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Naval Postgraduate School Commencement

Good morning! It’s a great treat to be part of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Spring Commencement ceremony.

When friends and colleagues ask me what it’s like being DSD, I generally respond: think of the tethered goat at Jurassic Park!

So anytime I get to escape the confines of the Pentagon game preserve I know it will be a beautiful day.

But today is even more beautiful, even exhilarating, because of the many fond memories I have of my two years in gorgeous Monterey as a student in the Naval Postgraduate School.

For example, after taking my first preparatory physics test in 14 years after I left the University of Illinois, I remember thinking “Holy crap.  It really is true alcohol kills brain cells.”

I remember how cool the space ops guys were.

I remember studying orbital mechanics on that day in 1989 that the Loma Prieta earthquake hit, and my wife sprinting past me out of our apartment yelling, “stick with it, honey, don’t get distracted.”

I remember avoiding classes with engineer students, because they would always ruin the curve.

I remember scoring 8 out of 20 on a statistics exam, the fourth highest grade in the class, and thinking: I’m the man.

I remember how many Navy officers dropped their golf handicaps.

And lastly, after being selected to come to NPS, I remember being told that in addition to a diploma, I would get one of three additional “d’s”: a dog, a dependent, or a divorce. Well, I graduated from here 25 years ago come September, and my daughter will celebrate her 25th birthday in August.  You do the math. 

But among all the wonderful memories I have of NPS, I’ll tell you one thing I don’t remember: what my commencement speaker said.  Hell, I can’t even remember who my commencement speaker was.  I just remember thinking: I hope he keeps it brief.

I therefore promise to keep this relatively short.

I’d like to start by first recognizing the senior leadership here at NPS, President Ron Route and Provost Doug Hensler. I know the last few years have been challenging, but I thank you both for helping secure the long-term health of this institution.  There is nothing more important to the future of our security establishment than educating, developing, and preparing our future leaders. And you are the right men, at the right time, and the right place. Keep it up!

I next want to extend my appreciation to the world-class faculty and staff of the entire Naval Postgraduate School. When I was a student here, Professor Otto Heinz taught me physics, electromagnetic waves, and orbital mechanics. He was, hands down, the best teacher I ever had—period; all stop; end of story.  And I’d bet many here would say much the same about the superb faculty that teaches here today. Their devotion to teaching, research, and scholarship is without peer.  Secretary Carter joins me in thanking each of you for your dedication to high standards, rigorous education, and in making this a world class institution that truly serves to strengthen and hone our Joint Force. 

Let me also welcome and thank the loved ones and families of the students here.  I well remember my wife taking care of our young newborn daughter as I struggled to finish my thesis.  In fact, it’s impossible to forget. I am paying for it to this day!  So I know from personal experience how important your support, your constant encouragement, and your patience were to the success of those graduating today.  Thank you!

And then, of course, there are the many reasons we are here to celebrate this year’s Spring Quarter Commencement: the graduating students.  To all of you: Bravo Zulu!  Well done! 

To our many international students, I hope you had a rewarding stay here at NPS. I know from my own experience you enriched the school and the experiences of all students here. Youbring an important diversity of views that we Americans must have and value in today’s global security context.  We won’t always see eye-to-eye on every challenge we face around the world, but someday, in some unforeseen crises, the relationships and understandings you forged here will undoubtedly serve both our countries well 

And to the American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and our DoD civilian employees who are graduating here today, I want to thank you for stepping forward and choosing to serve your country during this difficult period in our nation’s history.  You are part of a proud tradition of voluntary military service that dates back to the Continental Army and Navy of the RevolutionaryWar.  The Secretary and I—and the entire nation—are grateful for your willingness to serve.  

From wherever you may hail, each and every one of you graduating here this morning was selected to attend this school because you were already successful in the careers you had chosen, and your superiors wanted even more from you. Because of the time you have spent here, the technical research you have accomplished, and the personal investment in intellectual capital you have made, you will all be even better leaders and professionals, and will help shape the futures of your respective countries, services, or organizations. 

In this regard, I have four points I want to make for those who serve our great nation.

First, we are at a pivotal moment in our history.  We are coming out of more than 14 years of hard fighting that included the longest war in our nation’s history.  We are also leaving behind a unique unipolar moment when for more than two decades the United States reigned unchallenged as the world’s single great power.  That moment is coming to an end as we witness the emergence of a more multi-polar world where U.S. global leadership will be increasingly challenged.  Perhaps nowhere will we be more challenged than in the military realm.

All one has to do is to casually survey today’s volatile security environment to know this is true: Russia has illegally annexed Crimea by force and is backing separatist fighters in Ukraine; ISIL is seeking to dismantle the Middle Eastern order; we’re negotiating over Iran’s nuclear program; China continues its provocative activities in the East and South China Seas; North Korea continues its overtly threatening actions; and we’re witnessing rampant global cyber-attacks.

Such challenging and uncertain times demand that America’s best and brightest step forward to serve and to lead.  Because the preserve the peace, we must continue to demonstrate our ability to project combat power anywhere in the world, no matter what threats we may face.  We do so because that is what our friends and allies expect of us – they expect us to lead.  As Winston Churchill said in an address at Harvard in 1943, “The price of greatness is responsibility… The people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.” 

So my message as you prepare yourselves to return to the fleet and to the field is this:  know full well that our military will increasingly be challenged on the seas, in the air, and on land.  Butdo so also knowing that you are part of the strongest military force this world has ever seen.  A force that has spent the past 14 plus years operating across the globe at a tempo that no other military in the world can come close to matching. 

And to any adversary thinking of testing us, I simply say, be careful what you wish for.  As Dwight Eisenhower wrote after World War II, “It is a grievous error to forget for one second the might and power of this great republic.” 

The second point I want to make is directed to those of you who focused on engineering and, applied sciences. I urge and need you to take what you have learned in your research and in the labs here at NPS back to your organizations with the aim of driving innovation and discovering new ways of doing business.  This is a top priority of Secretary Carter, myself, and the entire senior leadership of the Department. 

During the unipolar moment I mentioned earlier, we enjoyed unrivaled technological superiority.  Given the lead we enjoyed, it was perhaps natural that we assumed that we would always enjoy technological superiority over potential adversaries.  I’m here to tell you that assumption is misguided and that our technological margin of superiority is eroding at a pace too fast for comfort, and as a result, the margin of battlefield overmatch we have long enjoyed is becoming ever slimmer.  

We must redress this situation with all hands on deck.  This is a time for us to come up with new ideas, new innovations, and truly game changing and disruptive technologies.  For example, I believe today we’re only just glimpsing the enormous potential of advanced computing and big data analytics, autonomous operating systems, miniaturization, robotics, unmanned systems, electric weapons, energetics, and additive manufacturing. 

NPS has been at the leading edge of research in some of these promising areas.  As Undersecretary of the Navy, knowing the great strength of this organization, I commissioned the Consortium for Robotics and Unmanned Systems and Research (CRUSER), and I could not be happier with the result. And just two months ago, the Advanced Robotic Systems Engineering Laboratory (ARSENL) broke the record for simultaneously flying autonomous aircraft – 20 autonomous planes at the time.

This is just one of many examples I could give. Regardless of your curriculum, I urge you to take what you have learned here and continue to challenge existing ways of doing things, explore the art of the possible, and push the boundaries of technology.  We need you to help us find creative ways to posture our forces globally for the greatest strategic effect and how to fight more effectively in new domains with possibly game changing technologies. And we must ask you to do all this with fewer resources and what will no doubt be a smaller Joint Force. Said another way, we need you to stimulate new thinking on how we maintain our technological dominance and help a smaller force maintain overmatch against any potential adversary.  

Third, whether studying engineering, applied science, operational and informational sciences, or business and public policy, all students here have a common denominator: you have attended a school that teaches you to be good critical, analytical thinkers. I want to encourage all of you to apply these skills not just to weapons development but to military and business operations and concepts.  We need to reinvigorate the art of operations research that was used so effectively in World War II by the U.S. Navy’s Tenth Fleet battling the scourge of U-Boats in the Atlantic.  Staffed by 50 hand-picked people, Tenth Fleet coordinated every aspect of the anti-submarine effort including intelligence, training, testing new tactics, concepts, and new weapons development.  It was hugely successful. 

We need to apply the same type of thinking to pursue better business practices, to seek more efficiencies, in order to divert resources from “tail” to “tooth”

We need to revitalize wargaming in DoD and our service schools to explore new operational and organizational l concepts. 

We must do more “Red Teaming,” and subject our war and business plans to exacting testing and evaluation. 

In sum, we need a new generation of analytical thinkers that foster and inculcate a culture of innovation, experimentation, and adaptation.   

Which brings me to my fourth and final point. Regardless of where you are heading, or what you will be doing, you will be entrusted with leading the finest young men and women our nation has to offer.

In closing, allow this retired Marine, speaking here at this Navy institution, among members from all services, to demonstrate my service ecumenical bona fides by quoting from General MacArthur’s speech to the West Point cadets.  He told them, “You are the lever that binds together the entire fabric of our national system of defense.  From your ranks come the great captains who hold the nation’s destiny in their hands the moment the war tocsin sounds.”   I urge all of you to prepare yourselves for that moment – because the tocsin might sound sooner than any of us expect.

It was so a treat and honor to talk to you here today.  I envy all of you because you have the chance to make history. I will be honored to shake your hands, give you a coin, and wish you the very best of luck. May God bless our great nation, our remarkable fighting men and women, and you and your loved ones.