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National Defense University Convocation

Thank you, Ambassador Nesbitt, for that kind introduction.  And thank you Ambassador for your inspired leadership in guiding this great institution during this period of change.  Ladies and gentleman, distinguished guests, it’s a real pleasure for me to join all of you here for this very important occasion.  And what a great turnout this morning at this historical setting.

Let me reverse the traditional order of these things and begin by welcoming the students.  Because this university, and today’s ceremony in particular, is all about you.  Congratulations on being selected to attend this fine institution that fills such an important role providing for the education of our Joint warfighting community and our interagency team members.  Take full advantage of this great institution and its outstanding faculty – they have cut their teeth on real world crises and the hardest of security problems.  You’re in for a great year where you will form lasting friendships and a valuable network of your peers.  By all means enjoy the pomp and circumstance this morning – but be ready to work hard. 

To our many international students here, welcome.  You bring a diversity of views that we Americans must have in today’s global security context.  More than your perspectives, we need your help.  As President Obama noted in his speech at West Point earlier this year, when global challenges arise, “we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”  We won’t always see eye-to-eye on every challenge we face around the world, but as a wise and famous British leader once said, the only thing worse than trying to wage a war with allies, is fighting without them.  So welcome our international partners – you are the foundation upon which future successful collective actions will be built.

Let me also extend my appreciation to the faculty and staff of the entire National Defense University.  Your devotion to teaching and scholarship are justly renowned the world over.  Secretary Hagel joins me in thanking each of you for your dedication to high standards, rigorous education, and this world class program.  Press on with preparing tomorrow’s strategic leaders for what is becoming an ever more complex and challenging world.  Arm these students well, for we’re going to need them, and probably sooner than any of us expect.   

To the senior leadership here at NDU, Ambassador Wanda Nesbitt and your Provost Dr. John Yaeger, let me acknowledge your leadership in keeping this crucially important institution well-grounded in the rigorous intellectual preparation of tomorrow’s strategic leaders.  There is nothing more important to the future of our security establishment than educating, developing, and preparing our future leaders.  Continue to march forward, as NDU’s mission is essential for our nation and for our partners. 

This is a truly auspicious setting in which to begin your academic year.  Behind us sits one of our country’s most storied pieces of architecture, Roosevelt Hall.  Teddy Roosevelt, for whom this hall was named, was one of America’s first “joint” leaders.  He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the New York National Guard, served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy then deployed to Cuba with his Rough Riders as a Colonel.  I identify with Teddy since I too was commissioned as a Second Lt., and ultimately rose to the rank of Colonel.  I also had the privilege of serving as the Under Secretary of the Navy.  But in 1901, Teddy became the 26th President of the United States – and on that one he pretty decisively trumps me.

To your left sits the Eisenhower building.  Eisenhower was without question a great war commander, who assembled an impressive battle staff, managed the outsized personalities of his lieutenants, and kept an often fraying coalition of allies driving towards victory in Europe.  Eisenhower also well understood the importance of jointness.  Shortly after World War II, he said: “In the field there is no such thing as separate land, sea, and air warfare.  It is all one… an integrated effort that… multiplies the power of its separate parts rather than merely adds them.”  The Eisenhower school is famous for its study of technology and economic mobilization – issues at the forefront today as potential game changing technologies arise in cyber, bio, and robotics. 

Next to Eisenhower Hall is NDU headquarters, Marshall Hall – also home to the Information Resources Management College.  George Marshall, another five star General of the Army, was also an incredible leader who organized victory in World War II, then developed the Marshall Plan, and later served as Secretary of State.  He personified critical thinking, clear communication skills, and a true understanding of all instruments of national power. 

Behind you, is Grant Hall, named for Ulysses S. Grant – a formidable commander whose post-war memoirs reflect his deep intellect.  His effective leadership of that somewhat unruly mob known as the Army of the Potomac became a model to the world of handling mass citizen armies.  Coincidentally, Grant Hall was one of America’s earliest Federal Penitentiaries.  But I have it on good authority that in no way played a part in the decision to site the new War College directly across the field from it – or across from the gallows where the Lincoln conspirators were hanged. 

As you begin your studies and prepare to become leaders at the strategic level, I urge you to reflect on the rich history and enduring legacy of excellence embodied here – and the challenge that your predecessors, for whom these buildings are named, have laid before all of you.  That challenge is to develop critical ways of thinking, to question assumptions, to come up with new ideas, fresh insights, and answers to the world’s most vexing security challenges.  Today’s world demands leaders who can think critically and creatively, and communicate ideas in a compelling manner. 

All of you have mastered the tactical and operational levels of command and military campaigns.  Many of you have commanded battalions, brigades, squadrons, and ships.  Now, you must continue to grow personally and professionally, to learn how to maneuver at the national level with all the interagency players and our coalition partners to help shape policy and resolve strategic challenges.  Because very soon, you will be making strategic decisions of enormous magnitude as we navigate this exceedingly complex, dynamic, and potentially more dangerous world we live in. 

As Secretary Hagel has said, while America’s service members no longer face deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan, they face instead a fractured global security environment, characterized by great uncertainty, rapid change, new and sophisticated threats, and continued political turbulence.  You read the news, you see the brushfires that are happening daily around the world.  Then there are the less visible, but often just as pernicious, threats and challenges emerging in the cyber realm, in space, and in labs and factories around the world where vast amounts of time, money, and manpower are being spent developing the next wave of disruptive military technologies.

And that’s just the problem set we face overseas.  Here at home we face a different set of challenges.  I wish I could stand here and tell you that we’re on the cusp of achieving predictability and stability in the defense budget.  But the reality is we’re probably in for at least a few more years of this budgetary turbulence. Without a doubt, this is an unprecedented time of maximum challenge for the Department of Defense.  It is also a wonderful time to be in these jobs.  If you’re not excited about what you’re doing then you don’t have a pulse.  Because the decisions we make over the next few years will determine the size, shape, and composition of our military for decades to come.   

That is why Secretary Hagel has called for a renewed spirit of innovation and adaptability across our military and fundamentally new ways of doing business.  We need creative ideas on how to posture our forces globally to accomplish the greatest strategic effect, how to fight more effectively in new domains with possibly game changing technologies, how to protect U.S. interests and enhance our security in new areas.  And we must do all this with fewer resources and what will no doubt be a smaller military. 

Now America has often gone to war with a smaller military than its enemies.  But we have worked hard to ensure that we maintain an operational advantage over potential opponents by equipping our military with superior technology.  As George Marshall summed up the American record of World War II, “We dared to mount operations all over the world with a strategic inferiority in number of troops... through superiority in mobility and firepower.”

During the Cold War, U.S. military planners sought a technological edge over our adversaries, a means by which to “offset” the enormous quantitative advantage the Warsaw Pact enjoyed in conventional forces.  In the 1950s, under President Eisenhower’s New Look Strategy, that offset was a robust nuclear arsenal.  That first offset strategy buttressed Western deterrence, but it wasn’t enduring.  In response, the Soviets rapidly expanded their nuclear forces while maintaining their conventional superiority. 

In the 1970s, in response to the Warsaw Pact’s massive buildup along the inter-German border, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and Under Secretary of Defense William Perry set about crafting a new offset strategy based on advanced digital microelectronics and the explosion in information technology then underway.  That technology was applied to a new generation of smart weapons, sensors, targeting and control networks that could offset the quantitative superiority of the Soviet forces.  As Harold Brown put it: “[S]ince the United States was the world’s leader in that information technology, we reasoned that this would give the U.S. military what a businessman would call an unfair competitive advantage.”   

This second offset strategy worked because we had a lead over the Soviets in information technology and we calculated – correctly as it turned out – that they couldn’t compete.  That offset strategy provided the foundation for the U.S. military’s unchallenged military superiority during the first two decades after the fall of the Soviet empire.  Perhaps it is natural that we have come to expect or assume that we will always enjoy technological superiority over potential adversaries. 

Yet, as any good student of Clausewitz knows, the fundamental nature of war is an interactive clash, a two-sided duel – action followed by reaction.  While the United States fought two lengthy wars, the rest of the world did not sit idly by, they saw what our advantages were back in 1991s Desert Storm, they studied them, and they set about devising ways to compete.  Today, many of those earlier innovations that were spurred by the intense military-technical competition with the Soviet Union – in missilery, space systems, guided munitions, stealth, and battle networking – have proliferated widely.   Unsophisticated militaries and non-state actors are seeking and acquiring destructive technologies and weapons that were once the province of advanced militaries – and the price of acquiring these weapons is dropping.  As analyst Moises Naim has said, “never in the field of human conflict have so few had the potential to do so much to so many at so little cost.”

Our forces face the very real possibility of arriving in a future combat theater and finding themselves facing an arsenal of advanced, disruptive technologies that could turn our previous technological advantage on its head – where our armed forces no longer have uncontested theater access or unfettered operational freedom of maneuver.  That is a future Secretary Hagel, Chairman Dempsey, and I are determined to avoid.  As Chairman Dempsey says, he never wants to send American troops into a fair fight.  So I believe we need to develop a third offset strategy to sustain what Bill Perry called the American military’s “unfair competitive advantage.”

In order to maintain our technological superiority as we transition from one warfighting regime to another, we must begin to prepare now.  In addition to new technologies, a third offset strategy will require innovative thinking, the development of new operational concepts, new ways of organizing, and long-term strategies.  So consider this your first student assignment.  As future strategic leaders, you need to ask how should we prepare for a future where new and disruptive technological developments are continuously occurring?  What policies are needed, what investments are warranted?   Many of the most creative ideas must come from you and your networks.  Some must come from outside the military, from allies, and partners in the interagency community.  Our entire national security community needs to stimulate new critical thinking and research on how we maintain our technological dominance and help a smaller force maintain overmatch against any potential adversary?  Furthermore, we need to do this with a sense of urgency.

So carve out some time to think and form new ideas.  Test your ideas with your classmates and professors and refine them by crafting papers for publication.  Challenge assumptions and accepted wisdom, and be prepared to have your ideas contested by others.  

A hallmark of any profession is a commitment to contributing to its corporate intellect and insight.  It is not enough just to keep up with the literature or the journal of your field.  You must contribute to that literature and extend the bounds of your expertise.  Each of us has a clear obligation to generate new ideas and to get them into circulation.  So fulfill that professional standard by getting your ideas published.  Find your voice, find the conviction to share your ideas with you peers, put them on paper and be heard.  Have your ideas gain escape velocity from the seminar into a much larger strategic conversation. 

In short, as my old office mate, retired Supreme NATO Commander, Admiral Jim Stavridis, used to say, you are here to “Think, Read, and Write—and to publish.”  It’s a precious opportunity and it comes at a time when our Nation needs your input.  As it states in the memorial here at Roosevelt Hall, you are here “Not to promote war, but to preserve peace by intelligent and adequate preparation.”  I am confident that your intellectual preparation here at NDU will be personally rewarding but more importantly your education and subsequent service will help preserve stability and peace around the globe.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to help launch the new academic year, I wish you all well and welcome the chance to review some of your ideas and output next spring.