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George P. Shultz Lecture

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, San Francisco, California, Thursday, August 12, 2010

I’m really honored to have been introduced by Secretary Perry, an extraordinary public servant and visionary thinker on defense and foreign policy issues.  As Bill indicated, four years ago in the spring, summer and fall of 2006, we served together on the Baker-Hamilton Commission – just a couple of Phds with a little government experience under our belts.   Little did I know that my sojourn to Iraq with that group in the summer of 2006 would be only the first of many such visits for me. 

An anecdote about missed opportunities:  while in Baghdad with the Study Group, about 2 a.m. one night the electric power went out – a common occurrence – and of course the air conditioning went off as well.  It was about 105 degrees even at night.  As the temperature rose in my room, I went outside to find someone to fix the problem.  In a tee-shirt and shorts I stopped a young soldier walking by to ask his help.  And all I can say is that his indifference to my discomfort was monumental – he walked on.  Now, just think – had he known that 90 days later I would be named Secretary of Defense, he might have earned a battlefield promotion.  It was not to be and he remains only a vivid, nameless, memory.

I feel truly privileged to have been invited to deliver a lecture named in honor of George Shultz – a man who I believe will be remembered in history as one of our nation’s finest Secretaries of State.  For more than six years, he and Ronald Reagan formed one of the most successful partnerships of a President and his chief diplomat in modern times, a true model for how the relationship is supposed to work. 

And, having just left the swampy humidity of Washington, all I can tell you is that both Bill and George made a really smart choice by relocating to the Bay Area. 

I would also like to thank this lecture’s sponsors, the World Affairs Council of Northern California and the Marines’ Memorial Association.  I appreciate the hard work that the Memorial Association’s president, Major General Mike Myatt, put into this event and is putting into preparing for San Francisco’s fleet week in October as its chairman.  And it is fitting that George Shultz, himself a proud marine, be associated with this lecture and with fleet week as honorary co-chair.  And I might just note that even as Marines today are helping with flood relief in Pakistan, fleet week here will provide demonstrations of the naval services’ humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities.  And it’s appropriate that I address this audience during an important point in the history of the United States Marine Corps, and at a time of great challenge and change for America’s military.

It has been nearly nine years since about 1,000 Marines of Task Force 58 landed in the Afghanistan desert from ships more than 400 miles away in the Northern Arabian Sea, establishing America’s first conventional foothold in the country.  The commander of that effort, which took place just weeks after 9/11, was then Brigadier General James Mattis.  Yesterday, I was privileged to see General Mattis take charge of Central Command, overseeing all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

The attacks of 9/11 began nearly a decade of constant deployment and combat for our military, and especially our nation’s ground forces.  In Iraq, Marines – as is often the case – were handed some of the roughest real estate and saw some of the most brutal and deadliest fighting of the conflict.  Places like Fallujah and names like Zembiec and Dunham will take their place in Marine Corps history along with the legends of the past.  The Marine presence in Iraq came to an end earlier this year with the handover of responsibility for Anbar province to the Army.  Marines left behind a stable region that had only a few years earlier been the epicenter of the Sunni insurgency.  In fact, by Marine standards they were probably too successful, as the lack of violence in Anbar province over the last couple of years – combined with access to the amenities of big bases – made their commandant worried that his Marines were going soft.  And I heard fairly often, directly, that they were just plain bored.

Well, there will be no such worries in Afghanistan, where nearly 20,000 Marines are in the thick of the fight.  There, they have been sent into the Taliban’s strongholds in the southern part of the country.  These warriors are writing a new chapter in the Marine Corps roll of honor with their blood and their sweat.

All told, the Iraq and Afghan campaigns have posed extraordinarily complex challenges to America’s fighting men and women, forcing them to assume the role of diplomat, warrior, humanitarian and development expert.  They have shown what the late Marine General Victor Krulak once wrote was the “adaptability, initiative and improvisation [that] are the true fabric of obedience, the ultimate in soldierly conduct, going further than sheer heroism.”   In many ways Marines are uniquely pedigreed for these tasks, having long recognized the need to be flexible and prepared to fight and operate in any contingency – including counterinsurgency and stability operations.  Indeed, the Marines led the way in our young republic’s first “war on terror” against the Barbary pirates at the dawn of the 19th century, and wrote the first counterinsurgency and stability handbook – called the Small Wars Manual – some seventy years ago.

Yet the post- 9/11 years and wars have also triggered anxiety in some circles over the future role and character of the Marine Corps. An anxiety that is rooted in the fact that the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan have functioned for years as a so-called second land army. The perception being that they have become too heavy, too removed from their expeditionary, amphibious roots and the unique skill sets those missions require.  General James Conway, the commandant, has noted that we have a generation of officers and Marines that are combat-hardened, but may never have stepped aboard a ship.    

Defining that future mission of the Marine Corps is the intellectual effort that General James Amos will undertake as the new commandant, if he is confirmed by the Senate.  I won’t preempt the work of General Amos and other smart people in trying to define the unique mission of the Marines going forward, but I would offer some observations.

First, the contemporary debate about the mission of the Corps is not a new phenomenon.  After World War II, some military leaders felt that Marine operations on land and in the skies had duplicated the functions of the Army and Army Air Force.  One Army general quipped, “you Marines are nothing but a bunch of beach-runners anyway. What do you know about land warfare?” – ironic, given the concerns being expressed today.

In the wake of the post-war defense reorganization – and in the interservice battles that went with it – the Marines’ mission was codified in federal statute, the only service to do so.  In addition to a long list of maritime responsibilities, was added, I quote, “such other duties as the President may direct.” 

Since then, such duties as directed by the President have taken Marines to beaches, mountains and trenches in Korea and jungles and rice paddies in Vietnam.  To the deserts of Kuwait in the first Gulf War and, most recently, to the urban alleys of Anbar province and the dusty, rugged Helmand province of Afghanistan.  And although many of these operations saw Marines being initially projected from sea, they soon turned into long, grinding, ground engagements.   

As the service’s new operating concept stated earlier this year, the Pacific campaign of World War II was the only period of history when the exclusive focus of the Marine Corps was on amphibious assault.  Yet fundamentally, the Marines do not want to be, nor does America need, another land army.  Nor do they want to be, nor does America need, a “U.S. Navy police force,” as President Truman once quipped.  The Marines unique ability to project combat forces from the sea under uncertain circumstances – forces quickly able to protect and sustain themselves – is a capability that America has needed in this past decade, and will require in the future.  For example, it was a real strategic asset during the first Gulf War to have a flotilla of Marines waiting off Kuwait City – forcing Saddam’s army to keep one eye on the Saudi border, and one eye on the coast.  And then, of course, it was the Marine armored formation in the desert – the “second land army” if you will – that liberated Kuwait City.

Looking ahead, I do think it is proper to ask whether large-scale amphibious assault landings along the lines of Inchon are feasible.  New anti-ship missiles with long range and high accuracy may make it necessary to debark from ships 25, 40 or 60 or more miles at sea. 

I have therefore asked Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and the Marine Corps leadership to conduct a thorough Force Structure Review, to determine what an “expeditionary-force-in-readiness” should look like in the 21st century.   I directed them not to lose sight of the Marines greatest strengths: a broad portfolio of capabilities and penchant for adapting that are needed to be successful in any campaign.  The counterinsurgency skills the Marines developed during this past decade, combined with the agility and espirit honed over two centuries well position the Corps in my view to be at the “tip of the spear” in the future, when the U.S. military is likely to confront a range of irregular and hybrid conflicts.

Ultimately, the maritime soul of the Marine Corps needs to be preserved, notwithstanding the imperatives of today’s wars.  This institutional challenge is not unique to the Marines.  All of the military services have been challenged to find the right balance between preserving what is unique and valuable in their traditions, while at the same time making the changes needed to win the wars we are in and prepare for likely future threats in the years and decades to come. 

Achieving this balance is imperative because it is clear the United States will continue to face a diverse range of threats that will require a more and more flexible portfolio of military capabilities.  We face a more complex future where all conflict will range across a broad spectrum of operations and lethality.  Where other modern militaries will use irregular or asymmetric tactics that target our traditional strengths.  And where terrorists or military groups may have sophisticated weapons.  Preparing for this uncertain future will be the key challenge for the entire Department of Defense as we move into a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan era. 

A line I invoke time and again is that experience is the ability to recognize a mistake when you make it again.  Four times in the last century the United States has come to the end of a war, concluded that the nature of man and the world had changed for the better, and turned inward, unilaterally disarming and dismantling institutions important to our national security – in the process, giving ourselves a “peace” dividend.  Four times we chose to forget history.  Four times we have had to rebuild and rearm, at huge cost in blood and treasure.  After September 11th, the United States re-armed and again strengthened our intelligence capabilities.  It will be critically important to sustain those capabilities in the future – it will be critically important not to make the same mistake a fifth time.

Yet in the coming years the pressure will undoubtedly be great to repeat that mistake, and to reduce our spending on defense – especially given the political and fiscal realities we face.  The post-September 11th spigot of defense spending has been shut off, but I believe that we must have modest and sustainable growth in defense spending to allow us to maintain our capabilities, reset our fighting forces, and invest adequately in modernization and future capabilities.  But to make the case for this growth at a time of economic and fiscal duress requires the defense department to make every dollar count – to fundamentally change the way we spend the taxpayer’s dollars and the way we do business.  It means shifting resources from bureaucracies and overhead to military combat capabilities needed by our combat forces today and in the future.

As part of this effort, I asked the entire Pentagon earlier this year to take a hard, unsparing look at how the department is staffed, organized and operated.  I concluded that our headquarters and support bureaucracies – military and civilian alike – have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions, grown over reliant on contractors, and grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost.  So starting in June, we embarked on a sustained, multi-faceted effort to move America’s defense institutions towards a more effective, efficient, and cost-conscious way of doing business. 

As part of that broad effort, earlier this week I announced an initial set of major decisions designed to reduce duplication, overhead, and excess in the defense enterprise.  I imposed new constraints on the size of staffs, senior positions and contractors.  I also directed that we better take advantage of economies of scale in areas such as information technology. And I announced the elimination of several organizations – including a four-star command – that performed duplicative functions or had outlived their original purpose.

While many of these decisions were difficult and will cause hardships for some affected employees, they are necessary to ensure that our fighting forces – on air, land, and sea – have the resources to achieve a wider range of missions and prepare for future needs. 

I want to give time for some questions, so I’ll close with a final thought.

At the beginning of the nuclear age, Albert Einstein remarked that “everything has changed but our way of thinking.”  In his memoir, George Shultz cited that observation and remarked on how ways of thinking are so hard to change, which remains as true as ever.  The Marine Corps has been at the leading edge for over 200 years in adapting and responding to new technologies and new threats.  Even as our country faces great challenges, the “adaptability, initiative and improvisation” – along with the raw courage – that is displayed by United States Marines every day give me the confidence that we can and will prevail – as this country has in the past.  And just as all our troops are doing their duty to ensure our country remains safe and strong, we in Washington must now do ours.

Thank you.  

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