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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs

U.S. Department of Defense
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Presenter: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter May 12, 2016

Remarks by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs



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.

SEC. CARTER: 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 — 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 will be — is in this room right now.

SEC. CARTER: And history tells us that 10, 20 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 — 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 — it is 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, Lieutenant General Johnson, to the first female combat pilots, including my former special assistant, Brigadier General Jeanine Leavitt, 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.

SEC. CARTER: 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 Korea. 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.



Q: All right, sir. So, we have a few questions here we’d like to ask you, just right off the top.

And to begin, every generation seems to have its defining battle from World War II to Vietnam to Desert Storm. And we entered the military in a time when our fight isn’t really — it’s nontraditional. It’s complex. So our enemies are complex.

So I was going ask you: What do you think the class of 2016…


… what do you think our defining battle is going to be? What’s going to be the fight of our generation?

SEC. CARTER: History says I — if I give you an answer to that, I’m going to be wrong. And that’s the — no, I’m serious. Everything we’ve done, we have reacted to. Almost every major mission of consequence in my lifetime was in a sense strategically unanticipated.

And I’m giving you that answer because there’s a lesson in there, which is I told you what we’re up to today, right? And each one of those — that’s serious business, every one of those things. This isn’t a game. We have to win in every one of those cases.

And that seems like a lot, but I’m telling you it’s even worse than that, that there are things that we’re not foreseeing now. And by the way, I said worse, but you’ve got to think about a world of opportunities, too. There are great opportunities out there to make a safer America and make a better world.

So — so this is why I really want to focus you, and I think the Air Force does this very, very well — on the capabilities that whatever the future holds, are sure to be critical.

And you’re doing them all, every single one, the Air Force is involved in everything that I’m certain is going to be part of our future, whatever it holds.

Q: Thank you, sir.

Sir, the cadets here in the room, they’ve seen a big emphasis on the remotely piloted aircraft career field. And you’ve been very instrumental to that growth. From your perspective, where do you see this career field going in the future?

SEC. CARTER: It’s — it’s — it’s here to stay. It’s bedrock. It is the most visible part of every day of mine, and every night of mine. The RPAs are active, as you all well know, every single night. And so if you join that career field, you will, I guarantee you, you will have a lot of action that will be very satisfying because it’s clear that — it’s very clear that you’re doing something of great consequence.

We have a little bit of an issue right now, as I’m sure many of you know, that we actually work you too hard in this field. And so we have a problem where we took all the instructors out of the schoolhouse and put them on the flight line. And had them working and flying and doing missions for us.

And so we’re squeezed now. And so what we’re aiming for is the following: 60 Air Force orbits; another 10 government-owned but contractor-operated and basically run by the Air Force, but not staffed by you. That gets you up to 70.

Then the Army has something called “Gray Eagle,” which is a version of the MQ-9. And we’re going to get them to make them not just part of their brigade sets, but get out there and operate every night.

And then we’ve got SOCOM has some as well. So all together, that’s going to get up to 90 orbits. That may seem like a lot of orbits, but every single day we are moving stuff around and trying — are we going to do — you know, how much is going to go to Afghanistan; how much is going to go to Syria; how much is going to go to Iraq and Yemen, Libya.

I mean, believe me, this is a very active field. So it’s sure to be a winner. But almost all your career fields — really, without exception, your career fields, you’ve got a lot of exciting stuff. You’ve got nuclear deterrence. You’ve got space. You’ve got — plus wonderful kinds of airplanes, including some new ones that we’re buying.

A pretty good deal.


Q: Thank you, sir.

One of your topics of interest have been how can we modernize how we manage our DOD members. And so that said, what kinds of changes in deployments, trainings, promotions, benefits do you see — do you think that we should expect in our careers?

SEC. CARTER: Yeah, this is a real passion of mine. And it is for the reason I described, which is people are what make us the greatest. And but that isn’t a birthright.

I got the finest fighting force the world has ever known because my predecessors worked to make this military successful. And I have to do the same for my successors and my successor’s successor.

As I look ahead I realize, for example, generations are different, right? You guys are different from my generation. The people who come after you will be different from you. And we have to look at that and say well the profession of arms doesn’t change. But we need to understand how to connect to new generations.

We’re not — I’m not satisfied that we’re recruiting in all demographics of the United States. We’re heavier in some parts of the country than in other parts of the country. When I see that, I see lost opportunity. That’s what I said about females as well. It’s lost opportunity.

I mean just if you’re not fishing in the whole pond, you’re not going to have the best fish, right? And so recruiting, we have to be creative in how we attract people. Then when you’re in, how do we develop you and get you to stay?

Development means consistent training as you go. And I’m really big on you all having the opportunity for professional education of various kinds. It makes you better. And it makes you better within our force. And you’ll likely stick with this if you see that you’re growing by being part of the Air Force.

And I need that. I need that. You have choices. And I can’t have you lured away by other things.

You’ll come a time when you want to have a family and you’re trying to balance that. That’s why I’m doing things like maternity leave. We just lengthened maternity leave. Paternity leave, childcare hours.

I mean these things are — may not seem important to you now. But in a few years if you decide to have a family they’ll be really important things.

So where I can, and I can’t change everything, right? It’s the military. You got to go where we tell you to go, when we tell you to go. You got to do what we say when we tell you to say it. I can’t do a lot about that.

But where I can make it easier for you to have a family and do other things that you want to do with your lives and stick with this, I will.

And then finally, you guys are way too young to be thinking about retirement. But I got to look at that too because that’s another thing that affects whether we retain. Because during the whole lifetime of a service member I’m looking to attract and keep and develop the very best because I know that’s the heart and soul of our military.

Q: Thank you, sir. What would you say is your favorite part about your job?

SEC. CARTER: It’s you guys. I mean it’s visiting troops. There’s no — it absolutely is. I’m not…


I’m not just saying that. I — you guys just make me so proud. I just think it is spectacular the kinds of people that we attract. And if — you see these wonderful people matched up with what I — as I told you I think is the noblest thing you can do with your life. And I see great people.

It’s just, it’s inspiring to me. And yes, I work hard. And I take extremely serious the responsibilities that we share.

As I said before, it’s not a game. This is serious business. But to share it with wonderful people like this, it just makes me so proud. It’s you and it’s all the other services. And it’s people of all ranks.

And I have a wonderful wife, Stephanie, who works and can’t go with me very often to things. But she’s hugely patriotic. She loves you guys. And it’s great when we go out and get to be with the family.

And it’s so much better than being in Washington. People are so much more real, and our people are the best.

Our people are the best all over the world. You go wherever they are. And they — you brighten me up, make me proud. So that’s by far and away that makes all the other hassles worth it.

STAFF: I think we can field some questions from the audience now if you’re OK with that, sir.

Q: Sec. Carter, thank you for being with us today.

My question concerns the national debt. It’s massive. Is that a national security threat? And what can we do about that as a military? How does that affect us?

SEC. CARTER: Good. The question was the national debt, how serious it is. Is it — and how does — what can you do to affect it, how does it affect you?

Let me start with the last part. It affects us a lot. And I’ll say why. Unfortunately you can’t affect it much, and I’ll try to say why also. And then lastly, it’s really important.

Here’s the deal, though. The — in order to balance the budget, there are three pieces to it. There’s taxes. If you want more money you can raise taxes. That’s not very popular. You can cut things like Medicare, which is also not very popular.

And so all the attention ends up on what’s called the discretionary part of the federal budget, which is us. We’re about half of it. And all the rest of the government is the other half.

So, but that’s a — that’s just a piece of — we’re not the biggest part of the federal budget. It’s those other pieces. But our political system hasn’t wanted to touch the other two pieces. So it focuses on us. And that is why we’ve been under such budget pressure for the last few years.

Now, I have opposed that. And I can speak to it. You can’t speak to it much, but I have to speak to it. But the reality is, that I’m the secretary of Defense. And I don’t control all those other parts of the budget dialogue.

So what I have been calling for, and most of our leaders — all of our leaders from the Defense Department now for years is can you not do sequester? Can you come together in a bipartisan way? Can Washington come together behind a real addressing of the real issues here, which are all the parts of the budget.

And we’ll take our pain if we have to in the course of balancing the budget. We’re realistic.

And we’re working real hard with the money we have to do what we need to do. We’re working to spend it in the best possible way so we can look the taxpayer in the eye and say we’re putting $600 billion to work for you in the best possible way. And also you know I talk about defense. But my job is national security. I’m in the National Security Council. So I have to care about what the FBI and the intelligence community and Homeland Security and the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons business.

I have to care what they’re doing because we can’t do it all alone. And we can’t protect the country and protect our people all alone. And I realize that the future of the nation and the strength of our military depends upon research and development, education.

SEC. CARTER: So the other parts of the government count for me. So I try to say that. I say that all the time.

But the reality is it’s very hard in Washington for things to come together. And things have been gridlocked. And that’s created a lot of turbulence. And I’ve tried to smooth that out for you all as best we can and not have it affect your lives.

I’m confident now that the funding we’re getting is adequate for what we need to do.

SEC. CARTER: We’re going to have to be careful about how we use it, but we can do it. But I don’t like the turbulence and the up and down. And it’s wrongheaded.

And you can’t balance the budget on the backs of the federal — of the discretionary budget and the defense budget. I mean, just do the math, damn it. It doesn’t work.

So, anyway. You can tell I get frustrated.


Q: Sec. Carter, it’s amazing hearing your bio about getting your doctorate in theoretical physics, and not only publishing papers on the physics realm, but also nuclear policy and security. And it’s inspiring to many scientists, especially an aspiring physicist such as myself.

But in 21 days, half of this room will be graduating from a world of academia to the operational Air Force, a vastly different environment. And you stressed in your third commitment the importance of keeping that culture of ingenuity we have here on to the other side.

And so my question is: What were you able to take from academia into your current offices and offices you already held? And how were you able to make that transition?

SEC. CARTER: It’s a good question. The transition began by accident, I’ve got to tell you. And so much of your lives will — you know, you’ll pick the — chosen a certain course, and then five years later, you’ll do something else. And — and your lives will zig and zag, and mine did as well. But I — I, just like you, started out in physics. And I was just interested in — I didn’t really know anything about world affairs, national security and so on. But I was given one opportunity, and somebody said to me, “Here’s a really important problem; come and work on it for one year.” So there’s that one year now — whatever, 40 years later, here I am.


And to say what I brought to it, first, it was the magic of being able to combine something I thought I could make a contribution to, because it was — we sat around the table and I knew how things worked. Other people knew other things about how the world worked and that, but I knew something. And the right decision couldn’t be made without what I knew. And that felt — I felt like I was helping.

And I felt like the problem I was working on was really important. And I’d go home and night, you know, I’d tell my friends, “this is what I’m working on,” like this is really — you know, this isn’t selling some widget or something; this is, no kidding, protecting the country.

And those two things together made it. Now, I did try to bring from academia, and things I did in academia, the — the — both the discipline to think things through carefully, because this is serious. This is serious. I’m sending people like you into harm’s way. And it’s all about protecting our people.

So, you — I — I tried to bring that kind of rigor. But also constantly questioning. We’ve got to be on ourselves all the time. It’s a competitive world out there. You don’t think the Chinese are competitive? You don’t think the Russians are competitive? You don’t think ISIL’s competitive?

These guys are competitive. And so, if you think that just by doing what we’ve been doing we’re going to win, that’s not the case. We’ve got to be — and so we have to keep pushing ourselves. And so you’ll find that you have to push yourself. You’ll find that you have a boss who wants to do things, you know, just keep doing things the same way, and you have to push him or her to do things differently.

You’ll find that it’s risky sometimes, and people say, “Boy, you’re really pushing the envelope here.” So have the courage to do that, because that’s the only way we’re going to be the best, and we’ve got to be the best.

Q: Thank you, sir.

STAFF: Sir, I think we have time for one more question — one more question.

Q: The Department of Defense is currently drafting policy that would allow transgender servicemembers to serve openly in the military. But there are a lot of members of the military and even the general public who don’t encounter transgender people on a normal basis, and maybe don’t fully understand it. Are there any plans for the Department of Defense to educate about it?

SEC. CARTER: Yeah, we’re working through — we’re working through it. This is a complicated issue. And I think it — it — it has a lot of ramifications that are very practical ones. The question of principle we’ve sort of settled, which is that — the one I said earlier, which is what matters is people’s ability to contribute to our military. That’s what matters.

And then the — so — the only barriers we should ever erect to that principle are ones in which there are practical issues that we can’t work through. We usually, I’m confident, we’re very good at working through those kinds of things. So that’s what we’re working on right now.

But our principle is quite clear. And it’s like everything else we do, we try to — we do things in a careful, thoughtful manner. And I’m confident we’re going to get to the right place in this, as in so many other things we have to work through. And it — and what you have to keep in mind is it’s the — it’s the quality and readiness of the force that matters. That’s the goal, so keep that in front of us.

Q: Thank you, sir.

STAFF: I believe that’s all the time we have for this today, so thank you, sir.

SEC. CARTER: All right. Good to be with you all.


STAFF: One more round of applause please for the secretary of defense.


SEC. CARTER: Thanks.


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