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Secretary Gates Speech at Kuznetzov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg with Q&A

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
March 21, 2011

            Thank you, admiral. It’s a great honor to be speaking in a city founded by one of history’s most notable military reformers, Peter the Great, and to address the officers who now lead his beloved navy. 

            I take great pleasure and satisfaction in this visit and today’s speaking opportunity.  As you may know, I earned my doctoral degree in Russian and Soviet Studies nearly 40 years ago, and intended to teach at a university.  At age 23, however, my path was diverted and I have spent the decades since working on issues related to your country, and mine -- at the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. National Security Council, and now, finally, at the U.S. Department of Defense. 

            Although I’ve made several visits to Moscow as Secretary of Defense, my last visit to St. Petersburg was as Director of CIA in the fall of 1992.  Speaking to you naval officers here today, I am reminded of a special presentation I made to President Yeltsin on the Moscow portion of that trip.  During the mid-1970s, in the hope of finding an intelligence treasure trove, the United States made a billion dollar effort to recover a Soviet ballistic missile submarine that had sunk deep in the Pacific Ocean several years before.  We did recover part of the Golf-II submarine, including the remains of six Soviet sailors.  We had prepared for this possibility, and nearly twenty five years later, I presented to President Yeltsin the Soviet naval flag with which we had shrouded the coffins of the six Soviet sailors, along with a video tape of their burial at sea, complete with prayers in Russian for the dead and the playing of the Soviet national anthem – at the height of the Cold War, a dignified and respectful burial at sea of six brave adversaries.  That video was shown on Russian television several months later. 

            The broader purpose of my 1992 visit, the first by a CIA Director to Russia, was to explore with my Russian counterpart – the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Evgeniy Primakov – opportunities for the American and Russian intelligence services to begin to work together in addressing common threats in a post Cold War world: terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, global organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and more.  No longer enemies, we began to look for ways in which we could cooperate and be partners. 

            Nearly twenty years later, that cooperation to address common security challenges is real, and increasingly involves our two militaries working together.  Today, I would like to discuss the nature of these challenges, our deepening military-to-military relationship – and, how, with leadership and farsighted thinking from both nations, we can expand that cooperation. 

            One of the true pleasures of being Secretary of Defense has been the opportunity to engage with younger military officers – whether on the front lines or in the professional military schools, whether at home or abroad, American or international.  In preparation for today’s event, I was struck by the fact that both you and your American counterparts entered military institutions that were essentially shaped in response to each other.  And, even though twenty years have passed since the end of the Cold War, the American and Russian defense establishments are still working hard to reform and transform themselves to meet the evolving threats and opportunities of the 21st Century, not the 20th Century.  These are the challenges that will shape your professional lives – and those of your American counterparts – as surely as our differences once shaped mine. 

            Military organizations in the 21st century must be agile and adaptable enough to face threats along an entire spectrum of conflict.  These might be countering terrorism, piracy, and responding to natural disasters.  They might be battling unpredictable insurgents in failing states as well as providing the training to help those states defend themselves.  They might be threats from a rogue nation or terrorists who do not attack though conventional channels or obey the laws of war, or care about innocent lives, enemies such as those who so recently struck at a Moscow airport. 

            In my view, this broadening spectrum of conflict means that military leaders must think harder about the entire range of missions they will need to perform, and how to achieve the right balance of capabilities.  Over the course of my tenure as Secretary of Defense, I have pushed all of the military services to institutionalize the asymmetric and unconventional warfare capabilities developed in Iraq and Afghanistan, because I am concerned that once these conflicts end -- and they will -- the tendency of any military bureaucracy – indeed any big organization – is to return to old and comfortable habits.

            I know that for the Russian military, adapting to these similar external threats has required somewhat similar internal adjustments.  Minister Serdyukov and I have had a number of conversations about the challenges of leading large, proud, and tradition-bound military institutions.  We’re both striving to invest limited funds wisely on truly critical capabilities while doing right by our troops and their families.  In this fight to modernize, our common enemy is now what your Minister of Defense Serdyukov called the “two diseases of military bureaucracy” – the constantly rising costs of weapons systems combined with contractual deadlines that are never met. 

            We have also discussed the common challenges to reshaping each of our militaries, the U.S. experience in the 1970s of transitioning to an all-volunteer force, and Russia’s current efforts to seek the right mix of conscripts and volunteers, the force that you will command in the not too distant future.  I have followed with interest the efforts of your Defense Minister and General Staff in reorganizing Russia’s six military districts into the four new Joint Strategic Commands, with the aim of improving joint operations, as well as achieving manpower and infrastructure savings. 

            The evolving security challenges of the 21st century have not only put our militaries on a similar trajectory of reform, they have also created new opportunities for cooperation.  In recent years, both our militaries have accepted that most of these contingencies are not zero-sum threats – for example, terrorism that weakens one nation does not provide opportunity for another, but rather increases the danger for everyone.  It is this realization that has led Russia and the United States to work together across a number of key areas.  These include: 

            Coordinating and expanding the operation of the Northern Distribution Network into Afghanistan, as well as the offer of Russian aid to the Afghan government in developing its helicopter fleet, efforts which we see as a very welcome recognition of the fact that a stable, strong, independent Afghanistan that ceases to export dangerous drugs is in all our interests; 

  • Working together through both negotiations and sanctions to persuade the Iranian regime to renounce the pursuit of nuclear weapons and other destabilizing activities. Russia’s restriction of arms sales and backing of the United Nations’ expanded efforts is a strong statement to the world about your seriousness on counter-proliferation; and


  • Ratifying the New START treaty, a continuation and expansion of arms control efforts we worked toward even during the darkest days of the Cold War.  I was involved in various earlier treaty negotiations with the Soviet Union on strategic arms beginning 40 years ago, and I’m cheered by our relatively rapid progress on this one – the first START treaty took nearly a decade to sign.  Through New START, the United States and Russia both maintain the strategic balance between our nuclear deterrent forces, but will use verification and transparency mechanisms to greatly reduce the odds of misunderstanding or miscommunication between our nations, or of proliferation beyond them. 

            Beyond these specific areas of cooperation, there is also an increasing recognition that by sharing knowledge, we can resolve common problems.  Our militaries have never hesitated to learn from one another before, even in much less friendly times.  I clearly remember, beginning in the 1970s, the “Military Technical Revolution”, where Soviet thinkers conceived of new ways to bring the most advanced technologies of the day onto the battlefield, strategies the U.S. military studied when developing our own doctrines.  Nowadays, we can simply learn directly from one another, and our two defense ministries have established channels to further this collaboration. 

            Last September, during Minister Serdyukov’s visit to Washington, we established the U.S.- Russia Defense Relations Working Group.  Through this arrangement Minister Serdyukov and I, our deputies and specialists, and I hope our successors, will keep meeting on a regular basis to share expertise and exchange views across a range of subjects.  We’ll exchange best practices and strategies for: 

  • Training, educating, caring for, and retaining our troops;


  • Certain defense technologies, such as approaches to dealing with improvised explosive devices;


  • Logistics, notably our efforts along the Northern Distribution Network;


  • Maritime cooperation, including counter-piracy efforts and the broader effort to maintain the freedom of the seas; 

            On the geo-strategic level, several of these working groups have and will continue to make sure that we have clarity about one another’s views, plans, and positions on global questions.  Discussing our intentions as well as our capabilities is a critical move forward.  It is a given that on some issues and in some arenas U.S. and Russian interests and goals will differ no matter how much we talk to one another.  However, one critical lesson we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past is to avoid dangerous circumstances that can emerge from mistrust and a lack of transparency about each other’s intentions. 

            One good example of this that also draws in other critical actors is the NATO-Russian decision to cooperate on defense against ballistic missiles.  We’ve disagreed before, and Russia still has uncertainties about the European Phased Adaptive Approach, a limited system that poses no challenge to the large Russian nuclear arsenal.  However, we’ve mutually committed to resolving these difficulties in order to develop a roadmap toward truly effective anti-ballistic missile collaboration.  This collaboration may include exchanging launch information, setting up a joint data fusion center, allowing greater transparency with respect to our missile defense plans and exercises, and conducting a joint analysis to determine areas of future cooperation. 

            As should become clear from recent years, so many of the most pressing threats to both of our nations are transnational in character, and require the cooperation of multiple countries – and in some cases multiple militaries.  The U.S. military has gained valuable expertise, including insights into the unique challenges attendant to any coalition operation, as a result of operating with international partners in a variety of missions and exercises – ranging from the Balkans in the 1990s, where the U.S. military worked with Russian forces, to the international military effort in Libya today.  So in addition to furthering ways to improve our bilateral defense cooperation, I would encourage you – and encourage your leadership – to think about ways that Russia’s military can work within multi-lateral coalitions to achieve common security objectives. 

            I’ll leave you with a final thought.  As committed as Minister Serdyukov and I are to defense reform and to a real expansion of our bilateral relationship, future progress is largely not up to us.  Real change in large organizations, and strong relationships between nations, always take sustained effort over many years.  If you’d told me when I joined the CIA in 1967 that I would end my career helping to forge a stronger defense relationship with the Russians, I’d have been more than a bit skeptical.  If you’d told me what the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines would be doing today around the world, I’d have been similarly amazed.  It will be up to you, the next generation of leaders, to make what you will of our efforts and decide what history you’ll be telling when it’s your turn to stand up here.  

            Thank you, and I will be pleased to take your questions. 

            SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES:  (In progress) – are actually those for international cooperation is significantly required.  The first is terrorism.  You have experienced here in Russia, we have experienced it in the United States, other countries have experienced it.  

            And the other is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and I would say particularly the proliferation in states that have threatened to destroy other states.  For instance, Iran.  And this is an area where all of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and France – have all worked together to try and bring pressure to bear on the Iranians.  

            And I – it is certainly my hope that none of us ever have to use military force to deal with these proliferation problems, but rather we can persuade these countries with pressure to give up these weapons or these weapons programs voluntarily.  So I would say that those are the two biggest threats that I see.  

            Terrorism, unfortunately, caused us to have to go to Afghanistan to try and fight those who’ve launched the terror acts against us – (inaudible) – dismantle and destroy al Qaeda.  We’ve made a lot of progress in that effort, but it has been a difficult fight.  Those are the two areas that I think pose the greatest danger, right now, for both of our countries. 

            Q:  (Inaudible)  

            Interpreter:  Mr. Secretary, what are the key components, what are the key – (inaudible) – of the national security strategy you’re looking at right now? 

            SEC. GATES:  I think that the – I think one of the biggest problems that the United States has -- and Minister Serdyukov and I discussed this when he visited Washington last fall – is that we – we ordered a number of very expensive weapons systems many years ago that have proven not to be useful in the 21st century.  And also a number of weapon systems have ended up costing a great deal more than originally anticipated.  

            Now we have elements in our country that want to keep these weapons programs going, that want to keep spending money on these programs even though we don’t anticipate ever using them.  

            So my talents have been in persuading in particular our Congress to stop funding these weapon systems so that we can spend our money on programs that are more useful for a very different kind of world.  We’ve made a lot of progress on this in the last two or three years.  I’ve been able to cap or eliminate weapons programs that, if they had reached their conclusion, would have cost the American people $300 billion or more.  

            But being able to be more selective about the programs, the weapons programs that we have, making the development of the 21st challenges and getting them delivered on time and as budgeted I think is a challenge that every military in the world faces in the 21st century.  

            I think that in terms of national defense strategy, what I have told our people is that we are not going to face the kinds of threats that we faced in the 20th century, that we will take a – (inaudible) – potential conflict that slides along a spectrum of lethality and we will confront non-state actors that potentially have the capabilities of states, whether it’s in the cyber area or the – (inaudible) – that have tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, more than all the governments in the world or, as I mentioned earlier, the possibility of a transnational terrorist group of firing a weapon of mass destruction.  

            But I think preparing our militaries for the diversity of the threats that we face from around the world, the security challenges that we face and under limited budgets creating the maximum possible flexibility for using those capabilities technologically as well as in terms of our training I think is perhaps the biggest national security challenge and strategic challenge that we all face.  

            Q:  (Inaudible)  

            Interpreter:  Mr. Secretary, the question is as follows: are you conducting any streamlining or reformation within the Defense Department – (inaudible) – at the moment? 

            SEC. GATES:  Well, very much for along the lines of the weapons programs that I’ve just discussed.  Our streamlining really has been more along those lines than in terms of restructuring or reorganization.  We converted a number of years ago to what we would call joint combatant commands that can be commanded by any number of officers from different services.  

            So, for example, our supreme allied commander Europe, the head of European command – (inaudible) – secretary has been a Marine, an Army officer and a Navy admiral.  So most of our combatant commands are joint in the sense that all of our services participate in them and a representative from virtually any service can command those.  We have 10 of those today.  

            Several of them are functional commands, like Transportation Command is in charge of mobility.  Another is our Strategic Command that controls all our strategic weapons and so on.  So we have several that have sort of functional responsibilities and then we have geographic combatant commands like Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East and Africa Command that is responsible for Africa.  

            So those structural changes were made a number of years ago for our military.  We, like you, underwent a dramatic reduction in the size of our military after the end of the Cold War.  The size of our Army dropped in the 1990s by about 40 percent.  So a lot of that downsizing, as we call it, has taken place (some time ago ?).  

            Depending on how our budget goes over the next several years we may have to do some more of that.  I hope not.  But we clearly are facing some serious budgetary challenges of our own.  

            I would say that the major structural change that I still think needs to be made in our military is the way we procure weapons.  Most of our services still buy their own weapons, so the Army buys its weapons, the Navy buys its weapons, the same way with the Marine Corps and the Air Force.  But in fact a number of those capabilities can be shared among all of the services.  And so as we have learned to fight jointly and are structured jointly, we need to learn how to buy weapons jointly.  

            A good example of this is the remotely piloted vehicles – the drones.  Each of the services have their own programs for buying these drones.  We think we can save a lot of money if they went together in some of these programs.  

            So I will say that that probably the biggest – one of the biggest reforms that we need to continue to work on at the Department of Defense, only because we have undergone a number of major reforms over the past 15 to 20 years.  

            I would say one other reform, big reform that our Army has undergone just in the last 10 years has basically has been basically converting itself from an Army that was focused on divisions and corps, to an Army that’s focused on brigades.  We have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq that it’s smaller units -- the brigade, the battalion and the company -- that have actually done most of the heavy lifting, most of the hard work, most of the hard work during these wars.  So our Army has restructured itself along the lines of brigades, combat brigades.  They have done a major transformation.  But we’ve been undergoing a fairly regular process of reform but I don’t see other major structural changes anytime soon.  

            Q:  (Inaudible) 

            Interpreter:  Mr. Secretary, what is the role of the naval branch within the Department of Defense that you see within securing the state, facing? 

            SEC. GATES:  Well, the United States, like Russia, has been a maritime country for all its history, surrounded by two oceans.  And so one of our – and we have been a nation that has always traded internationally.  

            So our Navy, our Navy’s primary role today is in what we would call securing the global commons to ensure freedom of navigation for all and to protect against threats such a piracy or other nations that would want to close off freedom of navigation to all of our Navy.  

            And I would say that as we have just seen in Japan, our Navy has also come in recent years in particular to play a fairly dramatic and significant role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, whether it was the earthquake in Pakistan a number of years ago or the tsunami in Southeast Asia or now the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear problems in Japan, our Navy has always played a very significant role in these kinds of activities and our ability to deliver helicopters to help Pakistan with the flooding that they went through the last summer with a lot of our helicopters.  

            So the Navy’s broader responsibility for securing the state is obviously keeping freedom of the seas -- keeping the freedom of the seas, but it also has played a significant role in other kinds of situations such as these disasters. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) 

            Interpreter:  Mr. Secretary, I feel a – (inaudible) – difficulties that you might be facing in building up and training professional military staff for the Department of Defense these days.  And the second part is how do you see the overseas training of and the broad training of the Russian naval staff in the United States of America, in the educational institutions of the United States? 

            SEC. GATES:  I would say right now that the primary challenge that we have in our professional military education is simply the reality that we are engaged in two wars.  And there is – it is with the repeated rotation of our service men and women into Afghanistan and Iraq, having them at home long enough so that they can go to professional military schools, which often takes six months or a year, a year and a half, is going to be a challenge for us.  

            And it is one of the things that as we leave Iraq and we begin to draw down in Afghanistan is one of the primary goals that our military leadership has is that they can get back to what they call full-spectrum training for a whole range of missions that each of our services is supposed to perform.  But also the time for these younger officers, in particular, to get some time off to go to these schools and improve their professional credentials.  

            We are also encouraging our young officers as they come back and as we increase the amount of time they have at home to diversify their careers, perhaps by even going on to graduate school and getting graduate degrees in business or something else.  

            So this is an important part of our military professionalism and it has been a challenge while we’ve been at war, but I believe that we are now moving back to a situation where we will be able to get a lot of these young officers into the training that they need at the correct time in their careers. 

            I will tell you that we would more than welcome exchanging students between our professional military orientation – training, educational organizations – and Russia’s.  I think this would have a lot of benefit and would do us – would do both our militaries good to learn from one another and have the experience of spending time together.  I think we would be very interested in this at every level, from not just the most senior officers but middle grade officers and even non-commissioned officers.  I think that widely expanding this program would be good for both of our country.  And I’m glad you raised this because I’ll raise it with Minister Serdyukov when I see him tomorrow.  

            Q:  (Inaudible) 

            Interpreter:  Mr. Secretary, do you personally consider an opportunity of any joint U.S.-Russian cooperation in any context that – (inaudible)? 

            SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, we are already operating together -- not necessarily jointly, but certainly operating together off the coast of African in the counter-piracy mission.  Russia has had ships in that area for some time now and there is regular communication between our ships and the Russian ships.  

            I think that there are a lot of opportunities for joint exercises -- I think particularly exercising with respect to humanitarian assistance to disaster relief.  We have seen – and I would say this is particularly true in the Far East, we’ve seen especially – (inaudible) – to terrible natural disaster that we have seen in Japan.  

            And so I think exercising together, working together in these areas – counter-piracy – I think there are several areas in which we could have --  both benefit from joint operations and exercising together.  

            Interpreter:  Maybe two more questions. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) 

            Interpreter:  Mr. Secretary, will you consider the opportunity to have a training operation to be held – (inaudible)? 

            SEC. GATES:  Absolutely.  Again, I – this is the effort that Minister Serdyukov and I began last September during his visit and will continue on this visit is to look for broader areas for us to work together.  I mentioned strategic – I mentioned the professional military education, we just talked about joint exercises and joint operation.  And I think that joint training is sort of the third piece of that, if you will, where there are a lot of opportunities.  

            I start from the premise that the closer we work together, the better off we all will be.  The more we can get to know each other, the more we can train together, operate together, exercise together and deal with a lot of the different problems that there are around the world, the better off we’ll all be.  So I look forward as a result of this visit and future visits to (inaudible) – the leadership of both our militaries to expand these relationships.  

            I will tell you that the chair of our military, Joints Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, has a very close personal relationship with the chief of the Russian General Staff, General Makarov.  They talk on the telephone fairly regularly and when there’s an issue between the two countries, neither hesitates to pick up the phone and talk to the other.  This is the kind of relationship that we should seek and continue to expand between our two countries.  Thank you.  

            Q:  (Inaudible) 

            Interpreter:  Mr. Secretary, what – (inaudible) – is the most significant event in your being – (inaudible) – of the secretary of defense?  And what would be the most difficult event of your whole life? 

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I have to answer the latter question by saying – (inaudible).  I think that the most – there have been – let me just broaden my answer a little bit.  In the days of the Cold War it seemed to me the world was a lot simpler.  There was the Soviet Union and there was us, and almost every problem in the world was defined by that relationship.  

            Once the Cold War was over, the world got a lot more complicated.  And we have seen a lot more instability, a lot more change.  We have seen the growth of international terrorism.  We’ve seen the growth of transnational crime – (inaudible).  We have seen a lot of internal instability in a lot of countries.  We ourselves have been engaged in conflict in the Balkans.  In that instance with you, but in the last decade also – (inaudible) – Iraq and Afghanistan.  

            And I will tell you I think a lot of those significant developments for us by ourselves has been being able to develop with the Iraqis a democratic government in Iraq that allows us to bring our troops home.  

            This clearly was the biggest challenge that I had when I became secretary of defense.  I told the Congress and the brass at the time when they asked me – what’s your agenda?  I would say, Iraq, Iraq and Iraq, and getting our forces out of Iraq I think and having Iraq as any difficulties that they face within Iraq that I think will stick together as a country and will preserve their democracy is a very big event.  

            I think that it’s very difficult to pick out this one thing.  There are a number of important things that have happened during the four years-plus that I’ve been in this job.  I think finally getting the right strategy in Afghanistan and getting your cooperation with Afghanistan and our effort in Afghanistan.  And there have been a number of important developments.  But I think for me being able to resolve satisfactorily the worst challenge that I faced when I took this job in December of 2006 I’d have to consider the most significant event. 

            I will tell you that – I would just conclude my answer by broadening it to say the thing that has affected me most personally in my time has been the opportunity to interact with the young men and women of our armed forces.  I’ve spent a long time in government.  I served eight president of the United States.  And no one has ever impressed me more than our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines that I encounter every day.  So when the time comes for me to leave this job, believe me, that’s the only thing I will miss.  

            Thank you.

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