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Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities Dr. Mara Karlin’s Remarks at the Third Annual Middle East Institute CENTCOM Conference (As Prepared)

Thank you, Bilal for the kind introduction, and thank you to the Middle East Institute for inviting me today. 

It is such a treat to speak to this distinguished group of colleagues on a set of issues that so many of us in the room, myself included, have focused on for much of our careers.

I thought I would help frame today’s discussions by outlining how the U.S. Department of Defense views the Middle East region from a strategic perspective, particularly through the lens of the 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS).

As you all know, last year, the Department released the National Defense Strategy, for the first time, in an integrated way with the Missile Defense Review and the Nuclear Posture Review. 

Because we delivered the strategic reviews to Congress at the same time as the President’s FY23 budget request, we intentionally built into our review process a deliberate link between strategy and resources.

This linkage has carried over into the FY24 budget request, released in March. With support from Congress, this will be the most strategy-aligned budget in recent history. 

The central premise of the NDS is the urgent need to sustain and strengthen deterrence with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the pacing challenge. 

The PRC is the only competitor with both the intent and increasingly the capability to systemically challenge the United States across the board: militarily, economically, technologically, and diplomatically.

The NDS describes Russia as an acute threat — one that is both immediate and sharp. Russia’s illegal and brutal war of choice against Ukraine is a profound manifestation of that. 

The NDS also emphasizes the need to be vigilant against a range of persistent threats, including Iran, North Korea and violent extremist organizations, as well as transboundary challenges such as pandemics and climate change. 

This NDS is clear in its prioritization of these challenges. It outlines where we are going to accept risk and how we are going to mitigate those risks. 

And as we implement this strategy, we must grapple with these tradeoffs around the world, including in the Middle East. 

On our broader policy framework in the Middle East, I’d like to highlight five declaratory principles of the National Security Strategy, under which our NDS nests. They include partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy, integration, and values. 

This framework, which was first set forth by President Biden during his visit to the Middle East last year, sets the foundation for the NDS and DoD’s approach to the region. 

The NDS is clear that the United States will remain engaged in the Middle East. U.S. interests are interwoven into the region. 

As Secretary Austin outlined: “Ultimately our mission is to support diplomacy, and to deter conflict, and to defend the United States and our vital interests. And if we’re forced to turn back aggression, we will win- and we will win decisively. All of this involved constantly evaluating and updating our global posture. But let’s be clear: America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure. 

Of course, the NDS also demands that our engagement and posture must be effective and sustainable over the long-term.  Effective deterrence does not require the basing of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in static formations; in fact, that would be ineffective deterrence.  Our strength comes from our ability to leverage partnerships, coalitions, and in our agility – our ability to flow forces to where they are needed, swiftly and effectively.   

Thus, a key NDS focus is “integrated deterrence.”  While this is a global priority, it has particular relevance in the Middle East. Secretary Austin emphasized this in his speech at the Manama Dialogue in 2021 so I want to underscore it today as it remains a constant in our approach:  our collective security benefits from an integrated coalition of partners, synchronizing actions across political, economic and security sectors, all within the framework of a rules-based international order. 

In the defense space, multilateral security cooperation, interoperability among partner militaries, and integration of defensive capabilities are more necessary than ever in order to deter adversaries, contribute to regional stability, and support the United States as we maintain our enduring commitment to the region.   

We are doing this by emphasizing partnership, leveraging innovation and exercises to advance interoperability, and having frank discussions with our partners about the need to protect our decades-long mutual investments from strategic competitors.

To be clear: this is a paradigm shift in our approach to the region – one that de-emphasizes unrealistic aims of transformation, or regime change, often pursued through unilateral military means, but focuses rather on our comparative advantages in partnerships and the fundamentals of sound policy: building coalitions, aligning ends and means, and setting clear and achievable aims. 

We believe this approach is already paying dividends, as the region today – despite its many problems, which keep us focused every day – is about as stable as it’s been in many years: the war in Yemen is experiencing the longest period of calm since the war began; Iraq is increasingly being integrated into the region, including through game-changing infrastructure projects with the GCC; the GCC itself is as united as it’s been in years; ISIS and al Qaeda remain under constant pressure; and a trend of diplomacy and de-escalation has taken root, backed by the deterrent power of U.S.-led coalitions and partnerships.  

Let me discuss what this new paradigm means in the defense space:

It requires advancing our bilateral relationships in the Middle East, but collectively taking steps toward integrating our bilateral security relationships into a multilateral approach.  

Multilateralism is the relevant currency, and it requires a level of consultation and coordination, including some diplomatic give and take, with our regional partners.

It requires increased transparency by our partners with us, and with each other.  It also requires us to be there for our partners when we need to adjust our approach. 

It requires willingness to synchronize investments in communications infrastructure, defense platforms, and capabilities. (Everyone in this room is familiar with the long-standing instincts of regional partners to diversify defense acquisitions, even if this detracts from combat effectiveness and contributes to sustainment challenges.) 

Obviously, this all means that both DOD and the entire Administration need to articulate the importance of U.S. foreign military sales to Congress so that our unique approach to arms exports does not inadvertently undermine this essential component of defense integration and deterrence across the region.  

For integration and interoperability to take root, we want our partners purchasing U.S. and allied systems.  That’s in our interests, both for long term influence that does not require tens of thousands of troops, and for our own defense industrial base. Not doing so undermines our partnerships as well as elements of our strategic approach to the region.

Congress also plays a key role here. We owe it to our partners to ensure a timely, diligent and fair review of each proposed sale. We need the full and bipartisan partnership of Congress if we are going to succeed and remain our competitive edge in military sales. 

It also requires commitment to increasingly complex exercises and training on a regular schedule on a multilateral basis. And political will at the highest levels of our partner governments.

We have been clear with our long-standing partners in the region – integration and interoperability are necessary to address Iran’s reckless activities across all domains, to meaningfully counter violent extremist organizations, and to address crises whether natural or man-made.  

The United States cannot continue to address these challenges unilaterally. The scope, scale, and cross-border nature of the threats demand integration and multilateral cooperation.

We are asking our partners to increase their contributions and support for integration. Our enduring commitment is to (1) continue working together and alongside them, within the region, while (2) maintaining the most combat credible fighting force in the world that can dynamically and rapidly flow forces into the region and reposition global assets and capabilities to respond to crises.

Again, to underscore, this is a paradigm shift: in the future, how we fight and win will not be determined simply by numbers of boots on the ground, but rather by maintaining our readiness to rapidly respond to any crisis. 

Success will require us to be dynamic and capable of quickly flowing forces where they are needed around the world, seamlessly falling in with interoperable allies and partners.

This shift is not binary — it’s not a matter of simply in or out, big or small. 

The United States is leaning into key relationships in the region to leverage our strengths to maximum effect.

We remain committed to the region and maintain a potent force posture and military capability throughout a variety of host countries.   

I’d now like to highlight three ways we are doing this that are rooted in the NDS.

First, we are leveraging our unparalleled network of allies and partners in the Middle East. 

The NDS identifies allies and partners as a center of gravity. Secretary Austin has described the strategy as a call to action to break down barriers to working with allies and partners toward common objectives.

From the top down, we’ve led strategic dialogues, high-level visits — including two presidential visits — exchanges, and over 200 military exercises—all while continuing our constant consultations and engagements to help ensure that our partners have the means to defend themselves and our interests. 

Our work as part of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS is a great example. Together with local partners and a global coalition of 80 nations and five international organizations, U.S. and Coalition forces succeeded in defeating ISIS’ territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria. 

Today, that mission continues through vital partner-led efforts to maintain pressure against ISIS and ensure the group cannot resurge. U.S. and Coalition forces continue to train, and advise, and assist, and equip local partners in Iraq and Syria, ensuring that ISIS cannot once again threaten the stability of the region or the international community. 

As another example, this week, we launched a new multinational task force under the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces, the world’s largest international naval partnership. Thirty-eight nations strong, Combined Maritime Forces has been a powerful showcase for remarkable progress in promoting regional security and stability

The new task force, Combined Task Force 154, will further focus regional efforts on enhancing maritime security. It will leverage regional expertise to facilitate critical training in maritime awareness, maritime law, maritime interdiction, maritime rescue and assistance, and leadership development. Building capability in these five areas will enhance interoperability among our forces. 

The training will be designed to meet specific requests from partners – ranging from basic to advanced levels.

Combined Task Force 154 will not only create new training opportunities for the United States and our allies and partners across the Middle East, but also enable new nations to participate. These nations won’t need a ship or aircraft, they can simply send their people. This means building more partnerships and stronger relationships, which are essential to regional defense cooperation and integration. 

We are indeed at our best when we train, operate and work closely together with our allies and partners in the Middle East.

Finally, I would emphasize that our cooperation with our Middle East allies and partners even extends beyond the immediate region. This is evidenced by our Middle East partners’ solidarity with Ukraine – a cause that has garnered wide-spread international support, in start contrast to Russia’s isolation. 

Every U.S. partner in the Middle East voted in favor of the U.N. General Assembly resolution on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And we continue to encourage our partners in the Middle East to stand on the right side of history against Russia’s unprovoked and unjust invasion of Ukraine.

We are and have been for the last year asking all of our partners across the world to do what they can to support Ukraine. 

In February, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister and senior Saudi humanitarian and energy officials traveled to Kyiv for meetings with President Zelenskyy and Ukraine officials, and formalized arrangements for $400 million of generators and energy support. This was the first ministerial visit from an Arab state to Kyiv since the war began.

Israel has also provided substantial humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, to include over 100 tons of supplies and a field hospital.

And recently, we have also seen President Zelensky attend the Arab League Summit.

These are positive steps from the Middle East region, and we hope to see more from our partners in the coming months. 

Second, we are strengthening integrated deterrence, a foundational concept of the NDS, in the Middle East. 

From the DoD perspective, a terrific case of how we’re sharpening integrated deterrence is the JUNIPER OAK bilateral, live-fire exercise that took place in January of this year across Israel and the Mediterranean Sea.  

Involving more than 140 aircraft, 12 naval vessels, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, and multiple-launch rocket systems, it underscored our ability to interoperate jointly across all domains: on land, air, sea, as well as in space and cyberspace. 

It also reinforced deterrence by demonstrating the United States’ ability to quickly deploy in and out of the region, seamlessly integrate with a key strategic partner, and respond to contingencies. 

Finally, it signaled that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad and our broader commitment to the entire region is enduring. 

A second example is U.S. CENTCOM’s work to integrate and expand regional security cooperation in the maritime domain.  

The Combined Maritime Forces is 34-member partnership that address threats such as piracy and drug smuggling on the high seas, while the International Maritime Security Construct aims to deter state-sponsored malign activity, reassure commercial shipping, and safeguard freedom of navigation in the region’s waterways.

A final example of this concept is happening as we speak. Eagle Resolve 2023 is a multilateral exercise designed to improve interoperability with our Gulf partners to builds towards a more secure and stable Middle East.  

This iteration of Eagle Resolve is hosted, for the first time, by Saudi Arabia and includes our partners who comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council. The exercise centers on (1) Integrated Air and Missile Defense, (2) Medical and Chemical Counter Measures, (3) Explosive Ordinance Disposal, and (4) Maritime Interdiction.  

The exercise is a great demonstration of the work underway to build a more networked architecture for enhanced collective defense that counters destabilizing activities in the region. 

Third, we are building enduring advantages by developing and deploying new technologies and exploring innovative approaches to security in the region. 

As outlined in the NDS, building enduring advantages is all about accelerating force development, capitalizing on the latest technology, and making investments in the extraordinary people of the Department, our most valuable resource.

As we continue our close collaboration with our partners in the Middle East, this approach will be more important than ever.

As many of you know, NAVCENT and the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain have really been a great showcase for what it means to marry regional integration and innovative technology. 

For example, Task Force 59 has been using artificial intelligence and unmanned systems to better secure the region’s vital waterways.

Mutually-beneficial alliances and partnerships are our greatest global strategic advantage.

Let me state clearly what President Biden has made clear himself:  Our commitment to the Middle East region is unshakeable — because the region is vitally im-portant to our shared future and deeply interwoven with American interests and those of our Allies.     

The approach to the Middle East region that I have described requires tremendous commitment, tenacity and persistent engagement at all levels of the U.S. government, from the President on down, including Cabinet-level officials, the USCENTCOM Commander, and of course the military officers and civil servants who work every day to make this vision a reality. 

As Secretary Austin has made clear through his personal oversight of the strategy’s development and implementation, the NDS is truly the “North Star” guiding the Department.

The Department is acting urgently to sustain and strengthen deterrence, and we need to leverage our unparalleled network of allies and partners around the world to work together and enable our comparative advantages.

Your voices are part of the rich thinking that will help the United States and our allies and partners maintain our military advantage and promote peace and security in the Middle East and around the globe.