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Esper Marks Eventful Year as Defense Secretary

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As he approaches the start of his second year in office, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said he is pleased overall with the progress the Defense Department has made in implementing the National Defense Strategy and that more will be done in the weeks and months ahead.

Two men, one in an Army uniform, stand at lecterns in the Pentagon.
Esper and Milley
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speak to reporters at the Pentagon, March 2, 2020.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 200302-D-BN624-0115

Esper will mark a year in office July 24. He discussed the major issues of his tenure during a telephone interview.

The phone interview was a reminder of one issue he had to confront: COVID-19. "I think we have done very well, and I'm quite proud of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who stepped up from Day 1 and kept us ahead of the curve from Day 1," he said.

Tens of thousands of National Guardsmen, supplemented by active duty personnel, helped their fellow Americans, putting their own lives at risk, the secretary said.

Long before the coronavirus was a blip on the radar of the American people, Defense Department personnel were working with other federal agencies and foreign governments, he said. DOD helped stranded Americans get home and shared vital protective gear and ventilators.

Two men, one in a Navy uniform, walk on the sidewalk past a building.
Command Headquarters
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper walks with Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, during a visit to the command’s headquarters in MiamI, Jan. 23, 2020.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia, DOD
VIRIN: 200123-D-AP390-2177C

The department stayed ahead of the virus by getting hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles ahead of schedule and quickly opened field hospitals in Seattle, Dallas and New Orleans. DOD also got military doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists to a dozen or so hospitals around the country to help civilian medical professionals, who have done a wonderful job, Esper said.

While all this was going on, U.S. service members were serving in more than 100 nations deterring enemies, reassuring allies and building capabilities. Those forces — including those in the combat zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria — maintained their readiness and lethality while coping with the virus.

As I travel around the region, I just see our young men and women on the front lines who are really committed."
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper

DOD is also working to learn the lessons of the pandemic to be better prepared for future threats or a second wave of the coronavirus. Esper said DOD scientists and researchers have been working on vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to really solve the problem of COVID-19. "I'm confident that we're going to have a vaccine in time — no doubt in my mind," he added.

When Esper became secretary, his top priority was to implement the National Defense Strategy. "We're in an era of great power competition … and that means that our top strategic competitors are China, then Russia," he said. China is the bigger problem, he said, as it has the population and economy to displace the United States. "It's very clear to me and anybody who understands China that they have the ambition to displace us — certainly from the region and preferably on the global stage," he said.

Man, woman look upon World War II battlefield. Military men in uniform are in the background.
Bois Tour
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper tours the Bois Jacques with members of the 101st Airborne Division as part of events for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulg, near Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 16, 2019.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 191216-D-BN624-0348

The Chinese want to rewrite the rules of the international order that have served the nations of the world — including China — so well since the end of World War II, the National Defense Strategy says. A rising China, by itself, would not concern U.S. leaders, but a rising China under the governance of the Chinese communist party is a concern.

The United States and its allies cherish individualism and the freedom of people to make their own choices, Esper said. The rules-based architecture was put in place by nations that valued the freedom of the press, religion and assembly. The Chinese do not, the secretary said

"They put the party first," he explained. "The [Chinese] military … is loyal to the [communist] party. Our military has a sworn oath to defend the Constitution. We have very different ambitions … and very different value sets. And if we don't wake up to the long-term challenge and the possible threat that China presents to us, then we may find ourselves living in a world different [from] what we want to live in."

Russia is a slightly lesser challenge than China, but it is a worldwide troublemaker — annexing Crimea, fighting a war in Ukraine, threatening NATO allies, and sending troops to Syria and Libya, Esper said.

Two men and a woman, standing, speak to each other in a restaurant.
Esper and Stoltenberg
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison for dinner in Stuttgart, Germany, Sept. 4, 2019.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 190904-D-BN624-0146

The key in Europe is still NATO, the secretary said, and the United States needs to continue to work with allies to build NATO readiness. "That's everything from making sure that our allies and partners contribute at least 2 percent of their [gross domestic product] to defense," he said. "We've made a lot of progress on that in the last couple years, but much, much more needs to be done."

NATO's spending increase is welcome, Esper said, and now the money has to be channeled into capabilities aimed at deterrence. "We need to deter Russia. We need to strengthen NATO and, again, enhance our partners as we look forward," he said.

The Middle East and Central Asia remain a challenge that the United States military must engage in, the secretary said. The coalition to defeat ISIS continues its work and growth. The effort to ensure a peaceful Afghanistan that does not export terrorism continues, the secretary said. "As I travel around the region, I just see our young men and women on the front lines who are really committed," he added. "They understand that this is about defending our country and making sure that America's interests aren't threatened abroad and America itself isn't threatened by terrorists."

It's just a real honor and privilege for me to be in this role and to really think long and hard about every decision I make and what it means to them."
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper

Esper joked that service members abroad always tell him they want better Wi-Fi, but they also come to him with better ways to operate, ideas for better tactics, and opinions on how best to accomplish their missions.

"I'm just, again, very proud of our service members who are out there — in many cases on a rotational deployment that lasts months at a time," he said.

Esper's hometown is Unionville, Pennsylvania. It was also the hometown of General of the Army George C. Marshall, the service chief of staff during World War II. "I consider him one of the greatest, if not the greatest, general of World War II because he was the architect of victory," Esper said. "Who knows how it would [have] turned out if he was not here?

“Sitting above my desk … is a picture of George Marshall. I'm looking at him right now,” he continued. “He was somebody who led the United States military through its most difficult times and probably its most celebrated time. Then, afterwards, he brought forth a peace as the father of the Marshall Plan. I never thought I'd be sitting in this desk or following at least in those footsteps."

When Esper took over as secretary, he made sure to add a priority: ensuring the well-being of service members and their families. "It's just a real honor and privilege for me to be in this role and to really think long and hard about every decision I make and what it means to them," he said.

Men and women in PT outfits ready for training.
Physical Training
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper participates in a physical training session with service members and civilians at Camp Resolute Support in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 21, 2019.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia, DOD
VIRIN: 191020-D-AP390-3038

Next month marks 30 years since the secretary deployed as a young officer in the 101st Airborne Division to Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. His unit was part of the air assault onto southern Iraq.

"It was … a memorable moment, and I think about it often as we ponder decisions of war here," he said. "It's a good grounding for understanding what our military goes through, because at the end of the day, our purpose is to deter war, and, failing that, to be prepared to fight and win. And so I think about that all the time."

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