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Association of the United States Army

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Washington, DC, Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Thank you, General Sullivan, for that introduction, and for everything you do to ensure our Army is second to none.  It’s truly an honor to be here today, and to be a part of this important event and with this extraordinary organization that does so much to support our great soldiers and their families.

I deeply appreciate the opportunity to address this conference – yours is the first service organization that I’ve addressed as Secretary of Defense.  My own life in public service began when I served two years as an Army Intelligence Officer, that was over 40 years ago, where I learned what it meant to work together to achieve a common mission.  So I have a deep and abiding respect for the United States Army and all it has done to defend our great country, for the past decade and for the past 236 years of the Army’s history. 

And being the son of Italian immigrants, I am delighted to see the grandson of an Italian immigrant, General Ray Odierno, as the Army’s new Chief of Staff.  I’ve worked closely now with Ray for a few months, and I’ve known him for a few years, and I can’t tell you how lucky the Army is to have him at the very top.  Ray has proven himself a battlefield leader and has truly set himself apart as one of the military’s most original thinkers.  And as many of you who have served with him know, he is someone who deeply cares about this Army, and he is deeply concerned about the well being of the men and women under his command. 

The joint force is also fortunate to have Army General Marty Dempsey as the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.  We now have two battle hardened, thoughtful soldiers at the pinnacle of our military’s leadership – and a former Army first lieutenant as the Secretary of Defense.  If the Army can’t beat Navy in the next game I don’t know what else the hell I can do.  Together, we will be looking very closely at the issues that affect and impact, and we will be looking out for this Army that has shouldered so much of the burden of this nation’s security over the past ten years.  From Iraq’s city streets, to the mountains of Afghanistan, America’s soldiers – Active, Guard, Reserve – have been serving and sacrificing, fighting and dying in order to protect our freedoms, our liberties, our values.  That is the enduring story of the American soldier. 

This Army – an all-volunteer Army – has been continuously at war longer than any other Army in American history.  Since 9/11, over one million soldiers have deployed to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.  More than 70,000 are serving in Afghanistan as we speak, and nearly 40,000 continue to serve in Iraq, and thousands more serve across the globe.  This burden has not come lightly, more than 4,500 soldiers have given the last full measure of devotion since 9/11; and another 32,000 soldiers have been wounded. 

When asked to lengthen combat tours from 12-months to 15- months, during those high-demand years, the Army delivered.  And with each new deployment, with each new rotation, this Army proved its resilience, and all of this adds a new chapter to the Army roll-of-honor. 

The past ten years of continuous war, in perhaps the most challenging combat environment the Army has ever faced, have shaped this institution into the finest fighting force in the world.  Today’s Army is far more experienced, far more adaptable, better equipped and more lethal than it was ten years ago.  Today’s Army, in short, is unmatched anywhere in the world – it is, as you are all proud to say, the strength of the nation.

And yet today we find our military, and the Army in particular, at an important inflection point.  Thanks to the sacrifices and dedication of our men and women in uniform, we have been able to bring the Iraq war to a responsible conclusion, and that country now has a chance to emerge as a sovereign, stable, self-reliant nation and a positive force for stability in a vital region of the world. 

Afghanistan remains a tough fight, but there too we are setting the conditions for a responsible transition to Afghan security and Afghan governance.  We’ve hit the Taliban hard, and we’re going after the Haqqani network and the groups that are launching recent high profile attacks against are forces.  As the Taliban have weakened, the Afghan National Security Forces have become increasingly strong and capable.  They’re going out on operations, thanks to the remarkable training they’ve received.  Overall, I believe our effort in Afghanistan is headed in the right direction, there’s a lot more to be done, this is not going to be easy, but we are setting the conditions to transition lead security responsibility to the government of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. 

As we draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army will gain finally some much needed strategic breathing space – already, combat deployments are being shortened from 12 months to 9 months.  This breathing space will provide an opportunity to think about how best to reset the Army – both its equipment and its people.  It will allow our soldiers to spend much-needed time with their families, more time to care for loved ones, and more time to further their careers hopefully with more time spent in schoolhouses, or at one of the country’s leading universities and graduate schools. 

We must use this time well and wisely.  Because as welcome as it is, it comes as we face an extraordinary fiscal pressure on the military, on Defense, and for that matter on the country.  This Department faces the imperative of cutting more than $450 billion over the next 10 years.  A requirement that was contained in the debt ceiling agreement that was approved by Congress.  Now, as I have said, obviously we have to be willing as a Department, to do our part to help America get its fiscal house in order.  But there are some who continue to propose even deeper cuts in defense, arguing that the draconian cuts that are part of this crazy “doomsday mechanism” called sequester, a $1 trillion cut, somehow won’t impact on our national security.  Let me respond to those claims by echoing that famous World War II General McAuliffe who famously replied to a German surrender demand at Bastogne with one word: “Nuts.”

Sequestration, which is this goofy meat-axe approach, would force across the board salami slicing cuts of the worst kind.  It would hollow out the force, it would leave our military deficient in people, in training, and equipment, and unable to adapt when that next security challenge comes along.  It’s a mistake we’ve made time and time again in the 20th century, after World War I, after World War II, after Korea, after Vietnam, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  We must never make that mistake again.  And it will not happen under my watch. 

We face an international security environment that is growing in complexity and uncertainty.  This is not as if we’ve come out of a major war and everything is fine.  We are facing reductions at a time when we confront real threats in the world that continue to face this country.   We are still facing the threat of terrorism and violent extremism.  Places like Iran and North Korea continue to be a threat as they pursue nuclear weapons.  Rising powers are rapidly modernizing their militaries and investing in capabilities to deny our forces freedom of movement in vital regions such as the Asia-Pacific area.  We also face the prospect of cyber attacks that could inflict tremendous damage on our nation’s infrastructure while operating with relative anonymity and distance.   This is very much the potential battlefield of the future.

So we must set about the difficult but critical task of building the military this country will need now, and in the future.  The budget and the draw downs that we are facing, obviously are going to impact on the size of the military, there is no question about it.  We will need to sacrifice some capabilities and curtail some commitments.  But we cannot afford to render null and void the hard-learned lessons of the last ten years of war, we cannot afford to ignore the essential capabilities that we have let lapse in the past, and we absolutely cannot allow budget pressures to force the services into parochialism and program survival mode.  Going forward, my expectation is that our military leaders will work with me to do what's best for the entire force, not just what's best for their own service.  We have to weather these budget storms as a team, putting the needs of all before the needs of one.  We can’t do anything else.  The stakes are too high right now, and if we don’t tackle these challenges together we will not be able to see our way clear to remaining the best military in the world. 

Over ten years, we have become the best counter-insurgency force in the world, and we’ve also become the most adaptive, the most expeditionary and the most joint force in our country’s history.  Tough decisions await us all, decisions that make no mistake about it, will incur risk, but we cannot sacrifice the gains and the capabilities that earn us the title, the very best military in the world.

One thing we’ve learned throughout history, is that no one really knows exactly what lies ahead, in 10 or 20 or 30 years from now.  But one thing we know for sure – this country, our fellow citizens and indeed people around the world are going to continue to look to America for leadership and to American military power for partnership and for leadership in the world.  

My job is to make sure we’re ready for that role – across a complex group of missions, to ensure that our Armed Forces remain the very best in the world, and that our Army remains the finest strategic land force in the world.  To do that, I need your help.  I need you to help me figure out what that Army needs to look like in the future.  How does the future Army contribute to a better and stronger joint force able to dominate any potential enemy?  What do we need to retain in the force today, to allow us to rapidly expand in the future if necessary?  What is the Army’s role in a century that will present a variety of security concerns from Asia to the Middle East and beyond?

America asked you to become the best counterinsurgency force, and you did.  And we still need an Army that can do security force assistance, that can help build up our partners with small-footprint, training and advising missions.  The Army will still provide highly-trained soldiers for those enduring missions of counter-terrorism, and partner capacity building around the world, because, very frankly, we will likely be fighting terrorism somewhere in the world for a long time to come.   We have been successful in confronting terrorism.  In my lifetime I have never seen intelligence and military forces working together to combat terrorism and the mission to take down bin Laden is a perfect example of that capability, and that is something we must retain for the future.

I am proud that we have the very best special operations forces and counterinsurgency force in history, but we also need to maintain our conventional war-fighting edge as well.  We need our soldiers – our tanks, our artillery our helicopter crews – to get out there and train together, to regain those core competencies of moving, shooting, and communicating.  To again become masters of combined arms maneuver will require revitalizing home station training, modernizing the Army’s training centers, and preparing our soldiers to confront enemies equipped with the most advanced weaponry.

This nation needs an Army that can deter any potential aggressor – an expeditionary Army able to deploy to distant battlefields and, upon arrival, to decisively overwhelm any enemy land force.  And if an enemy does challenge us in a conventional land war, we need an Army that can, as General George Patton used to say, “Hold the [enemy] by the nose and kick them in the ass.” 

Still, the reality is there aren’t a lot of countries out there building massive tank armies – it is unlikely that we will be re-fighting Desert Storm in the future.  Instead, I see both state and non-state actors arming with high-tech weaponry that is easier both to buy and to operate, weapons that frustrate our traditional advantages and freedom of movement.  Coming up with new ideas, with new operating principles to defeat these kind of enemies is a challenge I pose to this battle hardened generation of American soldiers.  War remains a very human endeavor, fought against thinking and adaptive enemies, and just as our enemies seek out asymmetric advantages, we need to think of smarter ways to counter them.  We need the Army, and particularly we need its seasoned junior leaders, to display the same creativity, the same adaptability to defeat these hybrid threats as they’ve shown in dealing with counterinsurgency warfare over the past decade.  We need today’s generation of battle-hardened soldiers, and thoughtful leaders who know the face of modern warfare, to help build our future force. 

That means we’ve got to put a great deal of trust in our junior officers and our NCOs.  It is from among our junior officers, our cadre of experienced lieutenants, captains, NCOs, where the new operational concepts and ideas will come.  Today’s generation of young men and women in uniform are as creative and mentally agile on the battlefield and elsewhere as their contemporaries working in the high-tech idea-labs in Silicon Valley.  These are bright capable soldiers, and we need to use the best to figure out what the best will be.  The excellence of our greatest asset, our soldiers, gives me confidence we can craft an Army organized, trained and equipped to prevail in the future.  They are, as General Dempsey says, our decisive advantage and our hedge against uncertainty. 

And that battle hardened and experienced force extends to our National Guard and to our Reserve.  As we draw down from these wars, we need to keep the Guard and the Reserve operational and gaining experience.  This is the best investment we’ve made over these last ten years.  We need to continue to be able to maintain that as a special asset.  Because the Reserve force has a special role to play as a force that gives the nation strategic depth in the event of a crisis, access to unique civilian skill sets that can be useful in modern conflicts, and as the Army’s bridge to a broader civilian population.  One of the best things that we have with the Guard and Reserve is that they reach out into every community across this country.  And every community across this country has had to bear the sacrifices of battle.  But they also understand what it means to go to battle and that’s extremely important for this country as we confront the challenges of the future.

Finally, let me conclude by saying that even as we reduce the size of our Army, we need to ensure that this is done responsibly, and that our soldiers and their families are cared for.  Because our military’s real strength is a strong volunteer force we need to support them in every way.  What we have to do is make sure that we never break faith with them or with their families.  Still, given the steep rise in personnel costs we’ve seen over the past decade, we are going to have to make efforts to control costs in this area or else we will be forced to make deeper cuts in force structure and modernization.  But my approach will be, to say to those that have served, that have been deployed time-and-time again, we will stand by the promises made to you, if there are to be changes, you are going to be grandfathered in terms of the benefits that were promised to you.  That’s a pledge that we all need to stand by.  We made a promise to those that deployed time and time again, and I intend to keep it.  

We must also continue to provide the best physical and psychological care to our Wounded Warriors.  I know your Army leaders, along with all of the senior military leadership, are extremely concerned, as I am, about the rate of suicides in the Army – 2010 was the sixth consecutive year that that rate has increased.  That is a national tragedy.  We are losing too many of America’s finest, too many of our returning warriors.  We’ve got to do better, as an Army, as a Department, and as a nation.  That includes gaining a better understating of the causes, better outreach, better treatment for those who are suffering, better training in prevention for family members, and focusing more attention on our Guard and Reserve members and on the transition programs for those who are leaving the service. 

So let me say to this generation, the finest generation in our time, that has shouldered the burden of America’s security, that has left its blood and sweat on foreign soil, you will get what was promised to you.  That is my fight, that is my duty, to watch your flank, to fight to make sure that you’re protected and that you have all of the resources you need to do the job of protecting America. 

Your fight is clear.  Your fight is to get out there and continue to serve this country in the battlefields across the world.   That’s your mission.  That’s your duty to help make sure that those you care about, those we love, are able to enjoy a more secure America, and are able to enjoy the freedoms and the liberties that we provide.  That is the American dream.  That is what motivates all of us, the dream that we care enough about this country that we want to give our children a safer and a better life.  That is the American dream that my immigrant parents came to this country to achieve.  And that is what all of us want for our children as well. 

The toughest thing that I have to do as Secretary of Defense is write condolence letters to those families whose sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, wives and husbands have been killed in action.  That’s the toughest thing I do.  I’ve gone to Bethesda, I’ve been to Dover, and I’ve been to Walter Reed, and I’ve been to Arlington.  And I’ve touched the families of those that have lost loved ones.   And every one of them has said to me do not give up on the mission for which our loved ones gave their lives.   And we will not.   People who have fought, people have been wounded, sometimes the most horrible wounds that one can imagine.   And yet they have a spirit that I have not seen anywhere else, a spirit of wanting to move on.   They know that they’re going to make it.  Many of them want to return to duty.  That kind of drive, that kind of inspiration is incredible, and it’s something we have to remind ourselves of time and time and time again. 

It is an inspiration to me, and it is an inspiration to your fellow Americans, to see those who are willing to commit their lives on behalf of this country.  Who are willing to keep up the fight in order to ensure a safer America.  There’s a great story I often tell of the rabbi and the priest who decide they will get to know each other a little better.  So one evening they went to a boxing match.  And they thought by going to those events, they would talk about each other’s religion and understand better each other’s faith.  And at the boxing match, just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross.  And the rabbi nudged the priest and said, “What does that mean?”  And the priest said, “It doesn’t mean a damn thing if he can’t fight.” 

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we bless ourselves with the hope that everything is going to be fine in this country.   But very frankly, it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you’re willing to fight for it.  By your presence here, I know that you are willing to make that fight.  To fight to make sure that we provide that better life for our children.  To fight to make sure that we have the kind of army and military that will protect that American dream.  But most of all fight to ensure that we have a government of, by, and for the people.  Thank you very much.

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