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Remarks by Secretary Gates aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
December 06, 2010

                SEC. GATES:  Thank you, Admiral Guad [sic - Guadagnini].  It’s a pleasure to be with you all at sea.  Of course, it’s a pleasure to be anywhere but Washington, D.C., but I truly welcome the chance to spend a full day and a night with you, the men and women of our Navy, aboard this mighty warship. 

                I’m especially glad to see you since we’re practically neighbors -- you’re home-ported in Everett and I’m home-ported about an hour north of there, although it seems like I’ve been on an awfully long deployment.

                The Abraham Lincoln is a great ship, and you have it in immaculate condition.  I had hoped my visit wouldn’t mean additional work for you, but I know that you’ve put a lot of effort into preparing.  I know this, not only because the ship looks great, but some of the blue paint’s still wet.  (Scattered laughter.)  Anyway, thank you.

                First and foremost, this visit gives me the opportunity to thank all of you for your service, personally and on behalf of the American people.  This holiday season, we know that -- I want you to know that the entire nation is praying for you and for the success of your mission.  I know it’s hard to serve so far from home at this time of year, especially, and it’s hard on your loved ones as well. 

                So please convey my personal thanks to your families for their support and their sacrifices. 

                I must tell you I’ve been extraordinarily impressed as I’ve been shown around the Abraham Lincoln and had the chance to see many of you at work.  It’s my first visit to a deployed aircraft carrier as secretary of Defense, but my first ever visit to a deployed carrier was 30 years ago when I was at CIA.  And with all due respect to the Navy of that era, the quality of you sailors and aviators on board this ship today is unprecedented in the history of our nation and in the history of the world. 

                Though I participated in countless award ceremonies, I must say this is the first time I’ve presented one for a mustache, and at least the awardees had the good sense to shave them off, though the fake mustaches did provide a flavor of their former selves.  As for Admiral Guad, he may be looking a little bit more like the character Borat.  (Laughter.)  But it’s clear to me, at least, he’s really trying for the Magnum P.I. look.  After all, Thomas Magnum was a Navy man. 

                Speaking of Navy men, I’d also like to recognize Captain John "Sarge" Alexander, Captain David "Wolfy" Silky (ph), and Captain Kevin "Meany" Meenahan.  What you don’t know about these three senior officers is that before they were gods at sea, they were the pinnacle of Pentagon paper-pushers.

                I’m told that for Captain Silky, being the DCAG (Deputy Carrier Air Group Commander) on an aircraft carrier wasn’t his first choice for a career.  He only resorted to this line of work after a stint as a daytime bartender in an attempt to break into Hollywood by auditioning for commercials that didn’t work out as planned.  Sort of like his jokes.  (Laughter.) 

                In Captain Alexander’s case, I remember his time at the Pentagon as executive assistant to General Stanley McChrystal, who was famous for the furious pace he kept.  You can imagine how tough it was for Captain Alexander, or anyone, for that matter, to keep up.  Sarge is the only guy I know who sought refuge from the rigors of his office by trying to hide out in mine.

                All kidding aside, I’m glad to see that all three of you are back where you belong, back at sea with your fellow sailors.  And in all seriousness, I want to assure all of you gathered here today that though Afghanistan is hundreds of miles away, your unceasing efforts in support of your brothers in arms there are making an extraordinary impact on the ground.  And though they may never get the opportunity to thank each and every one of you for the help you provided, I’ve heard personally from many at FOBs and COPs on the front line how crucial your support and the support of all our deployed Navy ships has been to this fight.  When your aircraft comes screaming, our troops hear the sound of relief and the enemy knows what’s coming next.  You are delivering lethal blows to them and protecting the lives of our men and women on the battlefield.

                Still, recognizing the complexities of this battle environment, you have been extraordinary -- extraordinarily conscious of the need to avoid civilian casualties. 

                My tour of the ship today, from the combat direction center and hangar bays to the machinery repair shop and the resting gear room, helped further my appreciation for the complexity of your mission.  This floating city is a feat of military engineering, logistics, coordination and human teamwork unmatched by any other nation.  You are a team of nearly 5,000 and every one of you is playing a direct role in the success of this mission, from those on the flight deck, regardless of what color jersey you’re wearing, to those below who are making sure the mess hall is pushing out chow and the power plant is running. 

                You should all be proud of the work you’re doing.  You are the envy of the world.

                For my part, from the first day as secretary four years ago, I have tried and continue to try to get you everything you need to do your job and come home safely.  I sign the orders deploying you, and I feel personally responsible for the wellbeing of each and every one of you.  If there’s anything you need, I want to know about it. 

                So my remarks are over, and here’s your chance for the next few minutes to ask away and to tell me what’s on your mind.  So let’s hear your thoughts and questions, and we’ll find out who the most intrepid person on the crew is who raises their hand first.

                Q:  Good afternoon, sir, Secretary Gates.  AT1-Bravo, AIMD.  How do our current economic state and upcoming events that affect the Navy and its ability to sustain a global presence and maintain an aging fleet?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, if we’re able to execute the program that we launched a number of months ago of converting overhead to additional capabilities, as an example, just the money that the Navy alone has found for it that it can reinvest in itself would buy five additional ships over the next four or five years.  Obviously the country is in serious economic difficulty.  The government is running about a $1.3 trillion defense -- $1.3 trillion deficit.  And people are going to look to us to be responsible and to contribute to addressing these problems.

                Now, my view is we don’t address those problems by cutting the defense budget.  We address those problems by making sure that every dollar spent for defense is spent wisely and intelligently.  It means cutting wasteful programs and overhead and excess staff and investing that in force structure and capabilies.  I don’t see the world getting any safer over the next 10 years.  There will continue to be significant challenges, even after Iraq and Afghanistan. 

                And so my hope is that the Congress will work with us, recognize the efforts that we have made to rid the Defense budget of waste and abuse and allow us to use the monies we’ve identified in overhead and apply them against capabilities.  If we are not able to do that, then our ability to sustain the force structure that we have, including the number of ships, will be seriously in jeopardy, in my view.  Right now, even with the budget we already have, seeing how we could get to 313 ships, which is the program target, is difficult.  If there are significant reductions in the budget, I think that effort will become nearly impossible.

                And we have to face the reality that many of the Navy ships that were built during the Reagan era are aging out and will over the course of the next 10 to 15 years.

                So the bottom line is, I hope that people will recognize the effort we have made to be more efficient and more conscientious about the way we spend the taxpayers’ dollars.  If you cut the defense budget by 10 percent, which would be catastrophic in terms of force structure, that’s $55 billion.  On a $1.3 trillion deficit, that’s a drop in the bucket.  I believe we are not the source of the problem.  But I do believe this country has to remain strong as we look at the world as it is, so it’s just -- I’m just determined that we spend the money wisely and that we invest it in capabilities such as new Navy ships.

                Q:  Thank you, sir.

                Q:  Good afternoon, Honorable Mr. Gates.  I am Airman Apprentice Moore.  I work for Air Department, B2 Division.

                Can you give us any type of perspective on the happenings in North Korea, and is it very likely that we will make a detour to there?

                SEC. GATES:  First of all, I don’t think it’s likely you’ll make a detour there.  The George Washington just had an exercise in the Yellow Sea with the forces of the Republic of Korea.  I think that the general feeling is that what we are seeing in these provocations in North Korea is a part of the succession as Kim Jong Il prepares for his son to take his place.  And from the sinking of the Cheonan to the revelation of an enrichment facility to the recent artillery attack, these all seem to be designed to show that the son is tough and strong and able, and the message is to the elites in North Korea, especially the military, that he is strong enough to take -- take leadership.

                I think this is a difficult and potentially dangerous time.  The North Koreans have engaged in some very provocative actions.  They get everyone upset, then they volunteer to come back to talks, and we basically end up buying the same horse twice.  So I think we need to figure out the way ahead with North Korea.  Nobody wants a war on the peninsula, and I think we just have to work with the Chinese and with others to see if we can’t bring some greater stability and some greater predictability to the regime in Pyongyang.  But I don’t think you guys are headed there.

                Q:  Thank you, Mr. Gates.

                Q:  Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary.  CM Chief Petty Officer Heinemann, operations department, OI Division.

                And I just wanted to know what your thoughts on the current retirement benefit package that’s being reviews by the government, in which military members would not be eligible for retirement pay until the age of 57.  Many of us have enlisted and reenlisted for this major benefit, and removing it would create a huge impact on what many of us had planned on receiving upon completion of 20 or more years in the service. 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I can tell you of all of the things that we’re looking at in the Department of Defense in terms of where we can reduce costs and make significant changes, we specifically have not taken on military retirement.  And there really hasn’t been much discussion of military retirement. 

                I think that if military retirement does come on the table, it’s likely to come in the same way that Social Security reform does and that is that it would be phased over a very long period of time, and probably a lot of people would be grandfathered, meaning that we wouldn’t change the rules on you once you signed up, but perhaps as of 2015 or 2020 or something like that, when you enlist, you understand what the retirement benefits are going to be if there’s going to be a change.

                Where we are trying to make a change, quite frankly, is in our health-care costs, and not for the active force; Tricare will always be free for those who are on active duty.  But my concern is that for those who retire between the age of retirement, whether it’s 47 or 48 or 50 and 65 when they qualify for Medicare, they are also on Tricare.  That program was created 15 years ago, and in 15 years, there hasn’t been a single premium increase or a single co-pay increase. 

                A retiree on Tricare pays $460 a year for a family -- for a family premium.  The average federal civilian employee pays about $5,000.

                So it’s this retired medical benefit that I think we have to address.  The cost of that for the Pentagon beginning in 19 -- as of 2000 was about $19 billion dollars.  For fiscal year ‘11, the cost to the Pentagon will be about $52 or $53 billion dollars. 

                So we just -- we’re not talking about radical change.  What we’re talking about is some kind of indexing of the premium to some legitimate costs increase over time and perhaps a modest increase in the co-pays.  It’s nothing dramatic.  But I would tell you that I think -- I think everybody realizes that military retirement and particularly at a time when we’re fighting two wars is a third rail.  And I didn’t take it on and I think that if it is taken on it’ll be at a future date.  And I suspect it’ll be worked in a way that minimizes the impact on the force, the current force. 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, Lieutenant J.G. -- (inaudible) -- from -- (inaudible) -- Department.  Sir, my question actually goes right along with the senior chief’s.  In reading the Quadrennial Financial Review, in addition to talking about the retirement age that was just mentioned, it also mentions the possibility for freezing all pay raises for all military across the board for the next three years, in addition to the possibility of increased out-of-pocket expenses for Tricare.  Is there -- I’d just like to ask your take on what difficulties you anticipate with staying competitive against the outside workforce.  Thanks.

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, the president was quite specific when he announced that pay raises for the federal government would be frozen for the next two years.  He explicitly exempted the military.  And I’ll take a little bow for fighting for that.  I said this is not the time to do this.

                So the military is not included in the pay -- in the pay freeze.  And I suspect it’s not likely to be.

                The truth of the matter is, benefits for the military have really increased fairly dramatically over the past decade.  And the most dramatic increase was the passage of the Webb GI bill.  And I was telling some sailors that I had lunch with today that the benefit -- the ability of a service member to share that education benefit, which is enormously generous, to share that with a spouse or with your children or to split it between your children is all due to a suggestion made by a spouse in a meeting with me at Fort Hood about three years ago.  And she just asked the question, if my husband isn’t going to use the benefit, why can’t I or my children?  I said that sounded like a pretty reasonable idea.  I took it to President Bush and it was enacted into law and signed by President Obama last year. 

                So there have been significant increases in benefits.  I don’t see any interest on Capitol Hill and the Congress in cutting back the benefits for the military.  We are going to have to try and -- you know, you’re -- as an active duty person, your out-of-pocket costs for Tricare shouldn’t change at all.  The only piece of that that I’m talking about, as I just suggested, is for retirees who are not yet old enough to get Medicare.

                So I think -- I think you all should rest pretty easily about your benefits and about your pay, because the truth of the matter is, this is one area that has very broad bipartisan support in the Congress.  And you know, I’ll give you an example.  The Congress -- three years ago, I went up with a two-and-a-half percent pay raise for the military and the Congress voted 3 percent.  So, thought -- thinking I had learned my lesson, the next year I went up with a 3 percent pay raise.  Congress voted a 3.5 percent pay raise.  So I’m finally onto the game here.  But I think -- I think you all shouldn’t worry about your benefits and pay.  I think they’re going to stay in the same area that they are now. 

                And I think it is in recognition of the sacrifice that you all have made, that your families have made, and frankly, that was the argument that I made for not freezing military salaries.  So I think on that score, you can rest easy. 

                Q:  (Off mic.)  Mr. Secretary -- (inaudible) -- engineering department.  And I’m coming from one of those -- (inaudible).

                My question pertains to -- our benefits in the military are great.  The GI bill, retirement.  But one of the concerns is a service member’s ability to be able to complete a retirement in the military.  We have a program known as PTS, Perform to Serve.  And one of the concerns is that a lot of our great sailors may not get a chance to make it to a second and third term in the Navy.  These same sailors will be returning home because of their -- (inaudible) -- jobs in the Navy -- (inaudible) -- a society in which the economic stability kind of out of balance right now.

                Is there any concern or any look into as far as improving the PTS performance program, such as allowing the commanding officers and the command master chiefs -- to make the selection of who stays and who goes home -- vice coming from outside sources?

                SEC. GATES:  I don’t know the answer to that.  That issue hadn’t been raised with me.  I certainly will take it back and inquire. 

                I will say this.  One of the things that the Navy has done in its efforts on the efficiencies and so on is to find a way to move 6,000 sailors who have had desk or staff jobs, to move them to sea billets and to put them back at sea rather than in administrative jobs. 

                So they are looking at that.  And I don’t think -- I haven’t heard any discussion at this point about any reduction, in any further reduction in the size of the Navy in terms of personnel.  But the reality is for all the services that retention rates for obvious reasons are incredibly high, and with bringing in new people all at the same time, there does get to be a squeeze on that.  And so that’s a difficult personnel management problem that faces the leadership of all of the services.  But I’m not aware of this particular issue, but I’ll go back and ask.

                Q:  Thank you, sir, I appreciate it.

                Q:  Good after -- sorry.  Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary.  ANSC Stereo (inaudible).  Over the last couple years, I’ve noticed that the use of computers for the sailors has increased.  We have computer-based training now and a lot of information is found in online sources and things of that nature.  Is there any plan or discussion or budgeting for increasing the amount of computers available for these sailors, as well as adding drops for accessing the Internet?

                SEC. GATES:  I thought everybody already had a computer.  I honest -- that’s another one I honestly don’t know the answer to.  I think the services are spending a huge amount of money on both computers but also in providing access to the internet for people who are on active duty, and particularly for those who are deployed in forward places like Afghanistan and Iraq and on ships. 

                But in terms of whether there’s any -- I’m not aware of any new program to significantly add to the number of computers that are being provided.  Obviously, more and more training and other kinds of things are now computer-based, and to the degree the services move, continue to move in that direction, they’re clearly going to have to make available the access necessary to be able to take advantage of it.

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, Lieutenant Scott Cunningham, Air Wing Two Intel, also a proud graduate of the University of Texas.

                SEC. GATES:  That’s okay.  (Laughter.)

                Q:  It’s been a rough year.

                I have a two-part question regarding what seems to be a pretty hot topic among national media, from what we can see of it and garner.  The first -- the first part being, do you see or do you feel the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" as somewhat of the foregone conclusion that many in the media seem to?  And secondly, if that were -- if the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" were to go through Congress, do you see -- what changes, if any, do you see for the tactical warfighter, especially with regards to billeting, living situation, things like that?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I think that -- the Congress has two weeks to act on the legislation, and I’m not -- I guess I would have to say I’m not particularly optimistic that they’re going to get this done.  I would hope that they would.  And the reason is that in October -- and I don’t know whether any of these memos reached you all or not -- but in October, we had a district court judge in California that basically overturned the "don’t ask, don’t tell" law and required the military worldwide to comply immediately.

                And that’s where we were for several days until the 9th Circuit Court gave us a stay that allowed us -- allowed the law, or kept the law in operation or in effect.  My greatest fear is that -- and I testified to this the other day -- my greatest fear is that we will be told that this law will be over turned by a court and we will be told to implement it without any time for preparation, for training, any of the other efforts that need to be undertaken to prepare us for such a -- for such a change.

                One of the virtues of the legislation that’s in front of the Congress right now is that it gives the president and me and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff enormous latitude in how long we take to prepare for this and how long until it actually would be implemented.  And we would have to certify -- before we actually implemented the law, we would have to certify that the change -- we’d made enough preparations that it wouldn’t affect unit cohesion, morale, recruitment, retention and so on.

                So it gives us a great deal of -- the legislation would give us a great deal of flexibility.  I am -- I am not particularly optimistic, though, that it’ll get done.  We’ll see.

                I think that all of the service chiefs -- I agree with the service chiefs.  There -- a change in this law is inevitable.  Their concern is whether it ought to be done now, while the force is under such stress, with such continuing rotations or deployments, still having the war in Afghanistan and still having 50,000 troops in Iraq.  And their view is that it ought to, by and large -- is that it should come, but not now.  And we’ll see where the Congress goes with it.

                I don’t think the world’s going to get any less stressful in the years ahead.  The review that was done showed that -- over the last 10 months, showed that roughly 70 percent of the force either thought it wouldn’t -- it would either have a positive or a neutral impact, if gays and lesbians were allowed to serve.

                In combat arms, the number of those who were opposed and had concerns with it was much higher, in the Army ranging from 40 (percent) to 48 percent and in the Marine Corps as high as 60 percent.  So these are serious issues that we have to address, and I think over time we will have to do that.  If the legislation passes, then we will begin to put in place the training and everything that’s required.  I think it will take a while to be able to do that.

                Overall, the general view of the review and the report is that nothing should change, that there would not be a special protected class, there were not be special facilities.  Commanders would have the flexibility to make some adjustments in terms of assignments, berthing assignments and so on.  But fundamentally everybody would be expected to behave the way they behave now and follow the regulations that we have in place now about the way men and women in the service treat each other.

                And I think there’s no question, but that this would be a big change for the military.  And my one hope is that if that change is brought about by legislation or by the courts, that whoever -- the executive branch and the president can’t do anything about this law.  Only the Congress and the courts can change it.  And so if one or the other of them changes the law, I just hope they will give us the time to implement it in a thoughtful and careful way so that it doesn’t impact our people in the service, and it doesn’t lessen morale, unit cohesion, combat capabilities, and our ability to retain and recruit the kind of people we need.

                So it’s a complex issue.  It’s a controversial one.  I think that the review of the last 10 months has allowed the military for the first time in its history to actually have a conversation about this subject kind of up on the table.  We had 114 (thousand) or 115,000 servicemen and women fill out the survey, about 45,000 spouses fill out another survey.  So I think we have a pretty good understanding of the force.  Certainly, the service chiefs felt like it was a high-quality report that they could drill down and figure out which specialties in which areas were going to present particular problems.

                So we’ll just have to see whether the Congress acts, but I will tell you this.  If they do, I will proceed along this path with considerable caution, and take very seriously into account, as I testified the other day, the views of the service chiefs in terms of whether and when their forces are ready.

                Q:  Good afternoon, sir.  Welcome aboard.  Thank you for the opportunity for us to ask you questions.  My name is Lieutenant Junior Grade Jason -- (inaudible), assistant personnel officer.  My question for you today is -- relates to our upcoming deployment and change of home port.  My request is to ask you to look into allowing the Abraham Lincoln sailors to move their families and/or personal effects from our present home port in Everett, Washington to our new homeport in Norfolk, Virginia prior to our upcoming deployment in December of 2011, which following that we’ll be moving to Norfolk on or about May of 2012.

                Under the current plan, most of our sailors which totals about 1,500 will not be authorized to move their families or their personal property, and may be involuntarily separated from their family members for up to two years.  (Inaudible) -- on board today today will do this deployment, and the next deployment arrive in Norfolk, and still will not be authorized to take a homeport certificate, and move their family members there.

                And I understand this is a very complex issue, and I’d be happy to brief any of your staff members, if your -- if their schedules permit.  Any assistance that you can provide to help lessen the hardship on our sailors and their family would be greatly appreciated.

                SEC. GATES:  Oh, I’m sure somebody on my staff just took a note of what you just said.  I will tell you, for what it’s worth, I didn’t know y’all were going to Norfolk.  I thought you were staying in Everett.  But what do I know?  So we’ll certainly take a look at that.

                Q:  Thank you.

                SEC. GATES:  Are we done?

                I guess you get the last question.

                Q:  Secretary Gates.  Ella Simpson, Supply Department -- (inaudible).  Out of personal curiosity, who is your favorite president?

                SEC. GATES:  (Laughs, laughter.)  That’s a very dangerous question.  (Laughter, applause.)  I’ve worked for eight.  The first president I worked for was Lyndon Johnson.  And all this white hair didn’t come from nothing.  I’m going to write a book when I get out of here.  (Laughter.)  And the answer to your question you’re going to have to pay for.  (Laughter, applause.)

                MODERATOR:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.