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Association of the United States Army (AUSA)

Gordon, thank you very much. And I want to thank you also for your continued contributions to the security of this country, to our country, and for your continued distinguished leadership of this important organization. And to all the members of AUSA, thank you for what you continue to do to support our men and women and support our national security enterprise.

Your strong leadership, Gordon, over many, many years, has been valued by my predecessors.  That wise counsel and leadership has been valued by me, not only in this job but as a United States Senator, and I appreciate that personally. So thank you.

I also want to this afternoon recognize this year’s AUSA medal and award recipients. You all know that you represent the finest group of people that we build and produce in the United States of America. You all exemplify the values and principles of the exceptional individuals whose names these awards and medals are given: people like my late friend John Dixon, whose award this year is being given to retired Lieutenant General David Melcher. This award is being given to General Melcher for his continued contributions to national defense from the industrial community. And to you, General Melcher, congratulations, Mrs. Melcher, nice to see you.

Every day, I have the privilege of working alongside some of the finest soldiers in the United States Army, some of the soldiers that every day protect our country, some of the finest soldiers our Army has ever produced – from Staff Sergeant April Jones, who works in my front office, to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marty Dempsey.  And in particular, I want to thank Marty Dempsey. I greatly admire and value his wise counsel, his leadership, our partnership. I consider General Dempsey a partner in this effort, and I consider him a friend.

I want to also acknowledge and thank the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, and General Odierno, Chief of Staff of the United States Army. I recognize these two men and thank them for their – not only their leadership, but their friendship and their counsel and their directness and honesty as we evaluate the reality of our times, our threats, our challenges, and how do we build a United States Army that’s prepared for the future. Well, thank you.

I also want to recognize another soldier I have appreciated working with: my Senior Military Assistant, who many of you know, Lieutenant General Abe Abrams. Abe is a real soldier, as you all know, but he’s also not only a warrior, but a thinker. And I couldn’t do the job that I do without Abe and without his assistance.

The United States Army helped define me. And I’ve always been very proud of my service as a soldier. It allowed me to witness courage and nobility that I would never have had the opportunity to see if I had not been a soldier in the United States Army. It affected me, and I know it helped me, and maybe even made me a better person. I know my brother Tom, who served with me in Vietnam, feels the same about his service in the United States Army.

So, I deeply appreciate, General Sullivan, the privilege to address not only the strongest advocates for America’s Army, but also our 1 million-plus Active-Duty, Guard, and Reserve soldiers. To understand the place of honor they hold across our military, one need only look to the words of Navy SEAL and recently retired Admiral Bill McRaven, who earlier this year said, “There is no more noble calling in the world than to be a soldier in the United States Army.”

Together, we are at a time of great transition for the Army, and the nation it serves. In December, as we responsibly end our combat role in Afghanistan and transition to a train-advise-and-assist mission, the Afghan National Security Forces will be fully responsible for their country’s security – an accomplishment made possible by the tremendous sacrifices of American troops, our ISAF partners, and the Afghan people.

As the Army emerges from over 13 years of large-scale combat operations – the longest in its history – it faces new challenges. The world is becoming more volatile, less predictable, and in many ways, more threatening… at the same time, our defense budgets are declining.

The theme that you’ve chosen for this year – “Trusted Professionals: Today and Tomorrow” – is well-suited to describe the kind of soldiers America will need as we navigate this period of change and uncertainty.

Before I address where the Army is and where it’s going, we should remind ourselves – and the American people – of where the Army is coming from.

Over the past 13 years, more than 1 million soldiers deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One out of six of these soldiers was deployed to both countries. More than half a million soldiers – 30 percent of them Guardsmen and Reservists – endured multiple deployments… and as ground forces, they shouldered a very heavy burden. They fought in the mud, in the sand, in the streets – doing most of the fighting and dying, and adapting under fire to a kind of conflict far different from what the Army trained and prepared for during and after the Cold War. Seventy percent of U.S. personnel wounded in action over the last 13 years were from the U.S. Army, and countless soldiers have come home with visible – and invisible – wounds of war. Our enduring obligation to take care of them, and their families, is a sacred responsibility that we must always uphold.

Through the crucible of combat and a grinding counterinsurgency campaign, the American soldier fought on, and as a result, today’s Army is as battle-tested as it’s ever has been. Of all the soldiers who served in Iraq since 2003, nearly half are still on active-duty or in the Guard and Reserves. Of those who served in Afghanistan, almost two-thirds are still in the Army.

The strength, the resilience, and dedication of these soldiers are what the Army is about, what make the Army a foundation of America’s national security and our military’s global presence and engagement. And the Army’s contributions to our security are as critical today as ever.

We see it in West Africa, where soldiers from Fort Campbell and Fort Bragg will soon deploy as a key part of America’s contribution to the global effort to stop the spread of Ebola before it becomes an even more of a grave threat.

We see it in Poland and the Baltics, where soldiers from Fort Hood’s First Cavalry Division are reinforcing and reassuring our NATO allies in the face of Russian aggression.

We see it in Iraq, where soldiers from the Big Red One, 1st Infantry Division, are deploying to train, advise, and assist Kurdish and Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIL.

And we’ll soon see it in Saudi Arabia, where soldiers will help train and equip members of the moderate Syrian opposition.

The President has been very clear that he will not commit our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq, or become involved in a war in Syria. This is not because we think that wars cannot be waged without committing troops to combat. Our strategy in Iraq and Syria does require forces on the ground, but they must be local forces. And we will help them; we will support them; we will train them. This is not only the best way to degrade and ultimately defeat terrorists, but it is the only sustainable path to defeating terrorism and extremism. This is a critical point that Chairman Dempsey and the chiefs of defense from 21 other nations discussed yesterday at Andrews Air Force Base, at an important conference that helped reinforce our coalition against ISIL.

In the near term, the Army is unlikely to repeat another Iraq- or Afghanistan-type campaign – that is, regime change and occupation followed by nation-building under fire. However, this does not mean that demand for the Army is diminishing, or that the Army’s place in our national security strategy is eroding. It is not.

While there are no longer 150,000 soldiers in ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as there were five years ago, there are still almost as many soldiers either deployed or forward-stationed in nearly 150 locations around the world. That includes some 80,000 soldiers in the Pacific Command area of responsibility, more than any other, with nearly 20,000 soldiers in South Korea standing ready to “fight tonight.” There are also 40,000 soldiers under Central Command; 28,000 soldiers in Europe; and thousands more in both Africa and South America, some of whom I visited in Colombia last week.

Demands on the Army will only grow more diverse and complicated going forward. Threats from terrorists and insurgents will remain with us for a long time. But we also must deal with a revisionist Russia – with its modern and capable army – on NATO’s doorstep. And as disruptive technologies and destructive weapons proliferate in the hands of state and non-state actors, the specter of so-called “hybrid warfare” looms large – where our adversaries marry the tactics of insurgents with the tools of advanced armed forces and their sophisticated technologies.

The Army will remain essential to helping deter and confront every national security threat facing our country. There will always be a need for a modern, ready, well-equipped, well-trained standing army.

But maintaining a ready and capable Army as we come out of 13 years of continuous large-scale combat will not be easy. For the Army to fulfill its role as a guarantor of our national security, our soldiers must continue to be exceptionally well-led, well-trained and well-equipped. That’s especially true because the global security environment is more unpredictable than ever, with crises erupting at any time… crises that require America to lead the world in response.

We must not forget the lessons of history. We’ve seen how quickly a battle-hardened Army can wither into a force that is ill-equipped and ill-prepared to carry out its mission. And we’ve seen the consequences.

In July, 1950, five years after America’s military victory in World War II, the soldiers of Task Force Smith were sent into the first battle of the Korean War, with orders to halt the North Korean advance. They were under-trained, under-equipped, outnumbered, and unprepared… and within hours of engaging the enemy, Task Force Smith was routed, ultimately suffering a casualty rate of nearly 30 percent. Soldiers paid for poor training, poor equipment, and poor leadership with their lives.

We’ve also seen how past drawdowns sought to protect the training and equipment that is the essence of military readiness. Under General Sullivan, the Army Chief of Staff of the early 1990s, after Desert Storm and the end of the Cold War, the Army made the difficult but necessary decision to reduce the size of the force in order to safeguard readiness, with ‘No More Task Force Smiths’ as its mantra. As General Sullivan said at the time, quote, “The reason we cut … divisions was to keep what we retained trained and ready.”

Today, ‘No More Task Force Smiths’ must once again be our motto. We need to maintain an exceptionally ready Army.

But because of the steep, deep and abrupt defense budget cuts sequestration has imposed on us, last year the Army had to cancel so many critical training rotations that we had only two active-duty brigade combat teams who were fully ready and available to execute a major combat operation.

Thanks to the budget compromise that the President and Congress reached last December, and the Army’s relentless focus on training, Army readiness has improved [from] where it was a year ago, with 12 out of 37 brigade combat teams that are trained to the highest levels of readiness. While this is a direct result of the Army’s ability to adapt to unreasonable budget constraints, it falls short of what I believe is sufficient to defend our nation and our allies with minimum risk.

We must continue to put readiness first in the current budget environment – which is why we have modestly reduced the size of the Army and protected training and maintenance in our budget. Trading readiness for capacity is the path to a hollow force.

Our soldiers deserve better than that. They deserve a stable and predictable budget that gives them and their families the training and support they need. But despite temporary relief, sequestration remains the law of the land. If Congress does not act, it will return in 2016 – stunting and reversing the Army’s readiness just as we’ve have begun to recover, and requiring even more dramatic reductions in force structure.

The military as a whole will face a similar readiness crisis if Congress does not accept the program cuts and compensation reforms we have proposed in our budgets. Across DoD, we could face a $70 billion gap in our budget over the next five years if Congress prevents us from moving forward with these changes, and we would have little choice but to make up the differences through cuts to readiness.

DoD’s leaders understand there will be less resources available. But the Army – and our military – needs Congress to be a partner in responsible, long-term planning and budgeting. And we will continue to urge Congress to put an end to sequestration – an irresponsible deferral of responsibility.

I greatly appreciate General Sullivan’s and AUSA’s support for ending sequestration, and also for your support on many of our hard but necessary trade-offs made to protect readiness in DoD’s budget proposal. We must all continue to press Congress to join us in making these tough decisions – because our challenges will become far more difficult and far more dangerous the longer we defer the tough choices.

Army leadership has expressed their concerns about this cloud of uncertainty. I’ve been very clear – Chairman Dempsey has been very clear – we’ve been clear with the Congress, with our troops, with their families, and with the American people – that I share a number of these concerns of the Army’s leadership.

But as we work through our current budget challenges, the Army must still face the new reality of shrinking resources, sustained demands, and a more competitive and unpredictable strategic environment… an environment that our current defense strategy remains capable of addressing.

The Army – and our entire military – will need to continue thinking critically about its future role in missions to ensure that it is not only ready, but relevant, for both the short and the long-term missions. It will need to continue to learn, adapt, evolve, and innovate. Readiness demands agility.

I want to commend Secretary McHugh and General Odierno for taking the critical first steps in this direction, setting the course for the Army’s “Force 2025 and Beyond” [strategy] and shaping the new Army Operating Concept unveiled over the past week here at AUSA.

I will continue to work closely with both of them, and all of our Army leaders, to build an Army the nation needs, the Army the nation deserves, and the Army that our troops need for their future. To succeed, I believe the Army must renew its commitment to readiness across three critical resources – its people, its capabilities, and its partnerships.

First, the Army must keep a laser focus on the readiness of its most precious resource: its people. Because soldiers, to quote General Creighton Abrams, “are not in the Army. They are the Army.” Our soldiers need to be well-trained at all levels – from the individual to the brigade – and they must be prepared to face challenges from across the spectrum of conflict. The continuities of warfare remind us that even as we prepare against high-end threat, like cyber and precision missiles, the human dimension of war is inescapable. So we cannot forget what we’ve learned about counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and building partner capacity. We must retain those skills. At the same time, our soldiers must also be ready for full-spectrum operations. That takes time. It takes resources.

To be ready for the range of challenges we’ll, most likely face in the future, soldiers need to experience nonlinear, full-spectrum training that mimics today’s complex operational environments. This kind of ‘decisive action’ training  is best conducted at the Army’s Combat Training Centers – the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, which I will visit next mouth. At these brigade-level training centers, soldiers are immersed in realistic threat scenarios where they face a dynamic mix of guerrilla, terrorist, criminal, and near-peer conventional opposing forces.

In addition to preparing soldiers for full-spectrum operations, decisive-action training helps develop the kind of agile, adaptive, and innovative leaders that the Army needs to be ready for future threats. Many Army leaders already recognize that in a volatile world with a wide range of missions, we can no longer get by with training soldiers what to think. We must train them how to think, so they thrive in conditions of uncertainty and chaos, and are unpredictable to our adversaries. Going forward, whether we can keep our soldiers ready in the future will depend on Congress’s partnership in providing the resources to fund the training our soldiers need.

Second, the Army must be ready with the right capabilities, both today and in the future – ensuring the equipment our soldiers currently have is well-maintained and that we continue to innovate going forward.

More than any other service, the Army is well suited to this task. Because the Army knows its key weapons platforms for everything still comes down to the soldier, it also knows that a capability is about more than just new technology or equipment – with less money, it’s also about how we creatively use our technology and equipment to achieve our objectives.

The Army has begun adapting capabilities to be ready for the most likely missions of the future – ensuring that prepositioned equipment stocks can support a wider range of operations, and even flying Apache helicopters off Navy ships to gauge how Army aviation could contribute to littoral surface warfare. The Army is also combining manned and unmanned capabilities – enabling combat helicopter pilots to monitor feeds and operate weapons from linked aerial drones, and testing driverless resupply convoys that can free up manpower for more important tasks.

To stay ready for future challenges, the Army must keep innovating for the long term. With our ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, the Army could broaden its role by leveraging its current suite of long-range precision-guided missiles, rockets, artillery, and air defense systems. These capabilities would provide multiple benefits… such as hardening the defenses of U.S. installations; enabling greater mobility of Navy Aegis destroyers and other joint force assets; and helping ensure the free flow of commerce. This concept is worthy of consideration going forward. Such a mission is not as foreign to the Army as it might seem. After the War of 1812, the Army was tasked with America’s coastal defense for more than 100 years.

Finally, one thing we’ve learned over the past 13 years is that the Army is effective at more than combined arms maneuver and wide-area security. It’s also exceptionally effective in training and exercising with friends and allies, helping them grow stronger while improving interoperability for the future.

Building partner capacity is one of the Army’s most valuable capabilities, which is why the Army must continue taking steps to expand and diversify its partnerships – while ensuring that this critical mission continues to be embraced throughout the Army’s institutions.

Though we must also be clear-eyed about our missions. Building partner capacity cannot happen in a vacuum. As we’ve seen in Iraq this year, political context is critical, as is ethos, esprit de corps and, especially, leadership.

Today, the Army is better positioned to work with partners because of its regionally aligned forces. Nearly every unit – from division headquarters to theater enablers to combat brigades – is now aligned with a geographic region, which makes it easier for the Army to provide tailored, responsive forces to engage with our allies and our partners. And because soldiers receive specialized cultural, regional, and language training before deploying, they can better understand local underlying social, political, economic, historical factors that all are involved in security – ultimately making them more effective in accomplishing the mission.

Shaping the security environment has now become a core competency for the Army – so rather than return to garrison, our soldiers must remain prepared to engage around the world. Those stationed here at home must be trained and ready to respond to a full range of contingencies… whether a mission includes building partner capacity, reassuring and reinforcing allies, or providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Across all these efforts – people, capabilities and partnerships – keeping the Army ready for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges will not be easy. The future security environment remains uncertain, and trying to predict it will continue to be as challenging as ever.

Six months [before] Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, President Woodrow Wilson spoke to Congress, and he predicted “a growing cordiality … among … nations, foreshadowing an age of settled peace and goodwill.

He spoke those words 101 years ago. We all know that history proved the president wrong. The so-called “War to End All Wars” was anything but a war to end all wars.

A century later, we cannot know for sure what conflicts, challenges, or threats the next 100 years may bring, or the next 10 years may bring. We cannot say for certain whether history will be repeated or made anew. But we must prepare our institutions for the unexpected and the uncertain. That is the greatest responsibility of leadership.

We know there are risks. We know we will make mistakes. But the American people depend upon an Army to be prepared. They trust that Army to be prepared. They expect and know the Army will be prepared.

And I know – everyone here knows, those who represent today’s Army in this room know – that we will not fail them.

Gordon Sullivan, to you and AUSA and everyone in this room, thank you for your support of this country and your continued leadership, and allowing me an opportunity to give you some of my thoughts and to recognize you for what you do.

Thank you.