This special report highlights some of the Defense Department's most critical issues. While the department intensified its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who took office in February, launched initiatives to build the force of the future, seek breakthrough technologies and open opportunities for women. The department also continued missions in the Asia-Pacific region, Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, and emerged from budget uncertainty with a multiyear deal.
U.S. and coalition forces have intensified their strategy for Operation Inherent Resolve, the mission to degrade and defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. Daily airstrikes have destroyed ISIL oil facilities, weaponry and staging areas in both Iraq and Syria. Other targeted strikes have killed numerous ISIL leaders, and aided Iraqi and Kurdish ground offensives.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter outlined the U.S. strategy to Congress in October. He said the United States would support moderate anti-ISIL Syrian forces and Jordanian partners to put pressure on Raqqa, ISIL's stronghold. The United States also would support Iraqi forces as they attempt to retake Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province. Finally, U.S. raids would become more opportunistic, working on actionable intelligence and targeting ISIL leaders. Despite the evolving challenges, Carter told lawmakers the goal is clear: to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat.
After November's terrorist attacks in Paris, Carter urged U.S allies to accelerate their efforts against ISIL. The Defense Department also plans to deploy a specialized expeditionary targeting force to help Iraqi and Kurdish troops and to put more pressure on ISIL.
"The reality is, we're at war. That's how our troops feel about it, because they're taking the fight to ISIL every day."
When Defense Secretary Ash Carter took office Feb. 17, he identified one of his top priorities: building the “force of the future.” In March, during his first domestic trip as secretary, he spoke to students at his high school alma mater, outlining ideas to attract and retain the nation's brightest men and women to the military.
In April, he ordered a review of the department's personnel systems to develop proposals for reforms. Carter announced the initial reforms in a Nov. 18 speech including enhancements to the department's internship programs, designating a chief recruiting officer and modernizing the retirement system for service members.
"Today, the U.S. military has no equal. We are the best. But to stay the best, we have to embrace the future. ... And we need a 21st century personnel system to match a 21st century military -- that's what I call our force of the future."
Defense Secretary Ash Carter made three trips to the Asia-Pacific region in his first eight months in office. Carter's frequent visits signified the overall importance of the U.S. military's rebalance to a region he predicts will be the center of the world's economy.
During his most recent trip, Carter met with leaders from more than a dozen Asian nations, including those from longtime partners Japan and South Korea. They discussed the rapidly changing security environment and threats to regional stability from China and North Korea. Carter also met with defense ministers during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Malaysia. While there, he and the Chinese defense minister discussed security issues, including tensions in the South China Sea and disagreements over cyberspace.
The year also brought a leadership change as Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. assumed command of U.S Pacific Command from Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III in May.
"The presence of our joint military forces in key locations throughout the region underpins the rules-based, international order and provides opportunities to engage with other countries while being positioned to respond to crises. The rebalance has strengthened our treaty alliances and partnerships, increased partner capacity and cooperation, improved interoperability, and increased security capabilities in the region."
The Defense Department dealt with budget uncertainty for most of 2015, marking a fourth year of facing the impacts of sequestration. In February, President Barack Obama sent Congress a base budget request of $534.3 billion for fiscal 2016, plus $51 billion in overseas contingency funds. The request was $36 billion above fiscal 2016 sequestration caps, which defense and service leaders argued was necessary to maintain readiness amid numerous security challenges around the globe and in cyberspace.
In late October, following weeks of negotiations, Congress and the White House agreed on two years of funding. The total included about $580 billion for 2016, an amount defense leaders said would provide stability and help strike a balance between needs and resources.
"We applaud what Congress has done, coming together in a bipartisan nature ... with a budget deal that gives us clarity for two years."
Russia's destabilizing actions in Ukraine and Syria remain one of the dominant concerns for U.S. defense leaders going into 2016. The United States responded this year, conducting numerous military exercises with its NATO allies across Europe as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve. Trident Juncture, NATO's largest military exercise in more than a decade, involved more than 36, 000 troops and 30 nations.
In his most recent trip to Europe, Defense Secretary Ash Carter met with U.S. troops and his counterparts in Spain, Italy and England. He also attended NATO's meeting for defense ministers in Brussels where alliance leaders discussed Russian aggression, Afghanistan and the threat to NATO's southern flank. Carter said the Defense Department was adjusting its presence to help make NATO forces more agile, mobile and responsive. He also asked allies to increase their participation in cyber exercises, and encouraged them to work toward meeting NATO's cyber defense targets to enable all to meet the highest standards for cybersecurity.
"Given the complexity of challenges we face globally, it remains critical that we continue to work together with our allies and partners. This has been true for 60 years in [U.S. European Command], and it is true today."
Pushing the high-tech envelope became a top Defense Department goal in 2015. In an April trip to Silicon Valley, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the creation of Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, or DIUx, to scout breakthrough technologies in the region and build relationships with innovators.
During that same trip, Carter announced the department's new cyber strategy in a speech at Stanford University. He said protecting the department's own networks was its most important cyber mission, followed by defending the nation against significant cyberattacks.
In August, Carter announced the department's investment of $75 million into a partnership with a large-scale consortium to produce hybrid electronics. In addition, the department expanded a program to allow service members to serve in top companies so they could bring back what they learned to keep the department on the cutting-edge.
"We're looking and thinking outside of our five-sided box to forge new partnerships with America's private-sector and tech communities."
In October, President Barack Obama reinforced America's commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan, announcing the United States would maintain its current level of 9,800 troops in in the country through most of 2016. The president said the United States would stay focused on two critical missions: training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorist operations against the remnants of al-Qaida. Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the president's decision provided "the ability to further develop a lasting strategic relationship with our Afghan partners, and ... counter the rise of violent extremism in a volatile part of the world.”
The NATO-led Resolute Support mission, which began Jan. 1, 2015, includes a force of more than 13,000 troops from 42 nations.
"Over 14 years have passed since the 9-11 attacks and we haven't forgotten why we first came to Afghanistan and why we remain. Since 2001, the exceptional efforts and courage of our forces have ensured that another terrorist attack originating from Afghanistan and directed against the U.S. homeland has not occurred."
Defense Secretary Ash Carter contends that maintaining the world's finest fighting force requires recruiting from the broadest possible pool of talent. In December, he announced that all military occupations and positions would be open to women beginning in January 2016, with no exceptions. This historic announcement came after three years of study. It means women will be eligible for an additional 220,000 jobs and the promotions that come with them.
Some opportunities had opened to women earlier in the year. In April 2015, the Army Ranger School admitted its first female soldiers, three of whom graduated. In June, the Navy announced selection of the first 38 enlisted female submariners. The department also began offering “Lean In Circles” to provide female troops and civilians support structures and encourage leadership.
In other efforts to promote inclusiveness, Carter initiated a study on the impact of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly, instituted diversity briefings for senior leaders and directed the department to study the geographic and familial diversity of incoming personnel.
"We must ensure that everyone who's able and willing to serve has the full and equal opportunity to do so. And we must start from a position of inclusivity, not exclusivity. Anything less is not just plain wrong; it's bad defense policy, and puts our future strength at risk."
Ash Carter took office as the 25th defense secretary Feb. 17, bringing more than three decades of Pentagon experience with him. In a message to Defense Department personnel his first day on the job, Carter identified three top priorities: helping the president make and implement the best national security decisions, ensuring the strength and health of service members and civilians, and building the force of the future.
For most of 2015, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, served as Carter's top military advisor. When Dempsey retired Sept. 25 after 41 years of military service, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., previously the Corps' commandant, assumed responsibilities as chairman.
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work continued to serve in the position he has held since April 2014.
Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva became the 10th vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, succeeding Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., who retired after a 37-year career.
"... As a nation and as a department, this is ... a moment to continue to shine the beacon of American leadership and to seize the many bright opportunities in front of us."
A massive earthquake in Nepal that killed almost 10,000 people kicked the Defense Department's disaster relief response into high gear in April. The department launched Operation Sahayogi Haat, which means “helping hand.” Hundreds of U.S military personnel delivered more than 120 tons of humanitarian aid to displaced Nepalese citizens.
During a support mission May 12, a helicopter crashed, killing six Marines and two Nepalese soldiers. Nepalese forces joined the search to recover the fallen service members, who were remembered as courageous, selfless and dedicated to the Nepal humanitarian mission.
Closer to home, the National Guard responded to a blizzard that buried parts of the Northeast in January. About 1,000 Guardsmen battled wildfires in five Western states in August, and at least 1,000 Guardsmen responded to historic flooding in South Carolina in October.
Defense Department personnel have an “important role to play in bolstering our preparedness for hazards of all types -- from hurricanes to wildfires -- to strengthen our collective security and resilience.”