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Remarks on "Strategic and Operational Innovation at a Time of Transition and Turbulence" at the Reagan National Defense Forum

Good afternoon, everyone.

Fred, thank you, thanks for that introduction, appreciate it. Thanks to you and everyone at the Reagan Foundation for hosting this valuable forum.

I’m just returning from my third trip to Asia as Secretary of Defense. As I head back to Washington, it’s a pleasure to join so many friends here, including Homeland Security Secretary Johnson. Jeh, good to see you. It’s also great to see Chairman McCain, who I know is here but not at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate his presence. Senator Reed, Chairman Thornberry and Chairman Frelinghuysen I believe also is attending the conference; Representative Smith, Schiff, and many other distinguished members of Congress, thank you for being here and your interest in your mission of the Department of Defense.

Some of the Defense Department’s leadership is here as well. My Deputy Bob Work will have a smart presentation later in the day about our plan to sustain America’s technology superiority, including strengthening our efforts to work with the innovative technology base right here in California – including our Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, in Silicon Valley – and, actually, around the country.

Three of our newest, excellent joint chiefs are participating in this meeting, and some COCOMs as well, who lead three of our most important commands. All are working on our priority to look to the Defense Department’s future, to making sure the finest fighting force the world has ever known remains that way. I’ve spoken of the Force of the Future to preserve excellence in people, of our third offset strategy for excellence in technology, and of the urgent need to continue reforming the defense enterprise.

And here at Buck McKeon’s now-signature annual event, I join many other colleagues, past and present, to discuss national defense – and I know your title is – in a time of “transition and turbulence.” Given the title of this conference, I want to focus my remarks this afternoon on another kind of innovation for the future, which is how we’re responding to Russia, one source of today’s turbulence, and China’s rise, which is driving a transition in the Asia-Pacific.

In recent weeks I’ve spoken and testified about events in the Middle East – the problems of Iran and the strategy to deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL, in the Middle East and globally – and also President Obama’s decisions to support Afghanistan’s future. Returning from eight days in Asia, and in view of Russia’s prominence in the news – but above all because we’re here at the Reagan Library, I thought to speak of Russia and China. They too, challenge our capacity to innovate and change.

Many of us, of course, came of age, personally and professionally, during the Cold War. Up by the library’s research room, sits a section of the Berlin Wall. In stark relief against this expansive and beautiful valley, that solitary, graffiti-ed slab does not seem like it would pose much of a challenge. But for those of us who worked in government during those dangerous days, as I did beginning in 1981, for Caspar Weinberger – we know how tough that wall was to crack, let alone tear down.

We all remember President Reagan’s calls for Moscow to tear down the Berlin wall and for “peace through strength.” His foreign policy, and approach to the Soviet Union, was both strong and balanced. Reagan made bold, innovative moves to strengthen the nation’s leverage, like his advances in missile defense, but he was also willing to negotiate when he thought it would help.

For example, less than two months before he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” Reagan approved a presidential decision directive that said the United States should work to roll-back the Soviet gains, which was a change from prevailing thinking about the Cold War. And President Reagan also decided the United States should negotiate with the Soviet Union to “protect and enhance” American interests. That combination – strong and balanced innovative concepts – helped the United States win the Cold War.

The Reagan era saw a generational revitalization of American defense strength. Reagan deserves great credit, but we all recognize too it was not a one-president job. Like the B-2 Stealth Bomber and America’s support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, it was the realization of initiatives from the 1970s and actually before; and a reflection of the powerful combination of bipartisan persistence and American ingenuity that was the hallmark of American presidents from Truman right up to Reagan, and beyond. And I hope today, and tomorrow, and forever – and by the way, I think, this forum stands for that.

That strength, which Reagan and others helped realize – people like Jim Schlesinger, Brent Scowcroft, Bill Perry, and Harold Brown, who were all mentors of mine – put the United States in position to respond to the day’s crises, and take advantage of Soviet missteps. It gave post-Cold War leaders the power to bring East and West together and deepen the principled international order. And when we were attacked on September 11th, it gave America the power to respond.

That strength and the principled international order were part of the inheritance I received when I was sworn in as Secretary of Defense earlier this year. When I took this job I made three principal commitments.

First and foremost is my commitment to our people, to the current force – including active duty, guard, reservists and their families, and our civilians, and our veterans.

Second, a commitment to provide my best advice to President Obama as he makes critical decisions and to ensure he receives equally candid, professional military advice, and finally, that his decisions are carried out with the excellence expected of the Department of Defense.

And third, is my commitment to our future – that’s about leaving my successor’s successor’s successor an institution as fine as the one it is now my privilege to lead. I’ve spoken frequently about three of the pillars of this commitment: recruiting and retaining the Force of the Future; investing in technological advance, and reforming the defense enterprise.

The fourth pillar, which I want to describe today, is the development of innovative strategies and operational concepts so we can change how we deter, and if necessary, respond to geostrategic challenges. We must ensure we, and our partners, are postured to defeat threats from high-end opponents in a complex set of environments.

After fourteen years of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism – two skills we want to retain – we are in the middle of a strategic transition to respond to the security challenges that will define our future.

That is a generational challenge, like it was in Reagan’s time. In the 1980s, changes were embraced that elevated the skill and expertise of the nation’s all-volunteer force. Defense investments leveraged new emerging technologies and novel operational concepts like Air-Land battle and what Soviet thinkers came to call the reconnaissance-strike complex to make the United States peerless in battle. The Goldwater-Nichols reforms helped strengthen military advice and improve joint operations. And advances in military education helped improve strategic and operational thinking.

The innovative strategies and operational plans we need at this historical juncture maintain the same objectives: defend the United States and strengthen the principled international order that has served the United States, our many friends and allies – and yes – if you think about it, Russia, China, and many other countries, well for decades.

The principles that serve as that order’s foundation – including peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom from coercion, respect for state sovereignty, freedom of navigation and overflight – are not abstractions, nor are they subject to the whims of any one country. They are not privileges to be granted or withdrawn. They make sense because they have worked for decades. They’ve helped keep the peace, lift more than a billion out of poverty, and give people a greater voice in their own affairs.

Our support for those principles and the order they underpin is one reason why we have so many friends, allies, and partners around the world. They are drawn to us because, as Reagan knew, of the gravitational pull of our country's values. Because our antagonists and competitors push many states towards us. But also because, at the most elemental, human level, our troops are attractive partners, they perform and conduct themselves admirably. I see this, and hear this from foreign leaders, around the world. They make us proud.

Despite that widespread appeal, some actors appear intent on eroding these principles and undercutting the international order that helps enforce them. Terror elements like ISIL, of course, stand entirely opposed to our values. But other challenges are more complicated, and given their size and capabilities, potentially more damaging.

Russia appears intent to play spoiler by flouting these principles and the international community. Meanwhile, China is a rising power, and growing more ambitious in its objectives and capabilities. Of course, neither Russia nor China can overturn that order, given its resilience and staying power. But both present different challenges for it.

The United States, and the men and women of the Defense Department, know that the good that a principled international order has done, and will do. But in the face of Russia’s provocations and China’s rise, we must embrace innovative approaches to protect the United States and strengthen that international order.

In Europe, Russia has been violating sovereignty in Ukraine and Georgia and actively trying to intimidate the Baltic states. Meanwhile, in Syria, Russia is throwing gasoline on an already dangerous fire, prolonging a civil war that fuels the very extremism Russia claims to oppose.

At sea, in the air, in space, and in cyberspace, Russian actors have engaged in challenging activities. And, most disturbing, Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling raises questions about Russia’s leaders’ commitment to strategic stability, their respect for norms against the use of nuclear weapons, and whether they respect the profound caution nuclear-age leaders showed with regard to the brandishing of nuclear weapons.

We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot war with Russia. We do not seek to make Russia an enemy. But make no mistake; the United States will defend our interests, and our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all.

We’re taking a strong and balanced approach to deter Russia’s aggression, and to help reduce the vulnerability of allies and partners.

We are adapting our operational posture and contingency plans as we – on our own and with allies – work to deter Russia’s aggression, and to help reduce the vulnerability of allies and partners. The United States is accordingly making a number of moves in response, many but not all of which I can describe in this forum. We’re modernizing our nuclear arsenal, so America’s nuclear deterrent continues to be effective, safe, and secure, to deter nuclear attacks and reassure our allies.

We’re investing in the technologies that are most relevant to Russia’s provocations, such as new unmanned systems, a new long-range bomber, and innovation in technologies like the electromagnetic railgun, lasers, and new systems for electronic warfare, space and cyberspace, including a few surprising ones that I really can’t describe here. We’re updating and advancing our operational plans for deterrence and defense given Russia’s changed behavior.

Finally, we’re leveraging other U.S. government capabilities, to include information campaigns to ensure the truth gets through, and focused sanctions which have had an impact on Russia.

In Europe, NATO remains the cornerstone of a principled order and its Article V a bedrock commitment. But NATO needs a new playbook. The Cold War playbook – including large American forces stationed in Europe, oriented toward the Fulda Gap – worked in Reagan’s day, but it’s not suited for the 21st century, with its hybrid warfare, cyber-threats, and asymmetric tactics; and the vast enlargement of NATO territory, that is subject to Article V.

We’re accordingly transforming our posture in Europe to be more agile and sustainable. For example in Eastern NATO states, we’re prepositioning tanks, infantry-fighting vehicles, artillery, and the associated equipment needed to participate in exercises and also to respond to crises and provocation.

We’re providing enabling capabilities – a distinctively American characteristic – to strengthen NATO’s new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force so it can respond flexibly to contingencies in Europe’s East and South. This innovative capability has already become real: in June, I visited the VJTF – its land component, that is – in Germany.

We’re taking part in more and different kinds exercises with our allies to improve training and interoperability. NATO performed admirably in Afghanistan and the exercises today focusing on transitioning to newer threats that also require networked partnership, but very different operational approaches. In fact, TRIDENT JUNCTURE, the largest NATO exercise in 13 years, just ended…yesterday. General Breedlove, who is here, reports a very successful integration of combined U.S. and partner Marines, Navy, ground forces and air forces exercising against a high-end denied environment. Over 4,000 American troops participated in this exercise.

We’re helping strengthen NATO's Cyber Defense Center of Excellence so it can help those nations develop cyber strategies, critical infrastructure protection plans, and cyber defense posture assessments.

And we’re providing equipment and training to aid Ukraine’s military as it confronts Russian-supported insurgents in Eastern Ukraine. This summer I spent time with one of our rotational brigade combat teams at Graf in Germany. They represent a new approach: they’ll fall-in on prepositioned equipment, conduct live-fire and simulated maneuver with partner nations, and improve their own readiness and cultural awareness through immersion during this rotation.

So we’re doing all this; but, just as Reagan did, we are also taking a balanced approach to Russia. We will continue to cooperate when and where our and Russia’s interests align, such as the recent nuclear negotiations with Iran and the P5+1 nuclear talks on North Korea, and it is possible, it’s possible– we’ll see – Russia may play a constructive role in resolving the Syrian civil war. And the United States will continue to hold out the possibility that Russia will assume the role of responsible power in the international order, a direction they seemed headed for much of the post-Cold War era.

Much has changed since the Cold War, the United States and Russia are now not the only powers impacting the principled international order. For decades, the United States has helped create the stability in the Asia-Pacific that stability has allowed people, economies, and countries to rise, to prosper, and to win. And miracle after miracle occurred. First, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, and now, China and India, have risen and prospered. Hundreds of millions of Asians have been lifted into the middle class. And democracies, taken hold.

However, the single most influential factor in shaping the region’s future is how China rises and relates to the principled order that has undergirded regional peace, stability, and security. As a rising power, it’s to be expected that China will have growing ambitions and a modernizing military.

But how China behaves will be the true test of its commitment to peace and security. This is why nations across the region are watching China’s actions in areas like the maritime domain and cyberspace.
We are working – on our own and with allies – to ensure the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific, ensuring that stability, even as China rises.

The United States is making several moves on its own:

America’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is about sustaining this progress, and assuring stability and prosperity in a changing region. I met the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt on the South China Sea a few days ago as it completed its around the world deployment to end in its new homeport of San Diego, part of the shift of naval assets to the Asia-Pacific, that John Richardson is leading, John’s here also. We’re putting our best and newest assets – from all the services – in the region. Qualitatively, we are making heavy investments in capabilities of importance there: subsurface warfare, electronic warfare, space, cyber, missile defense, and more.

We are also changing fundamentally our operational plans and approaches to deter aggression, fulfill our statutory obligations to Taiwan, defend allies, and prepare for a wider-range of contingencies in the region than we have traditionally.

The United States also, importantly, needs to build on its political and economic engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, most importantly by finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, or TPP. I have strongly backed TPP because of its strategic significance, and urge all of my Congressional colleagues here today to support it.

Next, and together with allies, friends, and partners, we are also strengthening the multilateral, regional security architecture so that it is strong enough, capable enough, and connected enough to ensure that all Asia, Asia-Pacific nations have the opportunity to rise and prosper – all have the opportunity to win.

We’re building the capacity of our allies and partners. For example we are implementing the Maritime Security Initiative which will provide the critical resources to help countries in the Asia-Pacific share information, identify potential threats, and work collaboratively to address common challenges.

We’re promoting shared rules of the road and building habits of cooperation. That’s why we’re participating in so many exercises across the region, such as the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training maritime exercise with six ASEAN countries. On my way to Asia, I also met with troops in Alaska who have trained with partners in the region through our Pacific Pathways program.

And we’re supporting regional multilateral organizations, like ASEAN where I attended a defense ministerial in Malaysia this week. We’re modernizing our alliances, including with the Republic of Korea where I visited last weekend, and developing, interestingly, trilateral alliances with, for example, Australia and Japan.

And we’re deepening our partnerships, including with India, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In fact, Malaysia’s Minister of Defense joined me on the Teddy Roosevelt this week.

One of the issues I have heard in recent years – and on my latest trip – from our regional allies and partners is the South China Sea.

We all have a fundamental stake in the security of maritime Asia, including dynamics within the South China Sea. Nearly 30 percent of the world’s maritime trade transits its waters annually, including approximately $1.2 trillion in ship-borne trade bound for the United States. That is why the United States is concerned with land reclamation there. And China has reclaimed more land than any other country in the entire history of the region.

The United States, joins virtually everyone else in the region, in being 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.

On Thursday, when I flew out to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt underway in the South China Sea, there I saw the U.S.S. Lassen as part of its task force, which last month conducted a freedom of navigation operation, in accordance with international law. We’ve done them before, all over the world. And we will do them again. We meant what we say. We will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.

It’s important to remember that America’s rebalance and this regional security architecture has never aimed to hold any nation back or push any country down. The United States wants every nation to have an opportunity to rise, because it’s good for the region and good for all our countries. And that includes China. We welcome its rise, and its inclusion in this architecture; but it must uphold President Xi’s pledge not to “pursue militarization” in the South China Sea.

The U.S.-China relationship will be complex as we continue to balance our competition and cooperation. There are opportunities to improve understanding and to reduce risk with China, for example we’ve agreed up to four confidence-building agreements, including one meant to prevent dangerous air-to-air encounters.

I also accepted this past week an invitation from China’s President Xi to visit China in the New Year. There, we will surely discuss our differences, but we can also talk about the many opportunities we have to work together to address common challenges, such as piracy, humanitarian disasters, climate change, among many others.
As you’ve just heard, we are leveraging innovative strategies and operational concepts in our response to Russia’s provocations and the impact of China’s rise. But we also know we have much work still to do to ensure our strategies and plans are as innovative as possible, and leverage new technology used by the best talent in America.

This is not a one SecDef job. For it to succeed, future presidential administrations will have to sustain and build upon the work we’ve started. But we’ve seen it happen before in the 1980s. And with your help, once again, we can change how we fight.

But as we do, let me close by saying, that even as we change how we fight, we will never change what we fight for.

Today, as we meet, there are more than 450,000 men and women serving abroad, in every domain…in the air, ashore, and afloat. These men and women are not only defending the United States and its people, they are also defending the principled international order.

That's why we go to great lengths to honor servicemembers present and past. We're especially reminded of our obligation, less than a week out from Veterans Day. And that’s why we go to great lengths to bring everyone home to their families, which I was reminded of when I visited, in Hawaii, our state-of-the-art facility that examines with painstaking care the remains of the fallen. And that’s why I was at the Punchbowl, two days ago, where tens of thousands of American heroes lie.

It’s said that security is like oxygen; but when you have enough of it, you pay no attention to it. But when you don’t have enough, you can think of nothing else.

America’s service members – the finest fighting force the world has ever known – they provide that oxygen – the security that allows people, not just in America, but in so much of the world, to live in peace, to raise their children, to dream their dreams, to live lives that are full.

Our service members take grave risks to provide that security, and some make the ultimate sacrifice. They do so not just because they were ordered to…and not only to protect their buddies. They do so because they know they help make the United States safer, strengthen the international order, and make the world a better place. They do so, as Reagan said, to “break down barriers that separate people, to create a safer, freer world.”

These are the values many of us have spent our lives defending. I know many of you have been doing so throughout your careers, in the Cold War, after September 11th, and today. I thank you for that dedication.

But we’re not finished yet. We didn’t stop when the Berlin Wall came down. And, at a time of transition and turbulence, we have work still to do, to realize a more peaceful tomorrow. I’ll spend the time I have to advance this noble fight, to build peace through strength. And I trust you will join me.

Thank you.