Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks at the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Retirement Ceremony


Chairman Dunford, Secretary James, elected officials, friends and family, members of the Air Force family and our broader DOD family -- past, present, future -- privileged to be here today, as we honor one of our most appreciated and accomplished military leaders and his family.

For General Mark Welsh, his family has provided him a critical foundation, starting, of course, with his wife, Betty, [and] four wonderful children: Mark, John, Matt and Elizabeth all here today.  And we're so grateful for them.  They've provided Mark the support and flexibility he's needed to answer his country's call repeatedly and to lead missions of incredible difficulty.

Some of those missions took place closer to home than others.  Indeed, as a proud Air Force father, perhaps one of Mark's biggest tests came when his son Matt said the following five words, "Dad, I'm becoming a Marine."

As always, Mark adjusted, of course, and frankly, there are few indications of General Welsh's personal success than the decision of two of his children to follow in his footsteps, to serve in the military and pursue the noblest of callings.  It's an honor to be in the presence of a family where selfless service and commitment to country mean so much.

Now, for those of us who work in the Pentagon, we see the Air Force Memorial every day. It's natural for us to focus on its three spires and the separate paths they take to the sky; the artist’s rendition of the Thunderbird’s “high bomb burst” maneuver is what first strikes the eye.  

But as General Welsh explains, you have to see the Memorial from its foundation to appreciate its full meaning, because supporting the three rising spires is a solid granite base.  And inscribed into the Memorial's foundation are the words that comprise the Air Force's foundation, the core values of this proud service: “integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do.”

Those are powerful words.  And Mark has made it his mission to model them and make them the North Star for airmen.  He stressed that only when airmen of every rank and occupation specialty come together around these values can the Air Force deliver the global vigilance, global reach and global power that our nation requires.

Mark has said he first joined the Air Force because he fell in the love with airplanes and wanted to fly, but that he stayed in the Air Force because he fell in love with the people; he fell in love with the idea of the Air Force and what its people stood for and provided their nation. 

I'm sure many of you have seen Mark interact with our airmen.  You've seen the dignity and respect he affords each and every one, creates an incredibly powerful bond between them.

When he speaks to Academy and ROTC cadets, or the airmen at an Air Force Base, Mark often calls upon the youngest or most experienced among them to come forward.  Bringing this young man or woman to the front is a great honor, but it's also a challenge.

"Which of us is more important to the Air Force, me or you?" Mark will ask them.  And that's a tough question and it can take a couple minutes for Mark to get the right response.  But he always leads them to the right answer that each and every airman is as important as any other.

Now, to be sure, this has been no easy time.  Our airmen have been enduring threats of sequestration, they've managed an insatiable demand for air power across combatant commands, they've served and sacrificed in two wars.  Through it all, our airmen have performed magnificently.  Under General Welsh's leadership, they've innovated, they've adapted, they've built upon the best traditions and core values of our Air Force

Mark's own career prepared him to inspire airmen to break with traditional approaches and career paths.  He's flown the F- 16 and the A-10, among others.  He's held positions of command in Europe and in Asia.  He spent years as both a fighter pilot and an intelligence officer.  And most recently, as Chief of Staff, General Welsh has enabled our Air Force to thrive over these last four years.

Many of us, and certainly I, have seen this up close in so many different ways.  We see it in how he has made the Air Force more responsive to war time needs to deliver better, rapid support to our warfighters.  We've seen it in how he has ensured the Air Force made smart investments in key modernization efforts, including the B-21 long- range striker bomber, KC-46 refueling tanker, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – game-changing platforms that will allow us to continue our air dominance well into this century.  And we've seen it in how he has led the Air Force in responding to challenges all over the world:

  • in the Asia-Pacific  where as part of America's rebalance to the region  we're sending some of our Air Force's most advanced capabilities, including the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, and continuous employments of B-2 and B-52 bombers; 
  • in the Middle East and around the Gulf, where Air Force OPTEMPO has been high for decades, and where today, in the skies over Iraq and Syria, our airmen are engaged in a spectacular air campaign to deliver ISIL a certain and lasting defeat;
  • and in Europe, where the Air Force's contributions to Baltic air policing have helped deter Russian aggression against our NATO allies, and where our investments under the European Reassurance Initiative will strengthen our regional air superiority posture, allowing us, for example, to keep additional F-15C tactical fighter squadron based in Europe, and helping air field infrastructure to enhance operations for Air Force fighters.

That's the kind of global impact that Mark has helped enable for our Air Force.  And he has had a similar impact across the functions of the Air Force re-energizing critical enterprises, like electronic warfare, cyber, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, and the Air Force's nuclear enterprise. General Welsh has been an instrumental leader in putting our most sophisticated electronic jammers onto the Air Force's most in-demand aircraft, and helping prioritize cyber defense is job one for our military in cyber space. And making sure we're taking care of the airmen who fly, fix and operate our fleet of remotely piloted aircraft, and in reversing decades of under investment in our nuclear deterrent, which is the bedrock of our security.

All of this was able to happen because, as Mark worked tirelessly to meet current demands over the past four years, he never lost sight of the needs of the next four years, or the next 40 years. That kind of strategic foresight is, and will continue to be essential, not only for the Air Force, but the entire Department of Defense, particularly in a world where the challenges we face are increasingly trans-regional and trans-functional.  And here, too, Mark's impact has been critical.

One of Mark's great legacies as leader has come from his skill as an integrator, both within the Air Force and across our joint force.  Since Mark became Chief-of-Staff, the Air Force's ISR, electronic warfare and cyber components have been completely transformed in how they work.  While we can't discuss all of the different ways he has integrated the operations of the 25th and 24th Air Forces, for example, we can say that when an electronic warfare platform like the EC-130 plays a leading role in our cyber enterprise today, you can get a glimpse of one small part of Mark's legacy.

And of course, many of the innovations he has driven forward extend well beyond the Air Force. Look at the Army pods now fixed to the wings of Air Force Reapers, or the Air Force and Navy's partnership on jamming improvised explosive devices. These are just two of the joint force collaborations he has championed.  And for years to come, American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will be safer because of them.

Now, Mark's expertise here isn't surprising.  After all, many of Mark's accomplishments over the past decade were not only in the Air Force, not only in the Pentagon, but in integrating America's defense and intelligence missions as Associate Director of the CIA. As his distinguished service citation from the Agency reads, “He led unprecedented Central Intelligence Agency support to globally deployed U.S. military assets at a time of unparalleled operations tempo.”

Most of us in this hangar will be long gone before the full story of Mark achieved for our security is told, but this we do know. Ever since Mark's tour at the Agency, he's put the art of the possible at the center of answering every challenge.

If he hears that we can't do something a certain way or we've never done it that way before, that's just simply not a response he'll accept.  When I talk about the importance for us at the Pentagon to think outside our five-sided box, Mark is one leader who has shown why it's so critical to do so for our future.

That's an aspect of Mark's leadership I've greatly appreciated as Secretary. He always brings solutions to the table that are forward-looking, practical and sustainable.  I've seen firsthand how his innovative thinking and leadership has benefited not only our airmen, but also the marine in Anbar, soldier in Kunar, sailor in the Pacific. And I've also benefited personally from his most incisive inputs on key initiatives from building the Force of the Future that will help defend our nation in generations to come, to building bridges with America's innovative technology community so our military continues to stay the best, to opening all combat positions to women so that we can take advantage of our country's entire pool of population for our all-volunteer force.  Indeed, each of us here today and citizens across this nation are indebted to Mark for us four decades of distinguished service.

And make no mistake, by the way Mark leads and services, you can tell he's enjoyed the journey. You can tell how much he loves the people of this military and the nation they serve.  He cherishes the security they provide together so that men and women across the country, and indeed, across the world can go to school, go to work, raise their children, live their lives, dream their dreams.  It's the love of his love and inspiration, his wife Betty, who's done so much to make this success possible.

If there's one person in the Air Force family who's embraced each new challenge with an open mind and each new community with a generous heart, it's Betty Welsh.  At a time when so much has been asked of our airmen, when so many have spent so many tours away from home, Betty's compassion has helped sustain the force.

 As she said, “a key spouse can reach out to every spouse in the squadron every family.”  For dozens of communities and thousands of families, Betty's been that key spouse. She's been there for families at their times of greatest need.  And she's made the Air Force a family for so many.

Betty, you've sacrificed greatly for these many years.  We owe you and your entire family a tremendous debt of gratitude.  I know you and Mark are looking forward to spending some more time together and I want you to both know that Stephanie and I and the entire Defense Department family wish you and your family the very best.

Today, we know that the standard General Welsh has set for this service to constantly learn, adapt and prepare for a world of varied current challenges and uncertain future challenges, but also bright opportunities for the great nation that is America will soon be carried forward under the proven leadership and strategic vision of his successor, General Dave Goldfein.  And we know that the values and traditions of excellence in innovations, which have allowed the United States to dominate the first aerospace century, will surely guide the Air Force to do that in the next.

Because of General Mark Welsh, because of the commitment of the family that supported him, because of the excellence of airmen who have served under him, the United States Air Force is better prepared to fly, fight and win than at any time in history.  Across the many missions we ask our Air Force to complete, across the many domains we ask them to dominate, the foundations of this proud service are stronger than ever before.  And to General Welsh  for all this  for your strong and steady leadership, for your selfless service to this country, for your commitment to our airmen, to their families and to our entire force, Mark we thank you.