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Remarks on “Strategic and Operational Innovation at a Time of Transition and Turbulence” at Reagan Defense Forum

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter
Nov. 7, 2015
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: 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.

MODERATOR: I will, I will edit some of the questions that we have gotten from the audience, and we anticipated that there would be time pressure so we have abandoned recognizing people.

Mr. Secretary, you've just said a Navy ship, I think you identified the Lassen, passed artificial islands that China claims in the South China Sea. This is has evoked two different questions.

Are a bunch of rocks on the other side of the world really worth a showdown with China? And the other question from a different point of view is: Do you really think that just sending a ship through the territorial waters that they are claiming is going to stop their asserting territoriality?

SEC. CARTER: Good, good, good, good, good questions.

The -- first of all, the point of the Lassen transit was freedom of navigation. That's a principle that's important not just in the South China Sea, it's important everywhere around the world.

We need to stick up for it. Everybody in Southeast Asia, all the Southeast Asian nations strongly urge us to support that principle. It's in our own national interest. And all the way, from the South China Sea to the Arctic, it's critical for our country to stand up for freedom of navigation.

So that's what the Lassen was doing. That's not new. That's not a new fact. Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not a new fact. It has been going on for decades and decades.

Let's remember what the new fact is this year. It's the Chinese land reclamation which is new. That's what occasions even attention to a freedom of navigation transit by the United States. That's what's new. And that is what we believe by China and by all other claimants ought to stop.

MODERATOR: Even with the two-year budgetary deal that the Congress has agreed upon with the administration, the increase in defense spending is relatively modest. There are those who propose that we can -- that even though we must modernize, it must await growth in GDP of as much as five percent.

The question is, how is it possible for us to fail (INAUDIBLE), to miss falling behind on modernization if we are that patient?

SEC. CARTER: Well, first of all, I'm very glad and pleased that people have come together behind a budget deal. I've been urging that, it's not a secretary of defense's business, we’re not involved in those kinds of things.

But as one of the operating departments of the government that is charged with not only protecting the country, but doing what people want also, which is making sure that we spend the taxpayers' dollar in a responsible way.

That is a -- responsibilities that are very difficult to discharge in the environment of budget turmoil, gridlock in Washington, herky-jerky year-at-a-time budgeting.

It's not good for us. And so I was hoping that people would come together of all persuasions in Washington behind a budget deal. And that has happened. And I'm grateful for that. And that is a major step forward.

You're asking whether it's enough, which is a good question. You know, as secretary of defense, I'm never going to tell you I couldn't make good use of more.

But I'm grateful that we're getting the budget that we asked for. We certainly believe we need that. I do believe that at the same time we ask for the taxpayer dollar, we need to show that we use every dollar well.

We're working hard on that. That's something that Chairman Thornberry, Chairman McCain, who is not here, the other members, rankings, and members of those committees, are with us on.

We need to carry through on those reforms, because it's one of the ways that it strengthens people's confidence that they give us more money, we’ll spend it well.

But if you look at the strategic need, in the emergence of ISIL in the last year, the bad turn by Russia in the last year, it's like we have less to do, as I hope indicated in here, we have a lot to do.

And so we need stable, reasonable budgeting. Now I don't know that you measure it as a fraction of GDP. I think you measure it against the strategic needs of the country.

But we need to measure it that way and we need to have stable multiyear budgeting. And for that to happen in our country, we just -- it just is a fact, everybody needs to come together.

And it can't just be about discretionary spending, it needs to be the other parts of the federal budget. I know this is difficult, but that's what's required. You can't just keep getting it out of defense. Just do the math. It doesn't work. It's not the answer.

And this kind of on and off stuff is really difficult. And I'll just say one -- obviously I get exercised about this. It's -- just two other things. It's unfair to the force.

They watch this. And they watch this and they ask me, hey, what's going on here? And they're thinking about their families and their future, and the profession that they have dedicated themselves to, and what its future is, and whether the country is behind the mission. And it pains me to see that.

And I also travel around the world, and it's embarrassing. It's embarrassing to us to be explaining what's going on. So we've got to, got to, got to do better. I think this is a step forward. And I'm very grateful for it.

MODERATOR: Given your experience in dealing with the Russians, isn't it clear that Putin's endgame in Syria, in bombing anti-Assad forces, is really part of his collaboration with Iran? And are seven sorties a day really the answer to quote "defeating and destroying ISIS"?

SEC. CARTER: Well, let's see. Let's see with the Russian part and what the Russians are doing in Syria. My own view is that Putin hasn't thought through very thoroughly what he's doing in Syria, and is way off-track.

What he said he was going to do, and in my early conversations with the Russians, they said they were going to do, was fight ISIL, which by itself would be welcome, and pursue a political transition from Assad, which is necessary to end the civil war which fuels the extremism in the first place.

Neither of those is being carried out. The Russians aren't fighting ISIL, they're mostly fighting the opposition to Assad, and supporting Assad.

And it's possible that they will get on-track. I know that Secretary Kerry is talking to them about doing that. I wouldn't take for granted that the Russians and the Iranians are aligned, by the way.

If you look at that closely, they are having difficulties between themselves as well. But certainly the Russians have influence with Assad. And if they use that to help that country make a transition and stay together in some reasonable way so it can heal itself, give its people back the life they deserve, and we can turn to the defeat of ISIL, which we have to do, that would be the right strategy for Putin.

That doesn't seem to be where he started out. Now you're asking what we're doing about ISIL, and is it enough? You characterized it as seven airstrikes. It's much more than that.

But if you say, is it enough? I don't think it's enough. I think we're looking to do more. But the fundamental strategy in Iraq and Syria for dealing with ISIL and dealing a lasting defeat to ISIL is to identify then train, equip, and enable local forces that can keep the peace.

Because we can defeat ISIL, but it's keeping them defeated that is the hard part. It's making it stick. We all know that. We know that from Iraq and Afghanistan. That's the hard part.

Finding those capable and motivated and willing forces turns out to be difficult. And so as we identify them and strengthen them, we will do more.

But we have to support capable and motivated forces, we can't substitute for them. That's just the strategic fact. So are we willing to do more? Yes, we're willing to do more.

And as we identify opportunities to do more, you see us doing more and we need to do more, much more than air strikes.

MODERATOR: Mr. Secretary, there are many more questions from this very interested audience, but I'm getting frantic signals that the time clock has reached zero.

SEC. CARTER: Okay.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir, for your message and for your answers.

SEC. CARTER: Thank you. Thank you all very much being here. I appreciate it. (Applause.)