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Remarks by Secretary Esper at Goldman Sachs, New York City, New York

Nov. 11, 2019
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper


MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to Talks at G.S., and I am honored to be joined today by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Secretary Esper has served in the Trump administration since 2017, first as a Secretary of the Army and as the Acting Secretary of Defense before being sworn in as the 27th Secretary of Defense this year.

Secretary Esper is a West Point graduate; he served in active duty in the U.S. Army for 10 years and 11 years in the National Guard and Army Reserve. His military awards and decorations include the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal, the Kuwait Liberation Medal, the Kuwait Liberation Medal Saudi Arabia and the Combat Infantry Badge.

His military awards and decorations -- that's a repeat, sorry -- so ... 


MODERATOR: I'm not going to repeat. (Laughter.)

But -- but it's Veterans Day, and it's really a pleasure to have you. And just on behalf of all of the veterans that are here at Goldman Sachs, thank you for being here and for me personally, to you and all of the veterans in the room, thank you for your service. We really, really appreciate it.


So we're going to -- we're going to kind of get right in. I'm going to ask some questions, we'll try to -- we'll try to have a nice conversation, but I want to talk about your own service, I want to start there. You graduated from West Point, I know that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was a classmate of yours, and I just want to start by asking what -- what drew you to serving early and why? Talk a little bit about your background and -- and kind of what drew you in.

SEC. ESPER: Sure. Well let -- before I address that, let me just say first of all, happy Veterans Day to all of the Goldman Sachs veterans that are out there. Thank you very much for your service and all that you've done to defend our great country. I -- I really, deeply appreciate that.

And David, I want to thank you for your personal leadership in terms of hiring veterans and investing in veterans and all of the things that you and Goldman Sachs has done over the years to further that cause. You -- you've been a real leader not -- in that which is why I wanted to come here today to spend some time and share with you my thoughts, because our veterans are very special people.

I like to say those -- those who serve -- it's a small number that serve. Out of a country of 330 million people, fewer than two million or so serve at any one time. That, to me, it's the top one percent. We talk about one percents, that's the top one percent; that's the young men and women of our country who raise their right hand, they put their left hand on the Bible, and they swear an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, even if it requires them giving up their life.

And so all of you who have served, you have my deepest respect and regard and again, thank you for all that you've done.

MODERATOR: Thank you.



SEC. ESPER: So I wish I had the answer. I -- for me, it was a calling. I didn't really have anybody in my family who served, but it was a calling for me, from my earliest days; and then when I was flipping through high school, college books if you will, I came across one for West Point, and it -- I started -- pulled it out and sat down and started reading it, and I knew that was the place for me.

MODERATOR: Where'd you grow up?

SEC. ESPER: I grew up in southwest Pennsylvania -- Uniontown, Pennsylvania, which is the home of -- hometown of George C. Marshall, so a -- a -- a favorite of mine for many, many years. So again, it was a calling for me, and I left school, I left home at age 18, and went to West Point and graduated in '86 with a lot of great classmates, and, you know, the -- the rest is history, if you will.

MODERATOR: Well, I mean, there's -- there's a lot of history. You went out to serve in the 101st Airborne Division, you participated in the first Gulf War with the Screaming Eagles, you commanded a rifle company and the three -- 325 Airborne Battalion Combat Team in Italy.

One of the ways -- and you were just talking backstage -- I mean, it really -- it resonates with me, you talked about being 22 years old and having 45 soldiers under your charge. One of the ways your colleagues described your leadership style is that you always made a point to listen to your fellow troops.

Talk about that and particularly that in combat. 

SEC. ESPER: Well, I'm glad my wife is not here to contradict you about this.


MODERATOR: By the way, when -- when -- when I sat next to her at dinner, she mentioned that.


SEC. ESPER: You know, I -- I like to think I'm a far better listener today than I -- than -- than I was back then and can always do more, but I -- I try to be an active listener and then an active questioner, for anybody who's -- who's joined me at a meeting at the Pentagon.

But it really is important to -- to listen to what your people are saying and what their views are. I'm -- I'm reading a book right now called “The Outpost,” written by Jake Tapper. It's -- it recounts the history of the -- of the Army at a particular outpost in Afghanistan; and when you read the stories about the young sergeants and officers who are trying to tell their chain of command that things weren't right, or we should do this, you could see so many cases where the chain of command just simply wasn't listening.

And so I -- I think it's very important to listen and -- and listen actively. The other thing that I am a -- that I've kind of emphasized, and it seems counter-intuitive, but when I took over as Secretary of the Army, I said to my folks, I do not believe in consensus. Consensus, to me, drives suboptimal solutions. What I want to do is when you -- you guys send me courses of actions and recommendations, I want to hear from the -- I want to hear the minority view. 

And I -- I will tell you, there's so many times where it was one person -- just one person who spoke up in a room and said “hey, how about this?” A voice that was maybe muffled in all of the iterations, and it turned out -- turned out to be the best decision, the best idea put forward.

So I try and listen, I try and find those people, the iconoclasts, the minorities, if you will, minority voices being heard and -- and hear them out to make sure that we hear all of the great ideas that are coming across the organization.

MODERATOR: Yeah, getting -- getting diversity is super, super important. You know, since it's Veterans Day, can you reflect a little bit on how to think about fostering the veteran community? 

You've talked a little bit, and I appreciate your comments that -- that that's something that we've been focused on here, and we're trying to make a -- you know, trying to make a difference in that, but, you know, what else can we do to foster the veteran community across this great country, and, you know, how can the private sector broadly play a bigger role in supporting that?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, it's tough. I think both sides of the equation have to seek each other out and work at it a little. You know, I left active duty in 1996, as I was just telling some of your -- your vets here. I didn't know how to write a resume, let alone how to highlight my skills on the resume or what they really were.

And yet in looking back, I -- I recognize now, as I've had to hire hundreds of folks, that it's those skills with regard to leadership and managing your time and -- and thinking, reacting under pressure, all of those things that are really integral that you can't necessarily always train or -- or it takes many years to train that -- that employers really value. It's the commitment, it's the loyalty, the dedication, the -- the -- the (inaudible), the grit -- the grit, which is so critical in terms of carrying through with -- with whatever your business strategy is.

So I -- I think the more outreach that companies can do to the veteran community, to find them, to help bring them along, I -- I think usually they -- they start out probably a little bit slower, but when they get their stride, they really take off.

And that's one of the things we try to do in the Army is, as we knew that folks were leaving the service, how do we prepare them, how do we help them write a resume, how do we help them highlight their skills and then transition their military skills into applicable civilian skills? That -- that -- that is one thing we have to work on.

MODERATOR: Well the -- the -- the role of the private sector in that, you know, leads me to just ask you about your experience, ‘cause you've been in and out of the private sector. You worked at Raytheon, you know, most recently, you know, on the private sector.

I'd be curious, you know, as you went into the private sector and made that transition, what skills that -- that -- you know, that you had, you know, as someone who had served, you thought really got amplified? And then the second question would be, when you've now come and taken private sector experience and have gone to the Pentagon, you know, how did it -- how did the private sector experience, you know, translate the other way?

SEC. ESPER: Sure. I think on the first one in terms of going from the military to the private sector, what I found was, you know, the leadership skills are one be -- because by that time, I was -- let me do the math. 32 years old, I had commanded units as big as 300 people. So I've brought in a lot of leadership skills that many of my peers didn't have. And so my ability to take a team and organize them, and -- and -- and develop a strategy was -- was really valued by the private sector, whether I was working with a -- I worked with the nonprofits. I worked with associations and think tanks, and eventually in the defense industry.

And then the flipside was true, as well. When I -- when I went from the private sector into the government sector, what I brought is just a keen sense of what it means to wring efficiency out of an organization, and break it down to its core tasks so you knew that everybody was focused, and focus what was, you know, core to the mission, and that's something that government wrestles with. We -- we tend to build things up and never look hard at, what was the purpose and what was the task? And -- and -- and shedding inefficiency, because as you all know, in a private sector, inefficiency will kill a company, will kill an organization because you could just -- you -- you can never get ahead.

MODERATOR: The pressure's enormous on it.

SEC. ESPER: The pressure's enormous.


SEC. ESPER: You can't make your profit. You can't make your marks.

And the -- the duty we have in the public sector in DOD is to -- is to deliver to you all, as taxpayers, and you should expect this. You should demand it, that we deliver you a highly-effective organization that delivers national security, keeps you safe and secure, and your families, on a day-to-day basis. And more often than not -- I shouldn't say more often; but too often we're -- we're not as efficient as we should be, and we're getting better, and it's one of the things that I've put out, set forth as one of my top three priorities, is to reform the Department of Defense to make sure that we're freeing up time, money and manpower to put into those things that the country needs most. And that's my commitment to all of you, to all taxpayers, to all the American people to make sure we get that -- get that done right.

MODERATOR: An -- an important charge, not an easy charge, but glad -- glad to hear that you're seeing progress.

SEC. ESPER: It's only a $738 billion budget. 

MODERATOR: It's -- it's -- it's a big budget.


It's different than our -- our small, little budget here at Goldman Sachs.


SEC. ESPER: I'll swap paychecks with you, though.



So I want to shift -- I want to shift to leadership, and just talk a little bit about leadership. And you know, just thinking about, you're sworn in as a secretary of defense after serving as both secretary and acting secretary of the Army. But you really, you were -- you were a West Point graduate. I mean, the path of West Point graduate to secretary of defense, it's really unimaginable, you know, in some ways. I mean, maybe -- maybe imaginable, but unimaginable in some ways. But as you get to this position, you're looking back on your experience in combat. You're looking back on the experience of so many that serve under you. How did your experience in combat shape the way you lead today from the -- from -- from the top of the Defense Department?

SEC. ESPER: Sure. That's a great question, and it -- it is one of those ascendancies, if you will, or jobs where you've just got to pinch yourself every day and realize. It's hard to believe that 30-some years ago, I was a cadet at West Point, and here I am now in charge of, you know, not -- not due to anything I've done, but the greatest military on earth, and it -- it's really overwhelming.

But it really -- you know, I look at all my jobs, but the one in particular, whether it's my -- my time in my Army -- in -- in the Army, and particularly, my time in combat in the Army, where I have to think whether it was the -- the raid we'd recently done against -- to -- to go after the head of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, or operations in Syria, where I can put myself on the ground and ask myself, "If I were a young company commander leading my soldiers and this -- this order came all the way down to me, would I know how to implement it? Would I know what it means? Do I understand what the command -- what we say is commander's intent? What are we really trying to accomplish? What does the boss want us to do?"

And I think about that hard as -- as we issue orders and we give instructions, and as I speak to the -- to the press. I mean, the military has its own language, too. And so part of my challenge is translating what's out there in the civilian-sphere into what the military-sphere is, and again, make sure that -- that all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines can understand it in a way that makes sure that they are successful, and they can accomplish their mission and bring everyone home safely. 

MODERATOR: So you've served under numbers of -- a number of commanders-in-chief, and every leader has their own decision-making process, whether it's in the situation room, whether it's on the battlefield. Talk about, you know, as you've worked with this commander-in-chief in the context of our defense, the decision-making process...


MODERATOR: ... and how's it different, same?

SEC. ESPER: Sure, no. Look, they're all different. I've had probably two dozen bosses in my time, and -- and many of you have, as well, and I think the -- a key to success, not the key, but a key to success is understanding how your boss thinks and works and acts, and then making sure you know how to deliver it to them, the best advice and recommendations and -- and -- and action that you possibly can. 

And so one of the challenges is -- is the sooner you can figure it out -- that out, the better. And look, the president is a big thinker, and he asks some really good questions, and I've had any number of meetings with him where he -- he -- he's -- he's moving around a lot, asking a lot of questions, taking it in, is -- is -- is certainly -- certainly willing -- open to hearing contrary views and then pushing back on that, and I like that give-and-take. I think it -- I think you really, you get a lot of good stuff out on the table from a lot of different advisors, and I think that's how, in any organization, you serve your boss best by making sure that you're forthright, that you're offering your best advice for -- for him, execute -- understanding what his goals are, intent -- or her goals and intent, whatever the case may be, and delivering value. 

And for me, that's -- that's how -- one of the ways I think I've been successful over time, is -- is really understanding what my boss's priorities are, and then how best do I go to execute them? How do I implement them in a way that provides, again, optimal value, a high return on investment, and -- and in the case of the country, delivers well for the country, also?

MODERATOR: Right. It's an important skill in -- in -- in any position.

SEC. ESPER: In any position.

MODERATOR: And certainly, in any position.

So you mentioned al-Baghdadi, and you know, I wanted to talk a little bit about ISIS and -- and some of your comments about that. But before I do, that was a super-important U.S. military operation, obviously. Bring us inside the situation room and talk about, you know, what it feels like to be the secretary of defense and, you know, you're executing, you know, on something as important as this personally. What did -- what did it feel like to be in the situation room and witness that?

SEC. ESPER: Sure. Well, you know, like I said, I had enough time in the Army to -- to have a good understanding of what they were doing it and -- what they were doing and how they were -- how they were doing it. And so I'd obviously been briefed. The command had brought the plans up to me and I had reviewed them and -- and -- and blessed off on them. And so I had a fairly good understanding of what the timeline would be.

But to be there and to know that we were hitting certain key milestones, whether it was the aircraft moving at certain thresholds across the terrain, or maneuvering through enemy air defenses or air defenses that were on the ground. Each one of those moments is, you know, caught with, in terms of its own suspense. And then of course, once the soldiers hit the ground and were moving on to the objective, all those are really important moments where, you know, you -- anything can go wrong, and -- but you know we have the best military in the world and -- and -- and quite capable, and we -- we give them the time, the money and effort to train, and they just -- they -- they perform, in my view, flawlessly.

But look, I'm old enough also to remember the -- the raid on Iran in -- in -- in the late '70s. We were trying to rescue the hostages, U.S. hostages, and that went terribly bad. It's actually what -- the single event that led to the creation of all of our Special Operations Forces. So that's always in the back of your mind.

But look, they -- they did a spectacular job. They made us all proud, and thank goodness, we have men and women out there who are willing to put their lives on the line to...

MODERATOR: (Inaudible) for that.

SEC. ESPER: ... to do things like that to help us take out the world's foremost terrorist leader. And this -- this guy is not just a terrorist leader. I mean, he -- you know, he brutally raped and eventually murdered a young American NGO for I think nearly a year. He had personally beheaded folks. I mean, he was a -- a -- a...

MODERATOR: (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: ... a murderer in every sense of...


SEC. ESPER: ... who had blood on his own hands, American blood. 

So anyways, it's taking bad people out like that is, you know, thank goodness we have people who are willing to serve and protect us.

MODERATOR: And make it -- then make that happen. You -- you called it a devastating blow to ISIS. And you know, I just thought it would be interesting to get some of your comments on kind of our future strategy against ISIS and how, you know, what does this particular death mean to the organization, but more importantly how do you see, you know, the ongoing battle that's certainly -- certainly we -- we have to continue to fight?

SEC. ESPER: Well I think time will tell what his death means to the organization. My crystal ball doesn't work that well, but -- but it seems to me that whenever you take out the one person who was -- was not just the leader of ISIS, but the founder and the inspirational leader and the person who built the physical caliphate that spanned, you know, multiple countries, you're taking out a pretty powerful person.

And if you believe like I do that leadership matters, then I think it's -- that's why I said it will have a devastating effect on them. Now we'll see how this new guy turns out, we'll see how long it takes him or her to reach a certain level, but as of this point we -- we've knocked them back on their heels pretty hard, and our commitment is to stay on top of them, because the last thing we want is for them to bring that terrorism to our -- any -- any of our allies and partners, and certainly we don't want to bring it home.

And look, New York has, more than anybody, experienced 9/11 in a devastating way with 3,000 Americans killed -- innocent Americans killed at the hands of terrorists.

MODERATOR: Yeah. I want to ask about Iran a little bit and just, you know, we've certainly seen more aggressive tactics from Iran recently; we've sent some more troops to Saudi Arabia in the context of -- of thinking about that threat.

From a military perspective, how do you think about the threat of Iran to the region, but also to the world more broadly?

SEC. ESPER: Well, threat -- Iran has been a threat to the region for 40 years, since the revolution of 1979. I mean, their support of terrorism throughout the region spans all the way from Pakistan and Afghanistan, all the way west into -- into Africa.

And their support of any number of terrorist groups out there who have been, you know, causing mayhem across the region is -- is well known. And on top of that, they were pursuing long-range missiles and a nuclear program and they just have a different view of the world where they want to be the regional hegemon.


SEC. ESPER: And that's -- and their values are completely inconsistent with -- with what any of us or our -- or our partners would subscribe to, if you will. So look, they're a big threat, but I don't think, you know, we're not looking for a war with Iran. What we want, really, is for them to get back to the negotiating table and sit down with us and to strike a new deal, a new nuclear and missile deal that'll give us far better assurance that at the end of the day, they won't be able to pursue nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, and all of those things they need to threaten stability and peace in the Middle East, if not beyond their borders, as well.

MODERATOR: Reasonable we can -- we can get there, in your view, or hard slog?

SEC. ESPER: Well this -- the revolution they launched in 1976 -- 1979 has sustained itself longer than I ever thought it would.

MODERATOR: Than anybody thought, yeah.

SEC. ESPER: And again, I think their values are so antithetical to much of what we believe in that I'm not sure. But, you know, the maximum pressure campaign is on; we have a lot of partners in countries out there that are supporting us; we -- we're using the military not to provoke a confrontation, but to actually deter one and to convince them that that door is closed; go -- let's open the door to diplomacy and walk through that door, because, as the President has said, he's willing anytime, anywhere to sit down with them and talk about what a new agreement would look like.

And look, if you really don't want to pursue nuclear weapons or to pursue, you know, ICBMs, then it's an easy deal to make. But that should tell you something about their position if they're unwilling to make such a -- such an agreement.

MODERATOR: Sure, no, it's clear. Let's turn to China. And, you know, at the moment I'd say the U.S. relationship with China is scrutinized, you know, more than any other. Everywhere I go, you know -- I was just in Europe last week, in Germany, and you know everybody wants to talk about the U.S.-China relationship.

Certainly the trade discussion gets a lot of attention, but I'd be interested in your perspective on some of the economic policies and trade, but more importantly the national security issues.


MODERATOR: And, you know, how -- how, you know, you think that's all evolving?

SEC. ESPER: Well, let me start from the big picture. The National Defense Strategy of the United States says that we are now in an era of great power competition, and that the -- our long-term strategic competitor, the number one, is China, followed by Russia, and that we need to prepare for that competition and also, at the same time, prepare for what we call high intensity conflict. It's warfare that you haven't seen since World War II.

And that -- that is based on years of assessments, both public and private, by using intelligence and open source material. It's clear to us that China has been on this path for quite some time. And I've studied China, I've served on a -- a -- a commission that studied China, and so I'm well aware of what they're up to. And they have taken a holistic approach toward competing with the United States, that by the year 2049 they want to be -- they want to dominate Asia, and they're very clear about that.

And at the same token, they -- they identify us as their number one adversary. We identify them as our number one competitor; we are their adversary. So everything they are doing right now is aimed toward pushing us out of the region. 

And if you travel around the Pacific -- the Indo-Pacific, as we -- as we say it, many countries -- many are very concerned about what's happening, and you see coercion and compellence happening in a very private, and in some ways public, way by China exercising its influence over the smaller countries and really compelling them to their -- to their wishes and ways.

So I -- I applaud the president for standing up to them from an economic footing. I was working in the Senate in 2001 when we brought China -- the United States did into the World Trade Organization. There were two competing arguments at the time. One argument said that if we -- if we allow them in, they will use -- they will use the benefits of free trade and an open -- open system to buy the means to -- to -- to eventually build a strong and capable military, and they will try and dominate us. And the prevailing theory was no, no, no, if we let them into the World Trade Organization and all of these other institutions, then they will liberalize and over time they will adopt capitalism, they will adopt democracy and everything will be OK.

And they're both credible theories, but I'll tell you which one is winning right now. It's not the latter. I mean, President Xi has taken his country in a vastly different direction over the last few years in terms of the crackdown in human rights. Look at what they've done to the Uyghur population in western China; repression of journalists, repression of judges and lawyers. Look at what's happening in Hong Kong.

I just think China's heading in the wrong direction; and so what we've been saying is we need to -- we need to compete with them, and we need to try and pull them back -- back into the international world order, the liberal world order that we established in the wake of World War II, and try and get them on that path, because we don't want a -- a conflict with China. What we want to do is, we want to see them develop into a normal country, and that's one of the things we're trying to do these days from our side of -- from our perspective is -- is to make sure we're ready for the worst, but hope for the best, and work for the best.

MODERATOR: Yeah, I mean it really was a 40-year foreign policy initiative, to invite them in and assume they'd move in our direction, and there's -- there's very little evidence, you know, today where we sit -- you know, in -- when -- you know, belt and road obviously, you know, speaks to this idea of them really controlling the region and -- and expanding.

I assume, you know, your feeling is if -- as -- as we move in that direction, they have more economic control around the region, it really has an impact on national security for the world.

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I mean, belt and road in many ways is a debt trap for -- for so many countries. So it's the way in -- they -- you're -- you're offered money and access and you get yourself in a debt trap, and the next thing you know, China, very strategically, is -- is owning ports all the way from -- from Southeast Asia all the way around south of India; you work your way around the -- the Indian Ocean into Africa, western -- eastern Africa, western Africa. A very strategic plan, what they're executing -- access to -- to certain minerals and resources in Africa.

I mean, the Chinese -- give -- give them some credit, they have a very ... 

MODERATOR: A very strategic ... 

SEC. ESPER: ... a very strategic, complex plan to -- to dominate in certain fields. And by the way, if you studied them, there are any number of industries they want to dominate, from -- from green technology all the way down to airplane building.

So -- so they have a gameplan and they're executing it, and -- and for -- if you're a country that has debt problems or you -- you're looking for development assistance, it's very attractive, but it's a short-term inducement that you'll end up losing -- risk losing your sovereignty if you're not careful, and we've tried to tell that story. 

I've -- I've met several times with my European allies in the context of NATO warning about, you know, the importance of making sure we develop 5G technologies in a way that preserves our ability to interact as partners and allies. And that's a -- that's a major concern for us and Europe.

MODERATOR: Yeah. To -- I want to touch on cyber for a minute because this is obviously a very, very significant issue and something you've commented on. How -- how are we evolving to confront the new dynamics of modern cyber warfare, you know, from a national security perspective?

SEC. ESPER: You know, we were probably slow out of the gate, but at this point in time, in terms of protecting our democracy, which is job number one, is making sure, you know, the -- our free and fair elections are untainted by foreign influence, I think we're in far better shape.

The 2018 elections were a good example. The United States, in a whole of government approach, led by the Department of Homeland Security -- but -- in which, you know, U.S. -- U.S. -- I'm sorry, the DOD Cyber Command puts a lot of resources into it.

We've -- we've really done a different job and the President has given us the authorities to do that, as well. So in terms of protecting our elections, I think we're in far better shape than we were in 2016, and we'll be in really good shape in 2020 and -- next year.

In terms of theft of intellectual property, I still think we're pretty far behind, and if you're a big company that has the capital to protect your systems, you're probably doing a decent job, but if you're a small company -- medium-sized, small company, it's much more difficult because you don't have the means.

And more often than not, I find that's where most of the innovation is taking place and entrepreneurialism is in those smaller companies that again don't -- can't protect their systems or networks like the -- like the bigger ones can.

So the cyber threat is -- is still ongoing. I've -- I've been calling it the greatest theft of intellectual property in history, and then on top of that, you still have influence happening through our various mediums out there where just, you know, China is misbehaving, North Korea, Russia, other -- other countries out there.

MODERATOR: How do you -- and so if we make progress in some way at a high level on this -- this last issue, how do you enforce, how do you know that we really have made progress and it's enforced? I mean, it's -- it's -- I mean, this is -- this is complicated stuff to really, really police.

SEC. ESPER: Well there's so much that I can't get into -- I mean, the things that we can do, that we can shut down and -- and curtail -- but a lot of it involves just awareness that -- that they are out there -- maligned actors are out there on the Internet trying to shape and influence our views on various things.

And I think it -- it just takes curious, smart people to kind of think through in making sure you're getting a -- a diverse range of information and go to your -- I mean, a lot of the traditional sources are good sources of information still.

MODERATOR: Yeah. So I want to shift a little bit to running the Pentagon and I -- you know, I start by saying I wake up in the morning ... 

SEC. ESPER: If you can find the person who runs the Pentagon, let me know.

MODERATOR: OK, well I ... 


I -- I wake -- I wake up in the morning and -- and I know I'm responsible for 37,000 employees and it seems awfully daunting and like a very big job. The Pentagon is the nation's largest employer. So you talked a little bit about some opportunities before, when we were talking earlier, in terms of efficiency, et cetera.

What are the challenges, and what are the opportunities that you see in building and managing an organization like that? It's such an institution, it's so large, it's so significant, but we're also entering a new century, the world's a little bit different, we're modernizing.

Talk a little bit about how you think about that today, but also how it will evolve as we move forward.

SEC. ESPER: Look, if you think about it, it can be overwhelming. It's 2.3 million people, we're probably in every country in the world -- nearly every country in the world. At any one time, we have nearly 200,000 service members in over 150 countries around the world and, you know, we have commands that span every part of the globe.

But here's the strength that we have that I think is really special, it's unique, and that is we have a very solid culture. And culture to me is the most important thing. You get a culture that's committed -- committed to defense of the nation, so we share a -- a common -- a common direction in -- in terms of protecting a country. We've all sworn an oath to do that. You find that everybody is focused on that sole mission. With it comes a code of conduct that the services bring with them about how they will behave as -- as professional warriors, that -- that helps them focus, as well. And even our civilians, we have a fantastic cadre, hundreds of thousands of DOD civilians out there around the world who also share that same ethos.

And so that -- is -- that's what really gives me a lot of comfort. Plus we -- we put a lot of money into training -- into recruiting, training and educating and then continuing -- continuing the development of great leaders, men and women who have committed themselves again to those -- those missions.

So when you've got a cadre of folks like that working for you, it gives you a lot of confidence that -- that folks are doing the right thing out there and that's -- every night when I -- when I go to bed, people say what keeps you up at night? I say I -- I sleep pretty well because I'm -- I've got leaders like this out there, and we're all protected by the greatest military in the world.


SEC. ESPER: So it gives me a lot of confidence.

MODERATOR: That's great -- that's great. You talked about culture and culture's super important in any organization. We think a lot about it, I think a lot about it, you know, here with our organization but one of the things that I'm spending a lot of time focusing on because I think it really matters is diversity across our workforce.

And so I wanted to ask you, you know, how do you think about diversity at the Department of Defense, and how are you making sure, you know, it's very reflective of the population that you represent?

SEC. ESPER: Sure, no, we -- we -- I think about diversity in a number of different ways. I mean, it's not just diversity in terms of ethnicity and -- and -- and religion and things like that, ‘cause that's all very important, but I also have to think of diversity in terms of an Army and the Navy and an Air Force and Marines, air power, land power, sea power, undersea power, space, cyberspace, to make sure I'm tapping all of those great minds and great -- and -- and great ideas out there to make sure I have a balanced set of capabilities and capacity, to make sure I can continue to defend our great nation.

So I think about it in those ways, and that's just the uniformed side. Then we've got, you know, again, hundreds of thousands of brave DOD civilians out there who bring a lot of their own personal experiences, many coming from the private sector ... 


SEC. ESPER: ... coming in or -- or who were in, went -- went out and came back in. So there's a whole broader set of diversity out there that I try and think about so I -- I just don't get a narrow view of what's happening.

And even in my own office, I try and have diversity among, you know, the -- the people working for me, because it's very important to have those different views. It's -- again, that one gem out there, that one person who brings a difference experience in that may have the answer, and if not the answer, maybe it's that missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. Talked about that at the beginning and being able to pull that in.

MODERATOR: That's right. So I wanted -- I wanted to give an opportunity -- we've got a little over 10 minutes left to get some questions from the audience. So if you don't mind, I'm going to open it up, and anybody have a question for the -- for the secretary? Yes?

Q: Well thanks for the opportunity, thank -- thanks for your service. One thing that we've been hearing a lot about, including from speakers that Goldman Sachs has hosted, is the importance of mental health in -- in the military, including for those who -- who have retired from service.

Can you talk about the fight for mental health for our veterans, where we are in that battle and what we all can do to contribute to that cause?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah and I think it's a great question -- thank you, it's a great question. I -- you know, we -- and for good reason we -- we focus a lot on the military, but I think there -- there are mental health issues across the country.

And the first place I think about it is in terms of suicide. I think the suicides in this country have -- are reaching an -- if they haven't already -- an epidemic rate, and it's not just -- it's -- it's not just an issue with the military, it's with the -- all of the society and I wish I had the answer.

I was talking to a professor the other day -- two days ago, who was studying this exact phenomenon. And I'll tell you, in the military, it's -- it's -- it's not an issue of our young men and women who go on deployments. Eventually you'll find folks who are in a -- in a tightly knit organization, very cohesive, that go out and deploy, tend to be much more resilient and much better -- have much better experience, they bond with their teammates.

What we tend to find is the young men and women who are between the ages of 19 and 24, that the ones who take their lives are usually ones who have one to three problems -- a relationship problem, a financial problem or a professional workplace problem.

And then they -- they -- they drink and -- and they usually take their lives, more often than not, during the middle of the night, on a Friday night or Saturday night. And so we kind of know what's happening out there and -- but we're trying to figure out how actually we can prevent suicide from happening.

Suicide is a -- is -- is one output of mental health issues, and so what we did many years ago was embed mental health professionals in our units, so whenever a unit deploys, at least with the Army, there's a mental health professional there to -- to talk folks -- to be there as counselors.

We found that to be very effective, but I think the most effective thing that we're trying to get back to -- and I've been pushing this now for a year and a half -- is -- and you can't replace this -- is everybody taking care of each other, right? Cause if somebody's had -- going through a rough patch in their life, the people who -- who -- who know are not going to be the CEO or the -- or the secretary, it's going to be your buddy. It's the person to your left or right or your immediate supervisor.

And what we try -- what I've been trying to inject into the Army, when I was Secretary of the Army and now in DOD, is for leaders to take a much more involved role in the lives of the -- of their soldiers, a much more personal role.

The way it was when I was a young officer, where you got to know their family, their kids, you knew where they lived, you visited them where they lived, and you could detect problems earlier, and you could -- you could intercept them earlier before they got to that -- that point where they felt the need to take their lives.

So to me, that's the most important thing, ‘cause you all -- you all work each other -- some of you work with each other every single day. You know when somebody comes in that they're -- you know, something's off, something's not right. It's just speaking up and asking them hey, you doing OK, you doing fine?

Too often -- more often than not, I would hear stories as Secretary of the Army, right, where somebody tried to take their life, maybe it was a failed suicide attempt, and I would say, well, did the chain of command check on them? And I'd hear, “oh yeah, Sergeant Jones met -- sent PFC Smith an e-mail on Saturday morning and said how are you doing? And the -- the soldier would say I'm doing fine.”

That's not how you check in people. I mean, you can't read their body language, you can't read their tone and stuff like that. It's been something I think it's -- that it's -- it's been a bad for our society in that regard, but it's the interpersonal relationships, it's -- it's kind of getting to know people at a really -- really, truly personal level, I think makes all of the difference and can really help us turn the tide on this epidemic of suicide for one, but mental health in general.


SEC. ESPER: Just take -- taking -- taking care of them and watching out for one another.

MODERATOR: Yeah, that's -- that's really well -- really well said. Another question, yes?

Q: Thank you for being here. For global warming in terms of a national security threat, what's your approach, how are you thinking about that these days?

SEC. ESPER: We think about global warming in the effect of what -- what impact it would have on our installations and garrisons. So we have, for example, if you ever go to Norfolk, Virginia, which is, I think, the largest naval base in -- in America, I mean they are experiencing, you know, a rising tide, and they're looking hard at what does that mean for their installations and garrisons not just next year, right, but 10, 20 years from now.

In the Army, the challenge we had with some of our installations was desertification out in the west and the impact it would have there. So we think about it in terms of -- in two levels. One, in terms of what it means to our installations, our training and eventually our people. And then of course, you know, in terms of any military operation, you're always looking at weather, what are the impacts of weather; and we try and think about that in the various areas where we think we may have conflict is, what does a changing climate mean, not just today, but really in the future, in terms of how we have to fight?

You know, obviously we have to be prepared to -- to fight, whether it's in the jungles of -- in the jungles or in Arctic conditions, and we build capabilities to deal with all of that. So we -- we try and think ahead in terms of what the world may look like, and that influences, you know, much of what we do, how we train, how we buy equipment, et cetera.


Q: Further to your comments on sort of organization and culture, how do you think about sort of the proper use of private security services and their integration with -- with U.S. forces in various areas of conflict?

SEC. ESPER: You mean -- you don't mean gate guards, you mean in terms of private security like private ... 

Q: Like private soldiers.

SEC. ESPER: Yeah. Look, it's -- it's not something -- it -- it -- it's not something I look at, I've ever had to deal with, frankly, in my -- in my time in office. I know we used them -- we, the United States government -- used private security folks at times to -- to provide like guard duty for -- for like the State Department personnel and whatnot, but it's not something I've had to deal with.

I've -- what I trust most are young men and women Americans who've, you know, sworn an oath to the Constitution and owe their allegiance to -- to that, and not a paycheck or, you know, not a private company, if you will.

So that's kind of how I approach it, but beyond that, I haven't had to deal with any of those groups yet or even have to consider that.

MODERATOR: Yes, over here?

Q: Hi, I think one of the biggest threats to the U.S. economy and in fact the country is cyber, right? Are there any initiatives for you to help small and medium businesses that are affected, or even large enterprise that are affected, by cyber attacks that might bring them down on any given day?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, we're trying to, you know -- as we do contracting with companies, we're trying to make sure we -- we -- we have some capabilities in there to -- to ensure we can protect our systems, either in the development phase or certainly our equipment, once it's produced, that it's cyber protected, if you will, and we're trying to drum up resources to do that. 

It's very important -- again, the big companies usually have good capabilities in terms of the integrity of their systems, but as you work your way down the supply chain and you get out there to these mom and pop shops, which may be 10, 20, 30 people, it gets much more difficult. So we're trying to figure out how we can help them with cybersecurity, as well. 

And it -- as I mentioned previously, you've got to make sure that you have the -- your -- your -- your systems can't be spoofed; we're making sure that we can build, whether it's our satellite communications systems, our cyber systems, of course, that they are well guarded, that we retain an offensive capability, as well, if you will.

So all of those things we take into account, because my view is that the opening shots of the first -- of the next war, of the next high intensity conflict, the opening shots will be in space and cyberspace. And so we've got to make sure that we're prepared there first.


Q: Thanks for coming. You know, today's military spouses may be in contrast to prior generations, are continuing to look for meaningful and fulfilling work throughout the course of their spouse's time in service.

And, you know, with the obvious hardships of just the military lifestyle, you know, rotating stations, deployments and things of that nature, these spouses struggle to, many times, you know, find a stable career path across many industries. There's a lot of talent out there.

Is that something that you're thinking about, to help stem some of the exodus of service members of all ranks as they consider their spouses life and dual incomes and career?

SEC. ESPER: Sure, absolutely. I mean, you'll get me on my soapbox now. It's not just the service member that serves, it's the entire family that serves. And, you know, I was a young officer at Fort Benning, Georgia at infantry school and my wife got discriminated against for -- for jobs. And yet, when we were married, she was making more than I was making.

So she gave up her career to follow me around, and in the span of five years, we -- four years, we must've moved five times, and every time she was packing up the household and unpacking the household and kids and everything.

So it's tough and, you know, the stats will tell you, while the unemployment rate in the country is 3.5 percent, the unemployment rate among spouses is 24 percent. And they tend to be overeducated and overqualified, and yet it's hard for them to find a job because there aren't as many jobs on base. And if they go off base, employers look at them and say, well, why should I hire you, you're only going to be here for three years. That's what happened to my wife.

And so I've been trying to go out there and -- and -- and pitch that, sure, if you hire a spouse, you may only get him or her for a few years, but they'll be great workers, they'll be a -- they're committed, they're loyal, they're well qualified, and you won't regret it.

And at the same time, in addition to being -- to being a cheerleader for them, I'm trying to work with governors and legislators to make sure that -- that they do simple things, like respecting that -- the licensure from other states.

So if you're a teacher in -- in New York and you want to move to Virginia, Virginia will recognize the New York state teacher's license or a nursing license or a -- you could practice law, whatever the case may be. Simple things like that enable a spouse to get up and -- and work really quickly.

And for many spouses, many of them need to work, and many of them just want to work, and so if you can't find meaningful work and you want to, it's -- it's -- it's a reason why a service member could consider leaving the service.

And look, we haven't even talked about kids moving around from school to school to school and, you know, the variation of education -- educational opportunities changing each time, so it's a tough life. And so I -- you know, I thanked you all at the beginning for our veterans but -- but if your spouses were here, I'd thank them as well, because they do double duty.

Q: Thank you for that.

MODERATOR: Time for -- time for one more. Yes, right here?

Q: Hello, thank you for your service. Do you see a expanded role for -- for unmanned and even autonomous systems, kind of, in future deployments, and do you see it changing, kind of, how the U.S. deploys forces in future operations?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think if -- we should be pushing on all fronts with regard to that. In the Army, we're pushing on unmanned ground vehicles, of course. We've had, for many years now, unmanned air vehicles and the Navy is pushing on both unmanned undersea and sea surface vehicles.

So to me, it's the future, because you -- we talk about ROI [return on investment]. Think about, you know, how -- how more effectively you can put ships out there without putting sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines at -- at risk. You don't have to man them, so you don't have to pay people to man them. And so I just -- on a number of fronts, it gives us a lot of great opportunities. 

I talked about this a lot with the Army, where if you can imagine tank formations of the past, where if your front formation was unmanned, that's the formation that would engage the enemy and fix them, if you will, while a manned force maneuvers around.

And the same thing happens with sea or undersea warfare. I just think it's a -- a great advancement. We need to get there first. There are some critical enabling technologies that we need to do that, everything from advanced microelectronics to robotics, to what I think is maybe the most important, AI.

So AI is what will enable that -- that -- that future because using unmanned vehicles is easy -- easier in the air, but when you do it on the ground, it's very complicated, very difficult, and it's going to take advanced AI and robotics to get us there.

MODERATOR: So just to -- just to wrap up, a couple of quick lightning questions.


MODERATOR: Last great book you read?

SEC. ESPER: Well I'm -- I told you, right now I'm reading “The Outpost” by Jake Tapper; it's a very good book. The one I read before that is “Grit” by, I think, Duckworth.


SEC. ESPER: Great book, particularly for the military. I just think it's -- I think she's spot on.

MODERATOR: Yeah. A leader you most admire?

SEC. ESPER: Marshall -- George Marshall.

MODERATOR: And the best piece of advice you've ever received?

SEC. ESPER: Never quit.

MODERATOR: That's a good one. And with that, I'm going to thank you again for your service. And all of the veterans here, thank you for your service on this Veterans Day

SEC. ESPER: Thank you. Thank you all.

MODERATOR: Thank you -- thank you for being here, Mr. Secretary. I really appreciate it. Thank you.


MODERATOR: Thank you very much for doing this.