Secretary of Defense Speech

NDU Foundation American Patriot Award


All, right.  Well, listen, thank you, Dr. Ronis – appreciate it.  Good evening, everyone.  What a terrific video about our honorees, and I'm honored to be here to, in turn, honor them.  

It’s good to be with all of you, a lot of colleagues past and present, servicemembers, friends.  General Selva, Paul, are you out there?  Paul, Ricky, nice to be with you, as always.  Thanks for holding down the fort while I was away.  I’m also glad Norm Augustine is here with his wife Meg.  Norm, good to see you and Meg, always, always…and also to learn that the men and women of the defense industry of the United States are also being honored this evening – more about that later.  Norm and I have known each other for decades – decades now, Norm.  And I remain, for one here, a devoted reader of Augustine’s Laws. 

Norm and I attended the so-called “Last Supper” in 1993 when the Pentagon and industry set the course for our relationship in the post-Cold War period.  I’ve said it many times before, but for decades the Department and the defense industry have worked together on the national security team.  I always tell people we don’t make anything at the Pentagon.  The Soviet Union tried that, and it didn’t work out very well for them.  We have a different system, and the companies and the men and women of the defense industry are part of our strength, so I’m glad to see them honoring that fact tonight, and you, Norm and Meg, good to see you.

And I also want to thank Dr. Ronis, Larry Rzepka – wherever Larry went, and all the representatives from our National Defense University and the NDU Foundation here tonight – for all you do to educate and support those who serve.  And thank you, as well, for honoring them with this recognition.  I’m, in turn, honored to accept the NDU Foundation American Patriot Award today on behalf of them – the men and women of the Department of Defense…soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, civilians, and contractors. 

Together – together, they make up the finest fighting force the world has ever known, one we should all take pride in and be thankful for.  All of them – each and every one – are doing one of the noblest things a person can do, which is to help defend our country and to make a better world for our children. 

To do so, they’re confronting – right here, right now as we speak here this evening – five major, unique, and evolving challenges.

They’re countering, first, the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, particularly in Europe, where I was just this morning, for a meeting with our NATO Allies in Brussels. 

They’re managing historic change in the Asia-Pacific – the single most consequential region for America’s future.  They’re strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile provocations.  They’re checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf, and helping defend our friends and allies in the Middle East.  And they’re accelerating the certain defeat of ISIL…in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria; as well as in Afghanistan, Libya, and everywhere else the ISIL cancer metastasizes around the world; and by helping to protect our homeland and our people here. 

Indeed, I was in Iraq earlier this week, visiting with our troops in Baghdad and Erbil, which isn’t far from Mosul, where American personnel are advising and enabling our Iraqi partners in the fight against ISIL.  I saw firsthand how they’re continuing to perform with excellence at this milestone in our campaign.  And I was encouraged by how our coalition military campaign plan, particularly the Iraqi-led assault on Mosul, is proceeding according to the plan – the plan we laid out a year ago.  And make no mistake:  Raqqa is next.

Now, the Defense Department doesn’t have the luxury of choosing among these five challenges – we have to do it all.  And, of course, we must be flexible and agile, because, no matter how excellent NDU studies are, when you look at history, you see that we have an almost unblemished record of failure when it comes to predicting the strategic future.  So we’re preparing to contend, in addition, with an uncertain future – ensuring that our personnel and the Defense Department continue to be ready for challenges we may not anticipate today.

To meet those five challenges and in the face of that unknown future, DoD is taking steps to remain the most powerful military on earth.  To ensure we do so, to ensure we take care of our people, to ensure we have the right plans and strategies in place, and to ensure we’re prepared for whatever comes our way, I’ve been working every day to meet the three commitments I made when I was sworn in…two years ago now, I guess, and which every Secretary of Defense I’ve ever known – and I’ve worked for 11 of them, with 11 of them – make.

And the first, as Secretary of Defense, my first commitment is to our honorees tonight – to our personnel, our men and women, uniform and civilian – to their excellence, to their welfare, to making sure they’re treated with dignity and respect, and above all, making certain that when they’re sent into harm’s way, it’s done with the utmost care and purpose. 

I’m doing everything I can to support the strength and readiness of today’s fighting force, so they can confront those five challenges – investing in the right training, the right equipment, the right force size, and the right compensation. 

What that means is, we’re training our force to be ready for full-spectrum combat.  We’re providing them the equipment and maintenance support needed to get the job done and come home safely.  We’re ensuring the right mix of active, guard, and reserve across the force.  And we’re providing the compensation and benefits that our troops, military families, and DoD civilians deserve.   

But our support for today’s force also involves more than that, it also includes our commitment to help care for our military’s wounded, ill, and injured and support our military families, because they serve too. 

It includes our enduring pledge to support the families of the fallen, whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our country.  It also includes our pledge to support our servicemembers when they move on to whatever’s next for them so they can succeed in every way possible.  And it also means that when our servicemembers are not being treated fairly, and with respect, we act quickly to fix it, as we’ve done with the California National Guard bonus issue this week.

Of course, our commitment to today’s force also includes what we’re doing to ensure the dignity of our people, which is why we’ve been prioritizing the prevention and elimination of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military. 

And it also means we have to be open up to all Americans who can meet the high standards of our force, because our strength as an all-volunteer force depends on drawing the best from the widest possible pool of talent that can meet our standards.  That’s why we opened up all remaining combat roles to women, and we’re welcoming transgender Americans to serve openly.

Of course, America’s military deserves only the finest leaders.  And that’s why the best decisions I’ve made as Secretary of Defense have been my recommendations to the President on nominations for the leadership of the force.  That includes the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford, Vice Chairman Paul Selva, who’s here tonight as I mentioned, and the rest of the Joint Chiefs, and by now, eight out of our nine combatant commanders – proudest decisions.

Understanding the strength of our force and our capabilities helps me honor my second commitment, which is to the President of the United States and our Commander-in-Chief – to offer President Obama my best strategic counsel, to ensure that he receives candid military advice, and to execute his decisions with DoD’s expected and accustomed excellence. 

We’ve done so on each of the five challenges we face.  In Europe, we’ve developed – and we’re implementing – a strong and balanced strategy to deter Russian aggression against our NATO allies in Europe.  In the Asia-Pacific, we’ve crafted the latest phase of our rebalance to that region, and now we’re operationalizing it and catalyzing the region’s burgeoning principled and inclusive security network.  In the face of North Korea’s continued aggression, we’ve modernized our alliances with Japan and South Korea, deployed new capabilities to defend our allies, our forces, and our homeland, and reaffirmed that our extended deterrence commitments are unbreakable. 

In the Middle East, as the United States continues to monitor Iran’s adherence to the nuclear accord, we’re taking our defense relationships with Israel and our Gulf partners to new levels.  And on ISIL, one year ago, President Obama approved the first in a series of recommendations by me and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, to begin gathering momentum in the fight against ISIL. 

We’ve achieved significant results to date – helping our local partners in Iraq and Syria to recapture Ramadi, Hit, Fallujah, Qayyarah, Shaddadi, Manbij, Dabiq, and more, and now…now execute our plans for Mosul and Raqqa.  And I’m confident our campaign plan, our global coalition, and the local partners we’ve developed and enabled will help deliver ISIL the lasting defeat it deserves and will surely get.

Meanwhile – even as we’ve been executing all those missions – we’ve also been laying the groundwork and charting a path for a more agile, innovative, and efficient military and Defense Department to serve and protect our nation in the years to come.  And that’s because my third commitment – after our people and our Commander-in-Chief – is to the future…to keeping our military edge as sharp as possible in a changing and fiercely competitive world. 

And to stay ahead of our competitors and challenges – to stay the best – I’ve been pushing the Pentagon to think outside of our five-sided box…to invest aggressively in innovation of all kinds:  in our technology, in our operations, in our people and all-volunteer force, and in our organization.

That’s why we’re making increased investments in science and technology, and building new bridges to the amazing American innovative system – to stay ahead of future threats.  It’s why we’re also innovating operationally, making our contingency plans and operations more flexible and more dynamic in every region. 

It’s why we’re building what I’ve called the Force of the Future – because as good as our technology is, it’s nothing compared to our people, and in the future we need to continue to recruit, develop, and retain the very best talent from future generations.  And because we owe it to America’s taxpayers to spend our defense dollars as wisely and responsibly as possible, we’re also pushing for needed reforms across the DoD enterprise – from continuously improving acquisitions, to further reducing overhead, and to proposing new changes to the Goldwater-Nichols Act that defines much of our institutional organization.

Because we’re doing all this – because we’re meeting these three commitments – and because of our nation’s enduring strengths – like, our growing, innovative economy, our world-class universities – places of instruction like NDU, our dedication and service to values and principles, our unrivaled network of allies and partners, and of course, our unmatched, battle-tested, innovative, and awesomely capable military, because of all that, I’m sure that the future for our country is bright and full of opportunities for our nation to seize. 

And I am confident that the United States will maintain our unrivaled military strength for decades and remain the world’s foremost leader, partner, and provider of security in every region across the globe.

But I never forget – and we can never forget – who makes it all happen.  And you know the answer…because you chose to honor them tonight…it’s our people.  And we have a few of them here with us.  And let’s give them a round of applause, and would they stand?  Paul, you’re going to need to lead the way here.

Each of you, and each of your fellow servicemembers and DoD civilians, make me incredibly proud – make this country proud.  You’re some of the nearly 3 million men and women serving across this country and around the clock, in every time zone on earth, and in every domain…in the air, ashore, afloat, and in cyberspace – all in service to this great nation.

All of you are defending not only the United States and its people; you’re also defending the values and principles that define us – and which, by the way, so much of humanity also desires – while you provide the security that will enable our children to live a better future. 

Because you do so, we can sit here and enjoy this dinner in peace.  We can go to work tomorrow or study at schools like NDU.  Americans  can live our lives, they can dream our dreams, and enjoy the freedoms upon which this country was built, and for which so many generations of Americans have fought.  

You make all that possible.  And at a time when not as many serve, I want you to know that we don’t take you for granted.  Stephanie and I wake up to you every morning…wake up for you every morning, thinking of you.  I know that our mission is demanding and constantly changing, but I couldn’t be prouder of you for what you do every day – and for all you’ve done for us. 

Your excellence is unparalleled.  Your service is valued.  And your sacrifices will never be forgotten. 

May God bless you, and all men and women of the finest fighting force the world has ever known – and may God bless the United States of America.  

Good night.