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Remarks to the Air Force Association

Good morning. Scott, thank you for that introduction and Secretary James, General Welsh, Betty and the whole gang here. I know most of the people in this room. It’s good to be with you.

We have a number of distinguished guests, elected officials, and our wonderful, wonderful airmen and the 100,000 members of AFA.  To all of you, thanks for having me here today. To you and to the nearly half a million men and women in the United States Air Force who are serving around the world on active duty, in the reserves, or National Guard, an early Happy 68th to you!

I can see the strength of the Air Force in so many of its leaders and members who are here today.  I see it in Larry Spencer. Where are you, Larry? Larry, my longtime friend, who actually grew up just a few miles from where we stand today.  And throughout his career, when he enlisted in 1971, General Spencer has never forgotten where he began, or where we draw our strength from: which is from our people.  As he rose through the ranks he frequently brought enlisted members together to advise him on how to make improvements on quality of life and housing and other things.  And even today, as he helps to lead the AFA, he is still working for our wonderful people.  Thanks Larry for your dedication.

In a year in which we mark the 100th anniversary of the successful use of combat aircraft, the theme of this gathering, “Reinventing the Aerospace Nation” could not be more appropriate.  Over the past century, no nation has used airpower to demonstrate its global reach – to compress time and space – like the United States.  Today, it’s vital to innovate and reinvest in the people, strategies, and technologies that will allow America’s military to be dominant in the second aerospace century.

I made three commitments the day I was nominated as Secretary of Defense a few months ago, and the first is my commitment – the first and most sacred – is my commitment to the people of the current force – including active duty, guard, reservists, veterans, and their families.  And the second, is my commitment to help the President devise a national security strategy suited for the new century – protecting our country, keeping us strong, respected by our friends and feared by our enemies.  And third, is my commitment to our future and to the force of the future – where innovation and technology remain pillars of American strength, and where we continue to recruit and retain the best America has to offer.

Today I’d like to talk to you about these commitments, and how the Air Force is supporting each one of them. Let me start with my first commitment, to our people, because it’s our people that make our military the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

Since Desert Storm, our Air Force has been at war.  Over that time our force has gotten leaner and our platforms have gotten older.  All the while, the men and women of our Air Force continue to provide the United States the flexibility to demonstrate the example of our power and the power of our example anywhere in the world.

It’s our airmen who have conducted two-thirds of all airstrikes against ISIL since last September, enabling partners on the ground to begin to take back the territory ISIL took in Iraq last summer.  It’s our airmen we sent to Europe to take a united stand against Russian aggression with our NATO partners, deploying F-22s, spearheading a persistent and dominant air, land, and sea presence in the region.  Our strategic approach to Putin’s Russia is strong and balanced and necessitates a new playbook for the NATO alliance in which our airmen play a vital part. And whether we needed to provide immediate relief to Nepal after a horrible earthquake, or to convene a global effort to contain Ebola in West Africa, our Air Force also has helped lead the way.

Now there's one young airman, Dustin Temple, who, with his actions last September, exemplified the commitment of our Air Force and what it means to our military.  Senior Airman Temple was assigned to a joint Special Forces and Afghan Commando team responsible for taking back part of the Helmand River Valley.  When blistering enemy fire suppressed his team and a sniper hit a teammate, he dragged him from a rooftop and carried him across 100 meters of open terrain. 

And when he reached the helicopter, the fight wasn't done yet so neither was Airman Temple or his Air Force teammates.  Hours later, when supplies began to run out, he sprinted out into the open, not once but twice to reach a supply helicopter, allowing his team to keep the enemy engaged.  All told, over 48-hours Airman Temple and his team controlled 20 fixed wing assets and 28 attack helicopters for a total of 26 engagements.  In the process, they saved the lives of 38 friendly forces. That kind of strength and resolve that Dustin Temple and his team showed is in the DNA of our airmen.   It’s been a privilege as Secretary of Defense to see their strength firsthand on visits to our bases across the country and around the world.  For our airmen, "fight tonight" is not just a slogan.  It's a mindset they carry with them. Wherever they serve, whatever the threat, our airmen are ready to defend one another, defend America's interests, and demonstrate our highest values.

Few others know better than you: our greatest responsibility is to make sure we never put a single one of America's brave sons or daughters or their families in harm’s way without the greatest care and reflection about how it benefits our nation. 

And our responsibility extends to all generations – to our veterans, to our wounded warriors, to the fallen and their families, and those on the frontlines today.  We’ve made tremendous progress in recent years, and I’m grateful for the support and partnership AFA has provided to our force for nearly seven decades.

My second commitment is to the President, to provide him candid strategic advice and to implement his decisions with our accustomed excellence.  Every strategic decision we make should be a step towards keeping us safe, protecting our country, and protecting our allies and friends.  

After a period of 14 years when our men and women in uniform performed with tremendous professionalism, skill and valor, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the force is now at the start of a critical strategic transition.  As our military adjusts its focus on counter insurgency and redoubles its full spectrum capabilities, the Air Force will play a critical role.

Just take the Asia-Pacific, a region that encompasses close to half of humanity, accounts for more than half the world’s economic power, and where we are positioning the majority of the Air Force’s high-end assets.  This is part of the President’s strategic rebalance, where we are working to align our security, economic, and diplomatic investments in the region to match our vital – and growing – interests there. 

Our rebalance has always been about sustaining peace and prosperity across the Asia-Pacific and helping the region continue to fulfill its promise. 

We will preserve America's support for a regional security architecture in the Asia-Pacific that is inclusive enough, capable enough, and resilient enough to ensure that all nations – all nations – have the opportunity to continue to rise.  Here, the Air Force is playing a vital role with a stronger posture in the region, including tactical aircraft like the F-22, space and cyber forces, and ISR assets like the MQ-9, and the Global Hawk.  We will continue to strengthen and modernize our infrastructure in places like Guam and across the Pacific.  And we will continue to deepen our security cooperation with longstanding allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines, and new partners like India and Vietnam. 

We will strengthen our partnerships, our presence, and posture so that the Asia Pacific is a region where everyone rises together … and so that its security architecture grows stronger, not weaker.

With China, we see our relationship as defined by elements of both cooperation and competition.  Our military engagement with China seeks to build sustained and substantive dialogue, to advance concrete, practical cooperation in areas of mutual interest, and to enhance risk reduction measures to diminish the potential for miscalculation. 

At the same time, given our concern about China’s growing military capabilities and coercive approach to disputes, we are taking prudent steps to prepare for heightened competition. 

Along with many of our Pacific partners and nations across the world, the United States is deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities…to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states.  As a Pacific nation, a trading nation, an ally and partner to many – most actually – of the nations of the region from Japan to Australia to India, the United States will persist in its decades-long strategic approach.

First, we will continue to seek a peaceful resolution of all disputes.  To that end, there should be an immediate and permanent halt to land reclamation by all claimants.  We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features.  We all know there is no military solution to the South China Sea disputes.   Right now, at this critical juncture, is the time for renewed diplomacy, focused on a finding a lasting solution that protects the rights and the interests of all.  As it is central to the regional security architecture, ASEAN must be a part of that effort.

Meanwhile, the United States will continue to protect freedom of navigation and overflight – principles that have ensured security and prosperity in this region for decades.  There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world.  America, alongside its allies and partners in the regional architecture, will not be deterred from exercising these rights.  After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.

Finally, with its actions in the South China Sea, China is out of step with both the international rules and norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific’s security architecture, and the regional consensus that favors diplomacy and opposes coercion. These actions are spurring nations to respond together in new ways, including bilateral and multi-lateral exercises with us, joint operations with us, and the new U.S. Maritime Security Initiative.  

The United States will always stand with its allies and partners.  It’s important for the region to understand that America is going to remain engaged…continue to stand up for international law and universal principles…and help provide security and stability in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come, as it has for many decades.

And that brings me to my last commitment, which is to the future of our country and the great institution that I now have the privilege to lead.   To stay the best, we have to embrace the future.  And that has several dimensions.  We need a 21st century personnel system to match a 21st century military.  We have to be open to a wider world of technology. And we need a sensible long-term budget that does right by our military and our taxpayers. 

For our people to stay the best, we have to attract and compete for the best talent from a new generation.  We have an all-volunteer force. So for us to keep recruiting and retaining the best, the military has to continue to be recognized for what it is, which is a wonderful place to work and serve.  We’re aligning our personnel management system with 21st century trends – like the digital revolution in talent management.  We must also understand the reality that some young Americans aren’t satisfied with industrial-era career tracks. 

You may have read about recent proposals on personnel changes. We are thinking many ideas through and we need time to get the best ideas and advice, and especially from the armed services.  The people of the U.S. Armed Forces are the best, and always will be the best, and how we manage them should be, too.

Today, we need to innovate, not only to continue to attract the best people, but to develop the next generation of capabilities.  Our technology remains the best.  At the same time, we can’t ignore the overall trend:  High-end military technologies long possessed by only the most advanced foes are finding their way into the hands of both non-state actors and previously much less-capable militaries.

It’s evident that nations like Russia and China have been pursuing military modernization programs to close the technology gap with the United States.  They’re developing platforms designed to thwart our traditional advantages of power projection and freedom of movement.   They’re developing and fielding new and advanced aircraft and ballistic, cruise, anti-ship, and anti-air missiles that are longer-range and more accurate.  

Just as Russia and China have advanced cyber capabilities and strategies ranging from stealthy network penetration to intellectual property theft, criminal and terrorist networks are increasing their cyber operations.  Low-cost and global proliferation of malware have lowered barriers to entry and made it easier for smaller malicious actors to strike in cyberspace. 

From cyber, to electronic warfare, to threats in outer space and under the sea, we need to redouble our effort on those frontiers.  And just as DOD and government investment played a historic role in helping spur ground-up technology innovation in the past – from the Internet, to GPS, to Apple’s Siri – today we need to invest in new technology, new partnerships, and new innovation for this new environment. 

All of this – having the best people, maintaining the best technology, and executing the best strategy – takes resources. 

To that end, we proposed investments in key areas of the U.S. Air Force program in to support this strategy in the President’s 2016 Budget – in our nuclear deterrence forces; in space and counter-space capabilities; in counter-A2/AD platforms, systems, and technologies; in cyber capabilities; in guided munitions; and in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, systems, and technologies.

I believe these remain the right areas of focus for the Air Force program in PB17, and I look forward to continuing conversations with Air Force leadership and the senior leadership of the Department about these investments.  But throughout these discussions, we ought to be clear and determined about the way forward given some real constraints we face.

Time and again, our military has proven extraordinarily capable and adaptive.  And despite the decrease in defense spending since Fiscal Year 2013, the four big pillars of our national defense strategy remain sound: providing for homeland defense; having the capacity and capability to respond to multiple contingencies at the same time; conducting a global counterterrorism campaign with partners; and responding to emerging 21st century threats like cyber and space.

But we also can’t ignore certain constraints on our operations and strategy.  Budget uncertainty, a decrease in defense resources, and Congressional reluctance to agree to proposed reforms – including eliminating overhead and unneeded infrastructure, retiring older platforms, and making reasonable adjustments in compensation – amount to a tax on how we plan and how we operate. 

If we have to carry these burdens further, it’s clear we will have to approach parts of our defense strategy differently than we have before.  I believe we should be thoughtful and direct about this.  As a Department, we will have to make changes in order to provide the best defense for our nation.

Before I close, allow me to say just a few words about the immediate budget impasse we find ourselves facing right here today.  Even as we need to innovate, to continue to attract the best people, to develop the next generation of capabilities and to meet a current generation of threats, yet again – yet again we face the real risk that political gridlock will hold us back.  With only 14 days remaining in this fiscal year, Congress has yet to pass appropriations bills that will appropriately fund the government for the coming year.

Without a negotiated budget solution in which everyone comes together at last, we will again return to sequestration, reducing discretionary funds to their lowest real level in a decade -- despite the fact that members of both parties agree this result will harm our national security.

The alternative to a budget deal, a long-term continuing resolution, is merely sequester-level funding under another name.  And the longer a continuing resolution is, the worse it becomes, eventually resulting in a $38 billion deficit in resources for our military if Congress chooses to pursue this path for a full year.

The Department of Defense has done its best to manage through budget uncertainty in recent years, making difficult choices and tradeoffs among the size, capabilities, and readiness of the joint force. But as I have discussed today, over that time Russia and China have advanced their new capabilities.  And new imperatives, such as ensuring a lasting defeat of ISIL, have emerged.

In this kind of security environment we need to be dynamic and responsive.  What we have under sequestration or a long-term continuing resolution is a straitjacket.  We would be forced to make irresponsible reductions when our choices should be considered carefully and strategically.  Making these kinds of indiscriminate cuts is wasteful to taxpayers and to industry … dangerous for our strategy, unfair to our service members, and frankly, it’s embarrassing around the world.

Much about the future is unclear, but not this: the self-inflicted damage from sequester, a long-term continuing resolution, and continued budget uncertainty would send the wrong message at the wrong time to the world.

Without reinvestment and recapitalization, without a long-term budget horizon, we simply cannot achieve what AFA has brought us all together to achieve, which is reinventing the aerospace nation. 

Yesterday, yesterday, I had a chance to speak with a dozen of our most distinguished airmen who came by my office with their families. They were public health technicians and intelligence analysts, pararescuemen and cyber experts.  As individuals, they were remarkably impressive.  Taken together, they’re a powerful portrait of our country’s greatness.  They were a reminder of the dynamism of our military and our Air Force … of our ability to see beyond the horizon and seize opportunity, whatever the weather may bring. 

The Air Force delivers personnel, capabilities, and support over lands and oceans, from the biggest city to the smallest FOB.  It helps us to understand the world with clarity. It allows us to see what we can achieve…that we can achieve what we once believed impossible.

The men and women of the Air Force and of this organization, AFA, have been a critical link between where we are and where we need to be. You have helped change this country and change the world. 

Together, in these next few weeks, we must push for the sensible decisions we need so the Air Force can continue to succeed, so that America can fly, and fight, and win … so that we can out-perform, out innovate, and out compete anyone in the world.  The decisions and investments we make in the next several months, and the next several years, will determine our strength and security for the next several decades. 

From cyberspace, to outer space, to the defense of the global commons, every one of us – not just in this room but across the country – benefits from the security and peace of mind the Air Force provides.  That’s why it is so important, and why we must all be part of the effort to reinvent what AFA calls our aerospace nation.  That’s our opportunity and that’s our obligation.  And that’s how we will continue America’s supremacy in air and space for the next aerospace century and beyond.

Thank you.