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Remarks to the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Convention

Good afternoon. Go ahead and keep eating, I can talk over the clinking, and I’ve already had mine.

Thanks, Gordon, I appreciate that, long time friend, for that kind introduction and your continued commitment to the strength of our Army. And I want to congratulate my longtime friend, and fellow former technologist, Wes Bush on receiving the John W. Dixon Award. It’s much deserved for all of the contributions that you’ve made and the folks who work for you have made and continue to make to America’s defense. We can’t do it without you—we know that—they’re part of the force.

And I also want to thank my great friend John McHugh, a true friend and valued colleague. I don’t think John’s here with us today but I want to say a few things about him. And much more will be said in coming weeks. I’ve worked with him for most of these years that he has been the leader of the Army, six years, in fact, John. And I worked for him for most of these years and I deeply admire him—not only his skill and vision, but also his honesty and his civility which you can’t take for granted in today’s world, and you can always with John McHugh. Shortly, he will depart as the second-longest serving Secretary of the Army, having led the Army through a difficult and consequential time toward even greater excellence.

It’s my privilege, also, to work closely with some of the terrific Soldiers, and I want to take a moment to recognize some of them who are right around me every day, starting with my Senior Military Assistant, Lieutenant General Ron Lewis. Time after time, whenever I’ve needed Ron’s counsel and vision, I’ve been able to count on him. Thanks, my friend.

I also want to recognize two consummate professionals on my team - Staff Sergeant April Jones, who works in my Pentagon front office, also terrific professional, and Lieutenant Colonel Promotable Scott O’Neal, who manages our operations and logistical plans on the road. Gordon referred to them, and they are indeed complicated. And it’s Scott who keeps them on track.

Finally, and very importantly, I want to recognize our new Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley. I have watched Mark as a combat leader in Afghanistan. His strength as a leader, his vision as a strategist, and his bottomless care for the troops made him my clear choice and the President’s clear choice. I watched Mark, including as a combat leader in Afghanistan. Now, he has hit the ground running in this new position, traveling around the globe in his first month visiting our great soldiers and getting a perspective on how the Army’s far flung operations are proceeding. I greatly value his insights, his recommendations, and his strategic wisdom.

As Chief of Staff, he’s made it his top priority to build and maintain readiness across the total force, so that when the nation calls, our soldiers will be well-trained, well-armed and well-led.

He has also stressed the importance of investing in the technologies, organization and doctrine to allow us to maintain overmatch against potential—allies—adversaries, while retaining also the ability to adapt to as yet unforeseen challenges. I fully support the ideas he’s brought to the table, and I share his ironclad commitment to the readiness of the force. Mark, welcome aboard and thanks.

Today, as it turns out, is the 125th birthday of another great soldier who knew something about readiness, namely Dwight Eisenhower. He once said, “Guns and tanks and planes are nothing unless there is a solid spirit, a solid heart, and great productiveness behind it."

Wise words.

That’s as true today as it was then. The readiness of our force depends on many factors, but above all else it depends on the men and women who wear the uniform – highly trained, highly skilled, highly motivated. Proud. Committed. Army strong.

When I became Secretary of Defense, I made three commitments.

The first is to the troops and to their families - to safeguard them, to ensure that they're treated with dignity and respect, and above all to ensure that when they're sent into harm's way, it's done with the utmost reflection, and care, and backing.

The second commitment is to President Obama - to offer him my best strategic advice as he faces a complex world, to ensure at the same time that he receives candid, professional, military advice, and finally that his decisions are carried out with the excellence expected of the Department of Defense.

And my third commitment is to 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 to build the force of the future.

Today I’d like to talk to you about these three commitments, and how the Army is central to each one of them. Let me start with my first commitment, which is to our people, because it’s our people who make America’s the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

Through 14 years of counter-insurgency, countless missions, our soldiers have performed with excellence. No other force in history, no other force in the world, could have executed or adapted as well as our Total Army did – including Guard and Reserves in those years. They learned hard-fought lessons and quickly adjusted.

And today, this Army is embarked on a great transition to full spectrum conflict. Though it’s the soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade who are training Ukrainian security forces as we speak to defend against aggression in Europe. Though it’s the 8th Army that stands on the Korean Peninsula, where “fight tonight” isn’t a slogan but a mindset they have to carry with them. It was soldiers of the Big Red One who arrived to advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces confronting the barbaric actions of ISIL. It was soldiers of the 25th Infantry who reinvented forward deployment as part of Pacific Pathways, enhancing cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, which is the region most consequential to the world’s future and America’s future. And which holds seven of the 10 largest armies on earth, as it happens.

In a complex, unsafe world, with increasing global demands on American leadership, it’s our people – our soldiers – and their unmatched ability to seize and dominate physical and human terrain – that’s what soldiers do – shape the strategic environment, and prevent conflict.

That’s what it’s all about.

It’s our people – our soldiers – who ensure that our Army is feared by our enemies, and trusted by our allies.

But to continue to meet those demands, we must continue to invest in the skills and capabilities of our soldiers, because readiness cannot be bought back. It is our sacred, solemn obligation – to our nation, our soldiers, and their families – to never send a single one of America's brave sons or daughters into combat ill-prepared to succeed, to fight, and to win.

We owe them that.

Our responsibility and my commitment extends further to all generations – to our veterans, to our wounded warriors, the fallen and their families, as well as to those on the frontlines today. Through our partnership with AUSA, General Sullivan, we’ve made tremendous progress in recent years, and I’m grateful to the contributions of what is a wonderful organization.

Now, the greatest families stand behind the finest fighting force the world has ever known. We have a million spouses of our servicemembers. We have three million family members. And we never forget that they serve, too. That’s why we’re committed to the School Liaison program and the Lending Closet, two programs which helps military families ease the transition of moves just as one example. And it’s why we are committed to doing everything we can for our military families before, during and after deployment.

We’ve also made sure that soldiers treated for mental health conditions can continue their care as they transition to the VA. And we’re upgrading our transition assistance program so benefits like counseling [and] financial planning are interlaced throughout service careers, rather than tacked on at the end.

Because as the leaders from the private sector with us today already know, veterans make great employees, and the hiring, training, and promotion of veteran employees is good business.

My second commitment is to provide the President with candid strategic advice and to implement his decisions as I said, with the accustomed excellence of our military.

Every strategic decision we make should be a step towards keeping us safe, protecting our country, giving our children a better life, and strengthening our allies and friends.

I just returned from another week working with allies in Europe, for example. They are rightly concerned about serious challenges emanating from their periphery. Some of these challenges are new; large waves of migrants fleeing conflicts in the broader Middle East, terrorism inspired by conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. But another serious challenge is more familiar to them and to many in this room…including to me personally. And that is Russia.

Russia has used political, economic, and military tools to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of neighboring countries, flouted international legal norms, and destabilized the European security order by attempting to annex Crimea and continuing to fuel further violence in eastern Ukraine.

In response, as I discussed with our NATO allies last week and the months before that, we’re taking a strong and balanced strategic approach. We will take all necessary steps to deter Russia’s malign and destabilizing influence, coercion, and aggression. This is a new reality for us strategically, and it looks like it’s here to stay.

And we will continue to make it clear that if Russia wants to end its international isolation and be considered a responsible power, it must stop its aggression in eastern Ukraine, end its occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, and live up to its commitments under the Minsk agreements.

The 20th century NATO playbook was successful in creating a Europe whole, free, and at peace, but the same playbook would not be matched to the 21st century. We have to write a new playbook, which includes preparing to counter new challenges like hybrid warfare, and cyber, and better integrating conventional and nuclear deterrence, as well as adjusting our posture and presence to adapt and respond to new challenges and threats. And the Army is at the center of that strategy.

That’s why we deployed the 173rd Airborne to train Ukrainian security forces under Atlantic Resolve, and that’s why additional units of the 173rd trained alongside our allies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

It’s why we’ve moved Stryker units and brigade sized elements from the 2nd Cavalry through 1,800 kilometers of Eastern Europe alongside our allies from Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. That’s why the 3rd Infantry, whom I had the honor of speaking with at Grafenwoehr, Germany, a short time ago, trained alongside 10 NATO allies and three partner nations as part of Combined Resolve. And that’s why we’ll continue to need the Army’s posture and presence in Europe, reassuring allies and reminding adversaries of our unmatched capabilities, strength, reach and readiness.

On top of their behavior in Ukraine, Russia's behavior in Syria is concerning, and crosswise with the sensible course of action. Instead of engaging on the political transition in Syria, which is needed in that long-suffering country, Russia has chosen to double-down on their longstanding relationship with Assad – committing additional military hardware, capabilities, and personnel.

Now, the Russians originally said they were going in to fight ISIL, al-Nusra, and other terrorist organizations; however, within days of deploying their forces, the Russians began striking targets that are not any of these groups. This is a fundamental strategic mistake, one that will enflame and prolong the Syrian civil war, fueling the very radicalism that Russia says that it fears—and I think it has reason to fear. We have not—for our part—and will not, agree to cooperate with Russia so long as they continue to pursue a misguided strategy.

We are including an agreement on air crew safety and professionalism in view of the fact that we’re both operating in airspace above Syria. We’ve seen some unprofessional behavior from Russian forces. They’ve violated Turkish airspace – which, as we strongly affirmed last week in Brussels, is NATO airspace. They’ve shot cruise missiles from a ship in the Caspian Sea without warning. They’ve come within just a few miles of one of our unmanned aerial vehicles. And this agreement, when concluded, will address these safety issues.

Russia’s also initiated a joint ground offensive with the Syrian regime, shattering the façade that they are there to fight ISIL. This will have consequences for Russia itself, which is rightfully fearful of attack on Russia.

Now, Russia has the opportunity to change course [and] rejoin the track toward genuinely fighting extremism rather than fueling extremism and participating in a political transition in Damascus. I don’t know if they will. For now, from the Kamchatka Peninsula through South Asia, into the Caucasus and around to the Baltics, Russia has continued to wrap itself in a shroud of isolation. And only the Kremlin can decide to change that.

I made it clear to our NATO allies that despite recent irresponsible behavior by the Russians, we will continue to prosecute the counter-ISIL campaign with the same determination and in the same battlespace as we have since it started in Syria. In Iraq, that means our soldiers will continue to provide training and support for Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi security forces. We continue to adapt the coalition and our strategy to achieve what we have to do and will do, which is inflict a defeat, but a lasting defeat upon ISIL.

And that in turn depends on having capable and local forces on the ground. That takes time and effort to build. That’s essential to a lasting defeat, that’s the right strategy, and we will continue to adapt our tactics in support of that strategy and do more, because we have to defeat ISIL and we have to defeat it quickly.

With regard to our strategy in Afghanistan, the United States is taking three actions to build on the remarkable work that so many American soldiers, many in this room, many I worked with personally, have performed since 2001.

The first was the President’s decision, made in March, to maintain 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2015.

Second is to formulate options for 2016 and beyond and make adjustments to the planned U.S. presence based on current circumstances.

It’s not a question of whether, but how to continue the mission in Afghanistan – and last week it became clear that our NATO allies feel the same way, as they told me, many of my counterparts made a point of reaffirming their commitment.

Third, when I submit my 2017 budget I will include critical financial support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces to help it sustain its current force levels of 352,000 troops in 2017 and beyond. It is important to say these things because the narrative that we’re leaving Afghanistan is self-defeating.

We’re not.

We can’t.

And to do so would not be to take advantage of the success had to date.

Thanks in large part to the Army’s work through Resolute Support, Afghan forces have proven themselves to be very capable fighters who are able to provide security for Afghanistan.
They have performed admirably through two tense elections, clearing operations in Northern Helmand, and countering the Taliban’s spring offensive.

That said, Taliban advances in parts of the country underscore the reality that this is a difficult fight.

We understand that Afghanistan still needs assistance, and Resolute Support is working closely with the ANDSF and Afghan security ministries to ensure that they are prepared to set the conditions for Afghan-led stability in this vital region.

No one can do this better than the Army, which has learned a lot about counter-terrorism operations and local forces training, and related operational skills, over the course of two wars, and is best equipped to establish a lasting and effective counterterrorism platform in Afghanistan.

And that brings me to my third 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’ll always have to be ready to fight and win our nation’s wars. We need, therefore 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.

To build the force of the future, we have to attract, compete for, and retain, 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: the most rewarding and honorable place a young person can work and serve. We’re aligning our personnel management system with 21st century trends – with cutting edge tools brought by the digital revolution in talent management. We must also understand the reality that some young Americans aren’t satisfied with traditional career tracks.

Another principal way we continue to keep our edge into the future, is to keep innovating and investing in the best technology. In recent times, we’ve been using high-end technology against relatively low-tech capabilities.

But today, and in the future, high-end military technologies long possessed by advanced nations are finding their way into the hands of non-state actors and militaries previously much less capable.

Meanwhile, nations like Russia and China are closing the technology gap with them, developing platforms to thwart our advantages of power projection and freedom of movement. They’re fielding new aircraft and ballistic, cruise, anti-ship, and anti-air missiles that are longer-range and more accurate.

So our imperative is clear: we must innovate to stay the best equipped and prepared… so we can ensure the skill of each soldier is wielded in the most effective and safest way possible.

That takes strategic planning. And strategic planning takes budget certainty. As you know, Congress has failed to pass a defense appropriations bill in time to start the fiscal year for seven straight years. And for the past four years, the Department of Defense and other federal agencies have been struggling against the impacts of sequestration – cuts that were never meant to be implemented, but ironically was supposed to catalyze Washington to come together and reach a budget agreement.

The Department of Defense has done its best to manage through this prolonged period of budget uncertainty, making painful choices and tradeoffs between size, capabilities, and readiness of the joint force.

We cannot as a nation allow this to become the new normal. In today’s security environment we need to be dynamic, we need to be responsive. What we have now is a straitjacket.

Continuing resolutions and sequester impede our ability to plan strategically. We are forced to make irresponsible reductions when our choices should be considered carefully and strategically. At the same time, where we have proposed measured, smart decisions about force management to generate vital savings, Congress has repeatedly advanced defense policy measures that reject these hard decisions, further exacerbating the challenges we face.

A double whammy of budget turbulence and budget cuts on the one hand, and denied change on the other.

Making indiscriminate cuts is managerially inefficient and therefore, and this is truly ironic, actually wasteful to taxpayers and industry, the very taxpayers who are concerned about where their tax dollars go. It’s dangerous for our strategy, and frankly, it’s embarrassing around the world. And it is dispiriting to the talented people and their families who serve us who deserve to know better what the future holds.

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.

Failure to come together on a stable way forward makes this unnecessarily difficult for us and could give a misleadingly diminished picture of America's great strength and resolve to both friends and foes alike. We can’t allow that to happen.

The Army has been, and will always be, integral to the Joint Force. But the excellence of today’s Army, like the excellence of our military as whole, is not a birthright or a guarantee. It has to earn it again and again, by continuing to innovate, to attract the best people, to develop the world’s best leaders, to develop the next generation of capabilities and meet a current generation of threats with ready, and agile forces.

That is why this organization is so important. You honor the missions of the past by ensuring the strength to complete the missions of the future. AUSA remembers. And AUSA reminds.

Ladies and gentlemen, when my staff and I were traveling last week to the NATO ministerial in Brussels one of the vans in my motorcade was driven by a local volunteer in Brussels - an older man from northern Belgium.

He said that he’d recently taken part in a battle reenactment. Now, here in the United States, we associate battle reenactments primarily with the Civil War and the American Revolution. But in Belgium, it’s different. This man said that he, along with a score of other Belgians and Dutchmen, dressed up in the World War II fatigues of the U.S. Army’s 113th cavalry, proudly marching with the red horse insignia on their sleeves.

They reenacted the liberation of Maastricht, the moment when the long-suffering Dutch people first saw soldiers of the United States Army. They did it to remember and honor what those young Americans did for them 71 years ago, and what the United States continues to mean for them today.

The United States was indispensable when those red horse uniforms entered Holland in 1944.

It’s even more so today in a tumultuous world that still relies so much on America for its security. And the U.S. Army is its indispensable backbone.

That's why we must all be part of the effort preparing our force to, in the words of your conference theme, “win in a complex world.” That's our opportunity, that's our obligation, that's how we will continue to ensure that our Army, and our military, remains the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

Thank you.