work.
That’s why we’re creating the Defense Digital Service, a new thing, which will bring in talent from America’s technology community to work for a specific time, or for a specific project, to apply a more innovative and agile approach to solving our most complex problems. It will be led by Chris Lynch – Chris is here today – Chris Lynch, a serial entrepreneur in the tech world. And Chris is not only sitting in the audience – where are you Chris? Stand up. It’s also his first day on the job. Stand up, stand up, stand up. Look, he just flew out from the West Coast yesterday – and he’s in uniform. The hoodie, the whole deal, right? So welcome to the team, Chris.
Also, to make sure we benefit from innovative entrepreneurs who aren’t technologists but have advanced skills of other kinds, we’re going to bring in resident entrepreneurs, who will work with senior leaders on some of our most challenging projects just for a year or two at a time. And we’re also going to hire a chief recruiting officer, who’ll serve as a headhunter to help bring in some of America’s best qualified executives for stints in top civilian leadership roles in the department. DoD has been a place where top executives like Dave Packard, the founder of HP – the P in HP, that’s Dave Packard – came to serve for a time, and while today, former military officers run some of America’s largest companies – like Johnson & Johnson, FedEx, Verizon – we want to be able to benefit from doing that the other way around, too. And hopefully that infusion of innovative, entrepreneurial, managerially excellent spirit will rub off on us.
Now in addition to on-ramps for people coming into DoD, we’re also going to create short-term off-ramps for those already serving, so that they can connect with ideas and innovators outside of the Pentagon. Because we want to make it easier for more of our people to gain new skills, experiences, and perspectives – whether in the private sector, in academia, or elsewhere – experiences that they can bring back into the military to help keep us strong, creative, and forward-thinking in that force of the future. And there’s added value in that offering those kinds of opportunities will make us more attractive to future generations, too.
It might surprise you that we’re actually pretty good at offering a variety of experiences already. Some of you might think of the military as a career path that’s like an escalator – or the civil service as a career path that’s like an escalator – where you have to get in at the bottom and wait your turn before being taking up and able to get more responsibility or try something new. But that’s not entirely the case. In fact, there’s a young woman who works at the Pentagon, a lieutenant, who’s been to more countries than the number of years she’s been alive. No other job lets you have that, so many diverse experiences. And we also send our people to top-notch graduate programs, like civil engineering at M.I.T., medical school at Stanford, business school at Syracuse, and the Kennedy School at Harvard.
But to make ourselves even better at this, we’re going to expand our fellowships and sabbatical programs so more of our servicemembers can spend time in America’s top industrial, governmental, and academic institutions, and bring back what they learned to keep us on the cutting edge.
One of these is the Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellowship. And some of this year’s fellows are here today, like Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Vasilios Pappas, who I don’t believe is in uniform today – Vasilios, stand up – who’s at the cloud computing company EMC, and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Clint ZumBrunnen, who’s at the consulting company Accenture. One fellow – thanks, guys. We’re proud of them. One fellow, who – that is, SecDef Fellow, Secretary of Defense Fellow – who couldn’t be here today – but she really wanted to be, she just couldn’t be – is Army Lieutenant Colonel Maria Schneider. She’s an acquisition professional who’s embedded at Amazon, and along with finding new ways DoD can partner with that company, one thing she’s learning also is how they collect, analyze, and leverage metrics. And like other fellows this year, who are at companies ranging from Intel to SpaceX, she’ll put that and so much more into practice when she returns to DoD next year. We’ve also got some alumni here too, like Navy Captain Michael Abreu – Michael is here, Michael? – who did his fellowship at Google and now manages the Navy’s largest IT program. By the way, it’s a pretty big IT program. Another former fellow – one who will be with me in the Pentagon tomorrow, when our highest leaders all meet – is Air Force four-star – four-star – General Darren McDew. He was at Sun Microsystems, and now serves in one of the top positions in our military chain-of-command.
I want more people to have these kinds of broadening opportunities – to be able to get off the escalator for a time, and then get back on – without hurting their career, but instead helping it, which after all makes sense. So we’re going to expand this program by doubling the size of it, by opening it up to qualified senior enlisted leaders, and by offering not just tours in industry, but also elsewhere in government, including state and local government, because they work on important problems too.
Another program is our Career Intermission Program, which lets people take a sabbatical from their military service for a few years while they’re getting a degree, or learning a new skill, or starting a family. There’s a young Navy couple that did this just a few years ago. They were both aviators, flying F-18 fighter jets off aircraft carriers, but they found it difficult to reconcile their desire to start a family and go to grad school with their desire to keep serving in the fleet. They both considered leaving active duty and finding other ways to serve – effectively turning in their wings, which was a hard decision for each of them. But then they heard about this program. And they both not only used it, but their gain became our benefit too. He got an MBA from Dartmouth, and after another flying tour, he’s now a top aide to the Secretary of the Navy. She got a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School, and will soon be working in the Navy’s public affairs office. And they were able to have two children, too.
Their story is clearly a success. Didn’t come easy. Because this was a new, experimental program, lots of people discouraged them from trying it, saying it might hurt their path to promotion – even though since then, it’s only helped them, and because of that, their desire to keep serving has only intensified. And that’s good for us. They’re proof that you don’t have to choose between getting ahead in the military and getting a valuable experience that will help you get ahead in life. That is and always should be a false choice. That’s why we intend to work with Congress to make this program permanent.
In addition to these changes, we’re also updating and modernizing our retirement benefits. Now that’s probably not something most of you are thinking about yet, but it’s really a big deal for us – and it’s critical to making sure people like you can give the military a try and still get, and take with you, the benefits you earned. Right now our troops have to serve 20 years before getting any retirement benefits, but 80 percent don’t serve that long, which means they leave with no retirement benefits at all. But we’re changing that, and starting in the next few years, we’ll be able to offer a portable, it’s a 401k-like plan, which all who serve can take with them whenever they move on to whatever’s next in life for them.
And for everyone’s benefit – those outside the department, those inside the department; whether you’re already serving or might serve – we’re also going to use 21st century data and technology approaches to improve and modernize how we manage our talent. We put a lot of effort into staying on the cutting edge with weapons technology, and it’s time we did the same, which we haven’t been doing, in how we manage our people – giving them more transparency and choice in their jobs, and also making sure we’re getting the absolute most we can out of the remarkable talent we already have – always balanced with our needs, of course.
For our military personnel, we’re going to launch LinkedIn-style pilot programs that help match-up servicemembers looking for their next assignment with units who are looking for qualified people to fill an opening. Think of a soldier logging on, setting up a profile, seeing what they’re qualified for, and selecting what they want to do, while the unit looking to bring someone on sees the profiles that fit their criteria, and chooses who they’re interested in. And when there’s a match, they’d get connected. You may have heard of some apps that perform a similar function.
The Army’s already tested this with some of its engineering officers, and it was very well received. So we’re going to pilot this across the services, and eventually scale it up for everyone. It makes a lot of sense. Should have happened a long time ago.
But we’re also going to improve our data-crunching and how we leverage big data to inform our personnel policies. We don’t do that very well right now. So we’re going to bring in some top data scientists to help fix that. And much like how companies use algorithms and predictive analytics to suggest movies on Netflix, or show you what’s trending on Twitter or Facebook, this Office of People Analytics, which we call it, will use similar data-intensive tools and technologies to help measure and chart how servicemembers and civilians are doing every day in all aspects of their job.
And that’s going to fill some gaping holes in our data, starting with exit surveys that ask people who decide to leave why they did so; that way, we can make changes to keep our best. For some reason we’ve never comprehensively done that before. While there have been studies, articles, and entire books written about how the military is ‘bleeding talent,’ most of these are anecdotal. And because DoD hasn’t been gathering the data, we couldn’t quantitatively prove or disprove that, let alone fix it. So while it’s much overdue, this change will make a big difference in how we manage talent going forward.
Meanwhile, in terms of recruiting, we’re going to look at ways we can evaluate recruit performance and improve our outcomes – including by potentially rewarding recruiters for bringing in high-performers, so it’s not just about making sure we’re meeting our numbers, but also that we’re bringing in the best.
We also want to make sure we strive to recruit from the broadest possible pool of talent. If we don’t, we risk becoming isolated and insular, and that’s not the path to success in today’s security environment. That’s why I want everyone who’s willing and able to serve their country to have the full and equal opportunity to do so. I want everyone in this audience to view the Defense Department as a place where you could see yourselves making a contribution in the course of your careers, and also being treated with the dignity and the respect you deserve.
Our military’s openness to diversity and inclusion is one of the things that has allowed us to bring in America’s best talent and be the best in the world over time. We have to maintain that strength.
Young Americans today are more diverse, open, and tolerant than past generations, and if we’re going to attract the best among them to contribute to our mission, we ourselves have to be more diverse, and open, and tolerant, too. That’s the only way to compete in the 21st century.
In some ways, by the way, this is one area where we’re actually ahead of the private sector. Right now, DoD has a higher percentage of senior women leaders, for example, than America’s most profitable companies do. And a few years ago, we repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country openly and proudly. But as I’ve said before, we’ve got to do better.
That’s why I recently announced we’re supporting the LinkedIn Circles that have – sorry, the Lean-In Circles – if you’re familiar with the book Lean In, by my good friend, very admired friend Sheryl Sandberg, of Facebook, the COO – those Lean-In Circles have cropped up across the department, and it’s why also we’re reevaluating our transgender policy, and why we’ve been opening up ground combat positions to women. And we intend to do more in the months to come.
In the meantime, because diversity is about much more than race and gender, we’re also going to look closely at the geographic and familial diversity of our incoming personnel. This is important, because it’s well-understood that creating the all-volunteer force has led to a smaller proportion of Americans who serve in uniform. While that’s understood, it’s less understood that our recruiting pool is also shrinking geographically, with more and more of our people coming from fewer and fewer states. At the same time, the military is starting to resemble something of a family business, with a willingness to sign up increasingly found disproportionately in those who have a parent, or a close relative, who served. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – following in the footsteps of one’s parents and grandparents is a long and noble tradition in the military. But it could also be a sign of, or lead to, our military’s insularity from the rest of society. It might show that we need to do better at exposing our opportunities to kids that don’t have a parent or a neighbor or a coach who served. And for us to make informed decisions about recruiting our force of the future, we as an institution need to understand both these phenomena a lot better.
Also, building the force of the future means DoD has to be more efficient in spending taxpayer dollars, so we don’t – so we spend every dollar where it can do the most good. That’s why we’re going to make some organizational changes to help implement these initiatives effectively, and to make sure they not only work in concert as intended, but are also continuously improved. And that’s also why, for everything I’m announcing today, we intend to figure out how to pay for it using money that’s already in our budget. That won’t always be possible, but it has to be what we strive for.
In addition to making sure we keep bringing in the best people, we’re doing a lot more, I want to tell you, to be ready for the future. We’re building and rebuilding bridges with America’s technology community – opening up a DoD innovation hub in Silicon Valley, and others around the country, reaching out to the start-up community, as well as to some of America’s greatest leading businesses. We’re pushing the envelope with research into new technologies and innovative ways to apply them – in areas like robotics, cyber defense, biotech, human-machine combinations, hypersonic engines that can fly over five times the speed of sound. We’re coming up with new strategic approaches to preventing and winning conflicts against 21st century threats. And we’re pushing as many people in the Pentagon as possible to keep thinking outside the five-sided box.
While all these changes I’ve described today are exciting and important, they’re just the beginning. So stay tuned in the coming months.
For example, we’re taking a serious look at making some commonsense reforms in our officer promotion system. We’re also looking at ways to improve how we manage our civilian personnel, working with the government-wide Office of Personnel Management as well as federal employee unions. And we’re figuring out how we can do an even better job of meeting our commitments to the health and well-being of our people and their families in the 21st century.
The progress we’re making is a credit to the teams led by some of –where are you, Brad? That is DoD’s acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Brad Carson, right over there. And Brad has been the person who spearheaded – and I just wanted to shout, you know, give a shout out – he’s our senior official on this. Very forward guy. Making history and we couldn’t have done it without you, Brad. See, if I want to keep him, I need to give him credit, because – he’s really good, so I think I’ll keep him.
After putting together a package of bold proposals, which is exactly what I asked them to do – building on the great work the military services were already doing, and making up some new ideas – they’ve been working with and through our armed services, our Deputy Secretary, our Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to closely analyze each one. And I know Brad and some members of his team are here with Brad today – and I want to thank all of you, all of you, for the hard work you’ve done. They’re an example of how a small group of people who are smart and dedicated can make a big difference. What they’re doing will be felt for years and years to come, and for the benefit of this country, but for all those who we help to defend.
So there’s much more still to come, and a lot of hard work still ahead. I’ll be making more announcements in due course, though obviously we’re going to take the time to get them right – but as you can tell, we’re working hard, we’re thinking hard. And I look forward to working with everyone in the Defense Department, and in Congress, and across our government to help me do that.
As we pursue these initiatives – maintaining the essential character that’s always made our military strong, while also taking steps to remain just as strong, if not stronger, long into the future – we will be guided by the words of our military’s first commander-in-chief, the namesake of this great university.
George Washington once said that “to be prepared for war, is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” Those words are etched into the walls outside the Pentagon, and they are, and always will be, the rationale for why we need a force of the future. Not because we seek to make war, but rather because we must preserve peace – today, tomorrow, and for many years to come.
And if you want to help us preserve that peace, and secure that peace, and where necessary fight for that peace, we want to give you an opportunity to do so – even if you never thought about it until now, right now.
I myself, I have to say, didn’t think much about national security when I was your age. I was focused on physics, history, sports, things like that. That changed a few years later, when I heard a speech about the future of technology in the military. It helped me realize that I could make a contribution to defending this country and being part of something bigger than myself. As it turned out, that speaker was a man named Bill Perry, who later became my mentor, my friend, and Secretary of Defense.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a future Secretary of Defense sitting down there among you today. I’m 100 percent confident that you all have something to contribute: the drive to be part of something bigger than yourselves. That’s where the call to service begins. And that’s the beginning of how, together, we can make a better and a brighter world. And I hope you’ll join me. Thanks so much.