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Remarks by Secretary Gates to North Carolina ROTC Students

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
September 29, 2010

These remarks were given from Durham, North Carolina.

SEC. GATES:  We don't have a lot of time this afternoon, so I'd like to just make a few remarks and then open it up for your questions and leave most of the time for questions. 

                As both full-time college students and officer trainees, I know you have little free time, so I appreciate you being here today.  I also know from many years of working my way up in the government what it's like to be volunteered to listen to a visiting poobah.  (Laughter.)

                I have a speech later when I hope some or all of you can attend.  So I don't want to go on for too long.  As I said, I'm just more interested in what you have to say and ask than what I have to say.  But I do want to share a few thoughts before taking your questions. 

                First, I want to thank you for your willingness to come forward and serve our country in uniform during a time of war.  In making this commitment, you've distinguished yourselves from your peers in a profound and honorable way. 

                Whatever inspired or incentivized you to become a military officer, you should be proud of the course you've taken.  Your family should be proud as well. 

                When you enter active duty, and especially when you're deployed, you will rely on your closest friends and loved ones for support.  In many ways, our military simply could not sustain our mission without them. 

                Through your ROTC programs, I know you're receiving training in a number of skills and disciplines that reflect the different specializations and technical skills required by each service.  But fundamentally what you're really learning is how to be leaders. 

                As someone who is now working for his eighth president, I can say that leadership is something that I have observed and thought about for a long time.  And so I'd like to share just a few thoughts with you about that. 

                I've come to believe that very few people are born great leaders.  When all is said and done, the kind of leader you become is up to you based on the choices you make.  I'd like to talk about some of choices and how those choices will be shaped by the realities of this dangerous new century. 

                I would start with something that I tell all the new generals and civilian executives that I meet with at the Pentagon.  It is a leadership quality that is really quite basic and quite simple, but it's so basic and so simple that too often it's forgotten.  And that is the importance, as you lead, of doing so with common decency and respect towards your subordinates. 

                Harry Truman had it right when he observed that one of the surest ways to judge someone is how well or poorly he treats those who can't talk back. 

                The second fundamental quality of leadership is doing the right thing when it's the hard thing.  In other words, integrity.  Too often we read about examples in business and government of leaders who start out with the best of intentions and, somehow, go astray. 

                I found that, more often than not, what gets people into trouble is not the obvious case of malfeasance, taking the big bribe or cheating on an exam.  Often, it's the less direct but no less damaging temptation to look away or pretend something didn't happen or that certain things must be okay because other people are doing them. 

                And deep down, if you look hard enough, you know that's not true.  To take that stand, to do the hard right instead of ignoring the easier, more convenient or more popular wrong requires courage.  Courage comes in different forms.  There's physical courage on the battlefield.  But in addition to battlefield bravery, there's also moral courage, often harder to find. 

                In business and universities and the military, in any big institution, there is a heavy emphasis on building teams, teamwork and collaboration.  And the higher up you go, the stronger the pressure to smooth over rough edges, paper over problems, close proverbial ranks and stay on message. 

                The hardest thing you may ever be called upon to do is stand alone among your peers and superior officers, to stick your neck out after a discussion becomes consensus and consensus ossifies into group thinking. 

                The moral principles of leadership I've just discussed are timeless.  They apply to any military leader in any generation.  So do a range of other choices you'll face as you develop into the leader you aspire to become. 

                I refer to those relating to the kind of judgment, wisdom, mental skills, intellectual attributes, if you will, that will be most needed to be successful as a military leader in the 21st century. 

                It's always been one of the hallmarks of the U.S. military to push decision making down to the lowest possible level.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, we rely on our junior- and mid-level combat leaders to make judgments -- tactical, strategic, cultural, ethical -- of a kind that much more senior commanders would have made a generation ago. 

                To this end, in addition to the essential troop commands and staff assignments, you should consider and perhaps even embrace opportunities that, in the past, were considered off the beaten path, if not, career dead ends.  These might include further study at grad school, teaching at this or another first-rate educational institution, being a fellow at a think tank, advising indigenous security forces, becoming a foreign-area specialist, or service in other parts of the government; all experiences that will make you a more successful military leader in the 21st century. 

                In 1974, when I left the CIA mothership for the first time to take a staff job at the National Security Council, I was told by my boss at Langley that there probably would not be a job there for me when I returned.  My career as a CIA officer was considered over.  So you never know when taking some risks in your career may pay some future dividends. 

                In closing, I want to thank you again for your willingness to serve, for the very real sacrifices that you make and will make on behalf of this country.  Know that I feel a deep personal responsibility for each of you as though you were my own son or daughter. 

                I have committed myself and the Department of Defense to see that when you are commissioned and deployed, you will have everything you need to accomplish your mission and come home safely.  Now, know also that your countrymen are grateful for your service and will be praying for your safety and your success. 

                Thank you.  And now I'll take a few questions.  (Applause.)

                MODERATOR:  If you have a question, raise your hand.  We have microphones.

                SEC. GATES:  I was wondering who would be the intrepid person.  (Laughter.)

                Q     Mr. Secretary, Hugh Simmons, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and, of course, ROTC.

                A question for you this evening is, as new leaders in the Air Force and other military branches, what are the greatest changes that, in your eyes, will face us throughout our careers? 

                SEC. GATES:  I think that the greatest change is that you will face change all through your careers and the need to be adaptable. 

                I sometimes joke at the Pentagon that you have some people in the Army who still want to fight the Soviets at the Fulda Gap.  You have some folks in the Navy that want to do Midway all over again.  You have some folks in the Marine Corps that want to do Inchon.  And, of course, the Air Force just wants to fly.  (Laughter.) 

                But the reality is -- and the Air Force is a good example in terms of the change.  As the Air Force looks at a greater and greater component of unmanned aircraft, or as they prefer to say, remotely piloted aircraft, this is a sea change for Air Force.  And it's really just happened in the last two or three years. 

                And the truth of the matter is the Air Force, today, is teaching more people to fly drones, to fly these UAVs, to be those kinds of pilots that are piloting aircraft, than fighter aircraft and bombers.  And this is a hard shift for a lot of people, and it's the same way in the other services. 

                And the Army has gone through a huge change just in the last few years from, basically, a division-based, non-expeditionary Army to a brigade-based Army that is highly expeditionary.  And they've kind of done it while they've been at war. 

                So I think that the challenge for you as young officers is the challenge that the current officers face, and that is how do you adjust your thinking to a new kind of world where new capabilities are coming along and you're able to change your thinking and adapt.  I think that the greatest attribute that we can have as a military is adaptability. 

                The fact is that, if you take every war we have fought since Vietnam, we did not know six months before that we were going to fight that war.  And so what I've been trying to do -- and sort of the mantra that I've had at the Defense Department is that when we think of buying equipment, when we think of training, we need the greatest possible versatility for the widest possible range of conflict. 

                We can't afford too many niche capabilities anymore -- a military capability that can only be used in one kind of way against one kind of target.  And so this flexibility and adaptability is the only way, I think, that we can deal with a period of time that is full of change. 

                We'll come over here to the Army and the Navy next.

                Q     Good evening, sir.  I'm Cadet -- (name inaudible) -- from UNC Chapel Hill.

                I'd like to ask you, under the stress, pressure and criticism of your job, and you're in such high visibility, what really keeps you grounded? 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, there's nothing like having a couple of kids.  (Laughter.) 

                Did you read that article in Newsweek?  Actually, no.  (Laughter.) 

                I think one thing is, frankly, having been around a long time.  And I read a lot of history. 

                But I think -- another piece of it that I think is important and something for you to think about as you go through the military ranks, it's important to have irreverent people around you.  (Laughter.)  People who aren't afraid to poke a little fun.  People who can criticize. 

                I think it's very dangerous to surround yourself with people who tell you what a wonderful person you are because that -- I've seen too many people go down that road, and it's always disastrous because you're not and, sooner or later, you're going to find that out. 

                So I think having irreverent people -- I've always liked the expression "taking the job seriously but not yourself."  So I think those kinds of things -- and I think it's also very important to remember where you came from. 

                I mean, one of my lines is that when I was a brand-new second lieutenant, I did what my sergeant told me.  And between the two of us, we did my job pretty well.  (Laughter.)

                How about somebody over here from the Army? 

                Q     Secretary Gates -- (name inaudible) -- Army ROTC at North Carolina State University.

                And I would just like to ask that, as we continue to shift our focus to asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency, do you feel it would be better policy to further develop tactical operations and civil affairs forces independent of our larger commitment in the military, or to further instill these principles in the larger force as a whole? 

                SEC. GATES:  This is actually one of the big questions we're debating right now and one of the issues that we're looking at as we look at having 73 Brigades in the Army -- heavy brigades, infantry brigades, Stryker brigades and so on.  Do we specialize?  Do we limit civil affairs to the special operations people? 

                The reality is, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we have ended up using regular conventional forces in ways that special operations forces used to do by themselves.  And so we have begun -- a lot of regular Army infantry units are doing civil affairs, are doing development along with fighting the fight. 

                And so the question is:  Do you spread that?  Do you keep -- you have to keep, clearly, the SOF capability in general or specifically.  But when it comes to civil affairs and so on, do you spread those skills more widely in the Army? 

                My own bias is that we ought to spread those skills and language skills more broadly in the Army than just SOF.  But how much you do so and whether you just focus it on civil affairs I think, frankly, is a question that literally we're debating right now.

                Q     Good afternoon, sir.  Midshipman First Class Travis Rapp, Duke Navy ROTC.

                Given the impending budget cuts across the Department of Defense, and I heard you questioned the expansion of Navy carrier strike groups, what do you see as the sustainable fleet of the future?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, let me repeat:  We're not cutting the Defense budget.  (Laughter.)  And at this point, the Defense budget is not going down and I don't think it will in the next year or so.  Beyond that is too far into the future to tell.

                What we are trying to do is, because of the relatively low rate of growth of the Defense budget, is to cut over the next five years, $100 billion in overhead and shift it to force structure, modernization and military capabilities, which includes probably enhancements to the shipbuilding program.

                We now have 11 carrier battle groups.  We will probably go down to 10 in about 2040.  Because the Ford is behind schedule, we'll have a brief period of a couple of years in the mid-teens where it will be at 10 for a brief period of time.  I have -- I support having the carrier battle groups. 

                What I've been trying to do is get people to think about -- this goes back to the first question -- is about adaptability.  If the Chinese or somebody else has a highly accurate anti-ship cruise or ballistic missile that can take out a carrier at hundreds of miles of ranges and therefore in Asia puts us back behind the second island chain, how then do you use carriers differently in the future than we've used them in the past?

                And I'm just trying to get people -- we've had carriers since well before World War II.  I'm trying to get people to think about how do we use these in a world environment where other countries will have the capability, between their missile capabilities and their satellite capabilities, to knock out a carrier if you get to a certain point within their -- within range.

                So it's not a matter of cutting these.  And the truth of the matter is we would like to grow the fleet.  The fleet's at about, I think, 287 ships now.  We'd like to see it somewhere around 313, 315.  So we are in fact trying to grow the fleet.  But we still have to think more imaginatively in the 21st Century about how we use capabilities that are important legacy capabilities from the 20th Century.

                Q     Mr. Secretary -- (off mike) -- so my question has to do -- (off mike) -- Afghan-Pakistani border right now -- (off mike).  How do we balance that with the long-term -- (off mike) -- (force cohesion and improving relations?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, we've actually -- funny you should ask.  The Indian Defense Minister was in Washington yesterday and we had dinner together Monday night.  The Indian National Security Adviser will be seeing me tomorrow. 

                So I will tell you the truth:  One of the most dramatic changes that I have seen in the international environment in coming back to government, having retired in 1993, has been the change in the U.S.-Indian relationship.  It is just remarkably better -- (inaudible).

                And we are selling them military equipment, we are exercising together, there are frequent military-to-military contacts, burgeoning economic relations, the political relationship is quite good.  So I would say we are on a very positive trajectory with India.  I think there are a lot of opportunities there and I think we are seizing them at the appropriate moment.

                Q     Mr. Secretary, Midshipman Second-Class Marine, UNC Naval ROTC.

                With the recent advancement allowing females to serve onboard submarines, do you ever see a day -- and if so when -- where females will be allowed to serve with Special Operations units?

                SEC. GATES:  I get that question a lot -- mainly from women.  (Laughter.) 

                My guess is that it'll be done in the same -- it will happen, but it will happen in the same very careful way that women on submarines is being done -- just to sort of lay it out.  The women on submarines will be limited to officers.  They will only be on SSGNs -- the converted Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines -- because they are the biggest submarine we have and there is space there for separate facilities.

                There will always be a senior woman officer on each ship, each boat, that has served on a surface ship before, at least at the rank of department head.  So you will have a woman officer mentor on each ship with women officers on these large -- on these larger boats.  And we'll learn from that experience.

                My guess at some point is that there will be a careful step in that direction with Special Operations Forces.

                Q     Sir, I'm Cadet -- (inaudible) -- from Chapel Hill Air Force ROTC.

                I'd like to ask what, in your opinion, are the strengths and weakness of Operation New Dawn and how can the weaknesses be improved?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I would tell you, I think the great strength is the way that General Odierno and now General Austin have essentially organized our forces into these six advise-and-assist brigades and a clear understanding of what the mission is.  And I think they're structured and the drawdown of equipment and people out of Iraq has been an unheralded logistics miracle.

                But I think that the weakness, frankly, doesn't have to do with us, but has to do with what I believe is inadequate funding of the State Department to take over some of the responsibilities that they are being assigned by the president and that have been part of our plan all along.  And I'll give you an example.

                The plan is for the State Department to take over police training over the course of the next year or so of the Iraqi police.  But -- and they have sent a budget request to Congress that would provide the funds for that, as well as branch embassies around Iraq so we have a presence around the country -- diplomatic presence, civilian presence around the country. 

                Unfortunately, the Congress took a big cut in the money allocated to the State Department for this purpose.  So now we have to go back and State Department has to go back and figure out, how do we adjust our plans?  How do we do this in a different way with fewer resources?

                We had a session on a rollout of the president's new development strategy yesterday with Secretary Clinton, Secretary Geithner, myself, Raj Shah, the director of USAID and the head of the Millennium Challenge Corporate were all there together for this.  And I used the analogy that these are relatively modest sums of money that we're talking about that we need at this point to convert the civilian -- to a civilian-dominated role in Iraq.  And it reminds me of the last scene in the movie, "Charlie Wilson's War".

                The U.S. had spent billions to help the mujaheddin drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.  Charlie Wilson had been the congressman most responsible for getting that money.  And after the Soviets are gone, he goes to the same committee and asks for $1 million for Afghan schools, and can't get it.

                So I worry that having invested hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq, that now that we're at the end game, we'll stint on the resources that are needed to bring this to the kind of conclusion that we all want.  And I hope we can repair that.

                How are we doing on time?

                MODERATOR:  Doing okay.

                SEC. GATES:  Okay.  Right here.

                Q     Sir, Cadet Sherry from North Carolina State University Air Force ROTC.

                My question is:  What skills do you think the U.S. military needs to perfect in anticipation of our next conflict and future warfare?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, one of the -- one of the areas where I think -- and it's going to be something you're not going to expect -- I think overall, we need better language skills. 

                We have young lieutenants and captains patrolling villages and are totally dependent on interpreters -- are almost exclusively dependent on interpreters.  It's true in Iraq; it's true in Afghanistan.  And what learning a language teaches you about both the culture, as well as the language, I think is critically important.

                Now, I tried to start a -- and I have to check on it when I get back to Washington -- because a couple of years ago, I worked with the Congress and got approval to teach the six languages that -- to provide money for ROTC students to take one of six languages that we want in the Defense Department as we look to the future.

                And I don't actually know what the actual dollars are, but the example that I used was, okay, so you'll pay the student $50 a month more to take the first year of a language, 100 bucks a month to take the second year and 150 (dollars) a month to take the third year.  Because my experience is, once you've had three years of a language, even if you don't use it for three or four years, you can get back up very fast.

                Now, I don't know about here in North Carolina, but at Texas A&M, 100 bucks a month is serious beer money.  (Laughter.)  But as an incentive for people to learn a language while they are an undergraduate, because the truth of the matter is, the cost is a fraction of what it will cost to pull you out of the line full time for a year and give you language immersion.  And I think we're going to need these language skills as we go forward and look at the different kinds of conflict we're likely to face.

                MODERATOR:  Sir, we probably have time for one more.

                SEC. GATES:  Okay.  Way in the back.

                Q     Mr. Secretary, Will Carroll, NC State University Air Force ROTC.

                I think you may have already addressed this question to an extent with your very first question.

                Commentators often talk about how well or how poorly the United States Military is adjusting to modern battlefields.  From your perspective, what is the modern battlefield solution or adjustment and how does it compare to previous conflicts?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I actually -- as somebody who's been a critic, I would say the United States military has adjusted faster to 21st Century battlefields than any other military in the world by a long shot. 

                And the key is, I think, it isn't the battlefield.  It is many battlefields and many different kinds of battlefields.  So it goes back to the original point about the need for flexibility and adaptability, and the honesty to admit to ourselves that our record in predicting conflicts that we will be in is perfect.  We haven't gotten one right.  (Laughter.) 

So we better face that reality and be prepared.

                Thank you all very much.  (Applause.)

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