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Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at U.S. Africa Command's Change of Command Ceremony (As Delivered)

Thank you, General Milley. That was a really gracious introduction. With an introduction like that, I guess I just should say thanks to everybody and sit down so I don’t screw that up, right?

[Laughter]

Well, good morning, everyone. It’s great to be back here in Stuttgart.

Ambassador Gutmann, General Milley, General and Mrs. Berger, General Cavoli, ambassadors and chiefs of defense, distinguished guests—thanks for being here.

To the men and women of AFRICOM—thank you for your hospitality and your dedication.

And let me extend a hearty congratulations to General Steve Townsend and General Mike Langley.

General Townsend, it’s great to see you. Congratulations on a job incredibly well done. And Melissa, it’s always wonderful to see you.

General Langley, I’m proud to be here with you on this historic day.

You know, I’ve got a lot to say about these tremendous leaders. But first, I’d like to take just a few minutes to talk about the critical work that AFRICOM is doing.

Now, AFRICOM is a young command—only 15 years old. But it’s a critical one, and an outstanding example of how working shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners makes us all safer and more prosperous.

As President Biden has said, “There’s a fundamental truth of the 21st century… that our own success is bound up with others succeeding as well.”

You know, that’s especially true here in AFRICOM and in the work they do in Africa.

The continent is on the front lines of many of this century’s most pressing threats—from mass migration to food insecurity, from COVID-19 to the climate crisis, from the drumbeat of autocracy to the dangers of terrorism.

These challenges threaten us all together. And so we must tackle them all together.

And that’s just what AFRICOM does.

Every day, AFRICOM works alongside our friends as full partners—to strengthen bonds, to tackle common threats, and to advance a shared vision of an Africa whose people are safe, and prosperous, and free to choose their own future.

Now, we’ve seen the power of partnership in Somalia, where AFRICOM supports our partners as they lead the fight against al-Shabaab. And that cooperation is especially crucial as al-Shabaab’s attacks on civilians grow more lethal, brazen, and cruel.

You know, earlier this year, the United States decided to reestablish a small, persistent military presence in Somalia to help us more effectively advise, assist, and train African forces as they combat the threat of al-Shabaab.

Violent extremism and instability are also on the rise in the Sahel. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups are exploiting weak governance and political turmoil. These groups have taken thousands of lives—and the havoc that they cause threatens to spill across borders to undermine security in Southern Europe and beyond. So AFRICOM works closely with the State Department, USAID, and our NATO allies to help our regional partners build more resilient institutions and to root out extremism.

This command is also working shoulder-to-shoulder with our valued partners to combat COVID-19. AFRICOM has stood up field hospitals and delivered urgently needed medical supplies. And I’m proud that the United States has delivered more than 170 million lifesaving COVID vaccine doses to African countries.

AFRICOM is also supporting countless other efforts to make Africa safer, and to unlock the continent’s opportunities, and to deepen military interoperability, and to build stronger democratic institutions that deliver for their people.

Now, I know this work isn’t easy.

Across Africa, those who support democracy, and freedom, and the rule of law are battling the forces of autocracy, chaos, and corruption.

And we can feel these headwinds in Tunisia, whose people inspired the world with their demands for democracy. Today, Tunisia’s dream of self-government is again in danger. But the United States stands committed to supporting our friends in Tunisia—and anywhere in Africa—who are trying to forge open, accountable, and inclusive democracies.

And elsewhere in Africa, we’re seeing other threats to democracy. And some leaders are cracking down on civil liberties, and giving in to corruption, or stifling the will of the people.

And some African militaries have pushed out civilian governments.

So let’s be clear: a military exists to serve its people—and not the other way around.

And militaries must play their legitimate role. That means defending human rights and protecting the rule of law, not toppling civilian governments or wallowing in corruption.

And that’s especially important now, when autocracy is on the march around the world. And that includes outsiders who are working to tighten their grip on the continent.

The People’s Republic of China is expanding its military and economic footprint—and seeking to build bases in Africa and to undermine U.S. relations with African peoples, governments, and militaries.

Meanwhile, Russia is peddling cheap weapons and backing mercenary forces. And that’s yet another reminder of Moscow’s willingness to sow chaos and threaten the rules-based international order—and it goes far beyond Putin’s reckless invasion of Ukraine.

We’re committed to ensuring that Africa enjoys the protections of the international rules and norms that advance all of our safety and prosperity. And that gives the nations of Africa a clear-eyed choice of partners.

That’s why President Biden will convene African heads of state in December for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. It’s why my friend Secretary of State Blinken is in South Africa right now to launch the new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa. And it’s why I am so grateful for AFRICOM’s work.

Now, when I look at this command’s achievements, it’s easy to see the mark of your outstanding leader.

You know, I’ve long had the privilege to call Steve Townsend a teammate. And General, you have led AFRICOM for the past three years with vision, and dedication, and compassion.

And throughout your extraordinary career, you’ve always counted on Melissa, your wife of nearly 40 years. She has supported the family with fortitude and strength.

And when I say fortitude and strength, I mean that literally. You see, Melissa is an ultra-marathoner. And she routinely runs 30- and 50-mile races. And some of us get tired just thinking about driving that far.

[Laughter]

So Melissa, thank you for your sacrifice and your service—and for your work on behalf of military families at every post that you’ve ever lived at.

General Townsend, I know that your sons Tyler and Evan are proudly following in your footsteps as Army Rangers and combat veterans. But I know what makes you prouder than anything—and it is that they’re such good fathers.

Tyler and Evan, thank you both for your service to our country.

Today, as General Townsend closes his short, 40-year career in the Army, I can finally reveal a little secret: See, when Steve was young, he wanted to be a fighter pilot. But because he wore glasses, he got stuck with the Army.

[Laughter]

I think the Army is pretty thankful for that.

Now, Steve, I had the privilege of serving with you at Fort Drum. You were my operations officer when I commanded the 10th Mountain Division.

And we deployed together to Afghanistan, and I learned that no challenge on Earth is too daunting for Steve Townsend.

Steve Townsend is unflappable. So when you’re down with seconds on the clock, he’s the one that you want holding the ball.

Steve, you were the perfect choice to lead the Combined Joint Task Force to liberate Iraq and Syria from ISIS—a mission that called for military power and deft diplomacy with our coalition partners.

And you described that as the toughest fight of your career. But you waged it superbly, and the world is safer because you did.

You went on to lead Training and Doctrine Command, taking on the huge task of preparing American soldiers to fight the wars of tomorrow.

Over and over, you have taken on the tasks that seem impossible.

And over and over, you have made them look easy.

General Townsend, you’ve traveled up, and down, and across this vast continent, investing in our shared security by building lasting partnerships.

You’ve met key challenges with ingenuity and courage—from a once-in-a-generation pandemic to the abduction of an American citizen, who was heroically rescued by U.S. special forces.

And you have marshaled the resources of our entire government, working effectively with the State Department, USAID, and others. You’ve always had that rare ability to break down silos and to get everyone working toward common goals.

And when you took on this command, you told our allies and partners that they can count on AFRICOM “to work side-by-side with you to advance our shared interests for security, stability, and prosperity across Africa.”

And that’s exactly what you have done.

So Steve, thank you for your steadfast leadership. And I wish you and Melissa the very best for a happy retirement.

[Applause]

Steve, today, you pass the colors to another outstanding leader.

General Langley, you have exemplified the values of the Marines every day of your 37 years in uniform.

I’d like to recognize your father, retired Air Force Master Sergeant Willie Langley; your stepmother, Ola; and your siblings, Cassandra, Cheryl, Sharon, and William—and William is also a retired Air Force master sergeant as well. They’re watching from home today, and I want to thank them for all their love and support that they’ve given you over the years.

Now, even though you’re a Marine through and through, Mike Langley, you were raised in an Air Force family. So you were taught to “aim high”—and you always have. From your early days lettering in college track and field, to taking on command billets in the Marine Corps, you have made your family proud every day.

But I don’t believe they have ever been prouder than they were a few days ago—when you became the first African-American four-star general in the history of the United States Marine Corps.

[Applause]

Ladies and gentlemen, this is history.

And General Langley, as you stand here today, young Marines around the world are watching. And your extraordinary achievement reminds them that they belong. And it reminds them that the United States military is deeply committed to making progress, and to breaking down barriers, and to opening its arms wide to all qualified Americans who hear the call to serve their country.

I could not be prouder to stand beside you at this historic moment.

You are supremely qualified to take on this challenge. And you will bring to bear your tremendous experience—from commands in Okinawa and Afghanistan to serving as J5 director at CENTCOM and many, many other vital assignments. And I know that AFRICOM will benefit from your superb credentials and your outstanding leadership.

You know, General, we first met at a mentoring event for under-served young people pursuing careers in STEM. And I immediately saw your compassion for the people around you and your relentless commitment to excellence.

You have served with integrity and professionalism, and with a deep concern for your teammates and partners. You see each challenge as an opportunity to excel.

And you’re no stranger to this region. Having commanded Marine Forces Europe and Africa, you understand the region and its profound challenges. But you also understand its tremendous opportunities.

You are the leader for this moment and this mission.

So thank you for stepping up. And congratulations.

Ladies and gentlemen of AFRICOM, you are building enduring ties—enduring ties rooted in mutual respect and shared values.

You are building strong institutions—institutions that defend human rights and human dignity.

And you are building security, and opportunity, and peace in the fastest-growing continent on Earth.

Men and women of AFRICOM, may God bless you and keep you safe.

And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

Thank you very much.

[Applause]