Secretary of Defense
Remarks to USAFA Upper Class Cadets
U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado
At ease, please.
You guys look magnificent.
Well, thank you. Thanks for that introduction. I want to thank your Superintendent also, who I've known for a long time, Lieutenant General Johnson - a very respected leader in the Department, not just in the Air Force, but throughout the Department - your Dean, Brigadier General Armacost also, and your Commandant. You all have great leadership, I've got to tell you. Your commandant, Brigadier General Williams - all of them. I thank them for welcoming me here today. And I want to thank all of you here today for embracing the awesome responsibility of leadership you will assume upon commissioning - leadership to accomplish the noblest thing that I believe a young person can do, which is to protect America, and also much of the rest of the world, which still depends so much on us for their security.
And I like to say that security is like oxygen. When you have it, you don't think about it. But when you don't have it, it's all you can think about. And the great gift that we give to Americans is to give them that security that allows them to get up in the morning, take their kids to school, go to work, live their lives, dream their dreams, live lives that are full. A lot of people around the world don't get that, but that's what we owe to our own people, and that's what you'll provide to our own people.
And there's no better feeling than being a part of that mission. You'll have that feeling. From cyberspace to outer space to the defense of the commons, the Air Force, our Air Force, benefits the human family not just in this country, but around the world; gives them security, gives them peace of mind. And as you step forward into what is really a new and a complex world, our nation is counting on you, on your professionalism, on your pursuit of innovation, and most of all your principled leadership.
So before I get to your questions, I want to take some time to discuss the strategic landscape into which you will soon figure. And I want to convey to you briefly several of the lessons that I need and expect you to carry with you from this extraordinary institution, into the great challenges you'll confront in your career.
Now, today we in the United States and around the world face no fewer than five major immediate evolving, but immediate challenges. First, countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe; managing historic change in the vital Asia- Pacific region, which will be in your lifetimes the single region of the world of most consequence for America. It's where half of humankind lives, half of the global economy, and that's only increasing. We play a pivotal role there in keeping the peace and we're going to do that and need to do that into the future, and air power is going to be critical to that. Strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea's nuclear provocations. Checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Persian Gulf. And of course, accelerating the defeat, the certain defeat of ISIL in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, and then everywhere it's metastasized around the world, and all the while protecting the homeland.
Now, we don't have the luxury of choosing among all these challenges. We have to deal with them all. And they may all affect your career in some way at different times because your service will span decades. Maybe a future Chief of Staff or a future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is in this room right now. And history tells us that ten, twenty years from now, new challenges we don't even foresee and aren't among the ones I just named, will almost certainly arise. So to help you prepare and succeed today, lead and thrive in an uncertain and complex future, I want to tell you about four commitments that I have that guide me every day in what I do, and that I want you to have and make also, and take with you as you leave this place.
The first commitment is to ground all of your training, all of your thinking and all of your actions in our core mission of the Department of Defense: our primary obligation will always be protecting our people and serving our nation's interests.
When I sit with the President in the situation room, we're always focused on America's interests because that's what matters most. Some regions of the world are exceedingly messy, but we're not daunted or confused because we have our North Star.
And we also recognize that protecting American interests often means leading other nations and other peoples, and leading by example. Ever since World War II, the United States has stood as the world's foremost leader, partner and underwriter of stability and security in every region of the world. It is a mantle we embraced again following the Cold War. And one that continues today to the great benefit of this nation, but also the rest of the world.
The positive and enduring partnerships the United States has cultivated with other nations around the world are built on our interests. They understand that. But they can also see that it's built on our values, which most find decent, honorable and attractive. One thing I hear consistently from foreign leaders is how much they like working with you; how much they like working with the men and women of the United States military. They want to work with you not just because you're capable and competent, and have an awesome force, but also because of the way you conduct yourselves. They can trust you.
Other nations know that you'll treat them with respect; that we take their interests into account even as we pursue our own interests. And that trust creates opportunities to defend our interests.
The Air Force provides the United States unprecedented global power and reach. But these are assets of greatest benefit to our nation and interests when they're applied in ways that are consistent with our values. So for example, when a natural disaster occurs on the other side of the world, and that's not the reason we have an air force, but we bring it to bear. And it's often you - it's often the United States Air Force that's first on the scene to deliver aid and demonstrate our values to the world.
And I can tell you, that really creates an impression in people's minds. I hear it all the time. "We were in trouble and you came and helped us out." They don't forget that. Young people see it. It leaves an impression of what America is about.
Also, you know, when we target our enemies, which we're doing right now as I stand here right now, as night falls over Syria and Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. As we target our enemies, which we have to do, we take utmost care to protect innocent life. And when we do that, we demonstrate our values.
Whether you're flying over the skies of Syria or Iraq or standing vigilant watch with the Air Force of the Republic of Korea, or defending assets in space or cyberspace, standing with our strong, secure, reliable nuclear arsenal, the bedrock of our security, allowing people around the world to communicate, to have the opportunity to protect our interests, demonstrate our values, and be the difference our military can make in the world. Your individual actions will be a clear reflection of our values and our leadership in the world.
This next commitment, the second one, the one that's echoed through generations of the military, is that it's our people, and it's your people when you become a commander, who make our military the finest fighting force the world has ever known. And it's our people who will ensure that the force of tomorrow, which you will command, remains as great as the force of today.
That's why I'm so intent on building what I call the force of the future, because we have to continue to recruit and retain the very best talent for what is, after all, an all-volunteer force - people as fine as you - and we need to do that as generations change, technology changes, families change, and job markets change.
And we can't take that for granted. That's, for example, why we're opening all combat positions to women because we want to select our force from the maximum possible population. It's about combat readiness, remember that.
From the first classes of female cadets, including Brigadier General Allison Hickey and your own Superintendent, General Johnson, to the first female combat pilots, including my former special assistant, Brigadier General Jeanne Levitt, to General Lori Robinson who tomorrow will become the first woman to lead a combatant command. I'll do the change of command tomorrow morning right here. The Air Force in these officers has proven time and time again that we're strongest when we draw from the entire strength of the nation. Females, after all, make up half the population, right? It would be foolish to pass over qualified people for any reason that has no bearing on their ability to serve with excellence.
Third, I want you to remember that our nation's defense rests on being able to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems. And that's only going to be more so in the future. In many situations, you're going to expect - you're going to encounter unexpected challenges. I told you. I told you what we're up to today, and that's plenty. But I also told you we don't know what waits tomorrow; that we need to be ready for that, too. In some instances you'll be confronted with life or death decisions at a moment's notice.
Have the courage to accept risk and solve those problems, and the wisdom to determine when that risk becomes a gamble. You're responsible for the lives of your people in the accomplishment of your mission. Balancing these two solemn duties is one of the most difficult tasks you'll face, but you've got to succeed. That's the burden of command.
When you plan, rehearse, and execute your missions, you must also be able to reevaluate the situation; reevaluate constantly; and take a new course of action when the situation demands it. And to chart a new course, you must have the confidence to be open to new ideas.
At the Pentagon, I've made it a priority to encourage people at all levels to think outside what I call our five-sided box, because we are a learning organization. And people are constantly developing new ways of operating and approaching problems that we're at our best.
The culture of learning you have experienced on this campus can't end with your graduation. You're warriors first, but you're also scientists, mathematicians, and much more. Every day, you crack the code in some way. We need you to continue doing so.
This should be a lesson for our enemies. Never underestimate the ingenuity of American officers. It's a competitive world out there. And we need to maintain competitive advantage over our enemies. They're trying, too. They're evolving. They're adapting. They're trying to go faster. We need to be better.
That's why as part of our Force of the Future initiative, we're creating more opportunities for you to work in advanced industries and tech companies for a time in the course of your careers so you can learn from other parts of our society and our economy that are very innovative, and bring that strength back into our military.
And finally, I want to discuss the importance of being a leader of character. I often walk the halls of the Pentagon. And on the fourth floor outside the Department of the Air Force, there's a series of paintings depicting the resolve of American airmen who were held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam. I know some of those men.
They serve as reminders of the character and resolve at the core of our mission. As you walk around campus, you, too, have similar reminders. Walk by Sijan Hall or the statue of General Risner, or the Plaza of Heroes, and you're reminded of what you are part of and what you contribute to.
Character is a lesson you have to constantly learn - you're never done - And teach throughout your career. So hold onto these reminders. Find new ones. You'll find the words of George Washington you memorized as fourth-class cadet, remember that? "It is actions," he said, "not the commission that make the officer." And that there is more expected from him than his title. That will have greater meaning to you as your careers go on.
We're a great nation with great responsibilities. As we meet these responsibilities, our nation stands on the foundation of character that both you and this institution make stronger and stand for, and show to the rest of the world. As you embark on your career of lives of service, know that your country is 100 percent behind you. I'm 1,000 percent behind you. I'm so proud of you.
We know what you're putting into this, and we know what you're able to achieve. You're doing the noblest thing you can do, and I'm exceedingly proud of you.