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Transcript

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Remarks at U.S. Central Command Change of Command (as delivered)

April 1, 2022
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III

Good afternoon, CENTCOM! It is great to be here. 
 
Being back in Tampa always feels like coming home. This wonderful community, the great weather, the fabulous fishing…

And I’m honored to be back with the incredible men and women of this team.  

We’ve got some distinguished guests with us this afternoon, as the Chairman has highlighted. Those distinguished guests obviously include him, Chairman Mark Milley, and Senator Tommy Tuberville of the great state of Alabama. And by the way, Senator, I am an Auburn graduate, and I do speak War Eagle.

The Chairman also highlighted that we have some outstanding current and former military leaders, including General Joe Dunford, and also a tremendous delegation from the Joint Chiefs. 

I’d also like to thank the representatives from our partners in the region who are here with us today.  

And I want to say a special welcome to the families of General Frank McKenzie and General Erik Kurilla.

General Frank McKenzie, very well done. Very well done. Thanks for your commitment, your professionalism, and your hard work. 

General Erik Kurilla, welcome aboard. You have big shoes to fill. But as the Chairman has highlighted, you are supremely talented and the right fit for the job.

And before I say more about CENTCOM’s mission and the two leaders that we’re honoring today, I’d like to say just a word about Ukraine, which I know is on everyone’s mind. 

The incredible courage of the people of Ukraine inspires us all. And as the world responds to Russia’s aggression, we’re seeing again how much American leadership matters. 

Putin’s invasion of his sovereign neighbor is unprovoked and unjust. And the Ukrainians are fighting bravely to defend their lives, their democracy, and their freedom. 

Now we’ve rushed them security assistance. We’ve rallied our NATO allies. And we’ve reinforced NATO’s Eastern Flank with more combat power to support our deterrence and defense efforts.

You know, Russia’s invasion isn’t just a mortal threat to Ukraine. It’s a challenge to the rules-based international system. 

And the fact is that we live in an interconnected world. So aggression should be met by global effort—even as it launches global repercussions.  

CENTCOM knows that. And you know that because you live it every day. Because in our interconnected world, you are at the intersection of it all.

This region is where we protect waterways so that global commerce can flow. It is where we fight terrorists who threaten our citizens. And it is where we work with our partners to confront instability from Iran and its proxies. 

And so CENTCOM is central to our security. It is central to our readiness. And it is central to our mission. 

And I know how demanding that mission is. 

This command is where the rubber meets the road. Over and over again. 

And you get the job done. Over and over again.

Every day, you’re on high alert, fighting terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qa’ida. 

As the Chairman mentioned, in late 2019, this command helped end the grip that ISIS had on territory in Iraq and Syria. That same year, the leader of ISIS was killed in a raid by U.S. Special Operations Forces. And this February, another raid resulted in the death of his successor.

But the threat remains. The attempted prison break at Hasakah earlier this year proved that. 

You know, CENTCOM cannot let its guard down. Not for one second. 

CENTCOM’s mission against terrorism includes our over-the-horizon efforts in Afghanistan, with the help of our partners. 

And every day, you confront the challenge of aggression and bullying from Iran. 

Iran has been expanding its nuclear program and investing in military capabilities, especially ballistic missiles. It has cultivated dangerous proxies. And it’s using unmanned aerial systems to threaten us and our partners. 

I’ll say it again, CENTCOM: you have a demanding mission. 

And that’s why we have the best of the best in this command. To defend our country, and defend our partners, and to defend our interests in this vital region. 

You know, the cornerstone of our defense is still deterrence. 

But in today’s interwoven world, lasting deterrence demands more. More innovation. More coordination and more cooperation with our partners and our allies. 

It demands what I call integrated deterrence. And integrated deterrence is at the heart of the Department’s newly completed National Defense Strategy. 

It means reinforcing the warfighters of our superb, combat-credible force, and working seamlessly across all domains, from the seas to cyberspace, and standing strong across all theaters, and across the full spectrum of conflict, and working together with our unparalleled network of allies and partners, to make clear to any potential foe the costs and the folly of aggression. 

And working with our partners is central to integrated deterrence. And it’s at the core of today’s CENTCOM. 

You know, a few months ago, I was in Bahrain, where I saw unmanned, solar-powered naval vessels that use artificial intelligence to build a shared picture of the surrounding seas. 

Now, that’s the kind of capability that we need to prepare for the fights of the future and to strengthen integrated deterrence. 

U.S. forces and partner militaries in the region train together, we plan together, and we work together. And that’s a mighty force multiplier. 

Just look at the blows that this command has dealt to ISIS. And with our support, our partners in Iraq and Syria have been getting better and better at expelling the remaining holdouts of ISIS. And late last year, in coordination with the government of Iraq, the United States transitioned from a combat mission to an advise-and-assist mission. 

And you did it ahead of schedule. 

And General McKenzie—that, sir, is no small feat, and obviously a credit to your leadership. 

And I know that you had a great team helping you execute. And one example of that great team is Staff Sergeant Brandt Groves, who provided critical analysis of UAV anti-jamming technology. And throughout, you had Ms. Cari Gast-Mulherin and Colonel Will Wilburn delivering the timely intelligence that your team needed. 

Can I ask those teammates to stand up for a second? You here? Where are you? 

Now, we’ll keep helping our partners increase their capacity. We’re going to build on longstanding investments in training, professional military education, intelligence sharing, and joint exercises.

And when we need to defend ourselves, we can flow in overwhelming force. 

The whole world saw what we can do last August in Afghanistan. We called on CENTCOM to complete an evacuation operation, one that became the largest in American history. And you worked day and night to save the lives of more than 124,000 people. Let me say that again: 124,000 people. 

And most incredibly, you did that in just 17 days. 

I know that everyone here mourns the 13 service members who we lost in the horrific suicide bombing outside Abbey Gate. They gave their lives so people could live in freedom. And the Department will always honor their sacrifice. 

Operation Allies Refuge was a solemn and dangerous mission. And no other military in the world could have pulled it off. 

I’m also deeply proud of the troops who supported Operation Allies Welcome, which wrapped up in February. Along with our colleagues across the federal government, they helped Afghan evacuees start new lives here in the United States. 

And through it all, our partners in the region were key. They helped us to stand up intermediate staging locations. They helped to secure the safe passage of thousands of people. And they answered our call when we needed them.

We just could not have done it without them. 

And we could not have done it without the people who are here today. 

People like Lieutenant Zachary Durkin. From the outset, he was with General McKenzie, providing intel briefings that increased the general’s decision advantage. And when evacuees at safe-haven locations lacked basic necessities, Mr. Bob Helgeson found creative ways to get them what they needed. 

So Zach and Bob, are you in the audience today? Come on, stand up—there you go. Let’s give them a round of applause.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll need even more of your grit and skill in the years ahead. 

There’s no quick way to fix this region’s security challenges. Especially when it comes to Iran.

The President has been clear: the United States is committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. 

And we’re still committed to a diplomatic outcome on the nuclear issue. But regardless of the outcome of the nuclear talks, we’ll keep working closely together with our many partners to confront the threats from Iran. 

In the short term, we’ll increase intelligence sharing and bolster regional air defense. And in the longer term, we’ll work together to tackle Iran’s use of missiles and its proliferation of unmanned aerial systems. And we’ll keep standing strong with our partners to hold Iran and its proxies accountable.

Our partnerships are especially important because of China and Russia’s ambitions in the region. But I am confident that CENTCOM will ensure that the United States remains the partner of choice. 

And that means doubling down on security cooperation. It means folding our partners even deeper into our training and our exercises. And it means continuing to be a credible and dependable friend.

Now, when it comes to deepening partnerships and forging new ones—here again, CENTCOM is getting it done. 

In recent years, Israel has formed new bonds with Bahrain, and Morocco, and the UAE. It’s still early days. But we’ve all seen the groundbreaking Negev Summit, bringing leaders from Israel, Egypt, the United States, and those three new Arab partners together on Israeli soil. And the summit included important talks on how to build on CENTCOM’s work on integrated air and missile defenses.

Now, Israel has already participated in exercises with partners in the region, and those exercises would have been unimaginable, unthinkable, just a few years ago.  

And with General McKenzie’s leadership, Israel has now moved into CENTCOM’s area of responsibility. 

Of course, the general had some help. 

Among many great teammates, Colonel Donna Turner has meticulously computed staff hours to get the right people, with the right skills, and with the right numbers, to cover this new addition. And you also have outstanding professionals like Sergeant Joshua King. He’s been laser-focused on establishing CENTCOM’s security, secure communications system with our Israeli partners. 

So Donna and Josh, are you in the audience today? There we go. Stand up. Take a bow. 

CENTCOM, in recent years, you’ve pulled off three major transitions, from moving Israel into your area of responsibility to the airlift from Afghanistan to the advise-and-assist missions in Iraq. And the way you got all that done speaks volumes about your commander, General Frank McKenzie. 

You know Frank, you’ve said that belonging to something bigger and more powerful than yourself is life’s best reward. 

You know, Frank, the people who rose from their seats today, along with the thousands more who rise to the challenge of CENTCOM’s mission every day, they stand as testaments to your leadership.

And so, General, for more than four decades, you’ve lived by the words “Semper Fidelis.”  

Always faithful to the troops under your command. On deployments, you went out on patrols with them.

And always faithful to your mission—whether it was leading a Marine Expeditionary Unit in Iraq and Afghanistan, or developing our warfighting strategy on the Joint Staff, or strengthening regional partnerships in this AOR. 

And above all, you’ve always been faithful to the country that you love. Semper Fidelis.
 
Marilyn, I know that you are very proud of your son, K.R. And I know that when he was in Afghanistan, times were incredibly tough. 

So thank you for serving alongside him and for all that you’ve done for our military. Thank you for all that you’ve done to support the families and all that you’ve done to create capability for those families going forward.

And Frank, as you head into a well-deserved retirement, please know that your tenure here at CENTCOM has deepened security in this region and at home for many, many years to come. And this team will continue to build on your legacy. 

So thank you for all that you’ve done to make America safer. 

You know, leading CENTCOM is a tough mission. But General Kurilla, I know that you’re ready. 

You’ve led units in combat. And I saw you in the field far too many times. You’ve taken on tough jobs on the Joint Staff and as the CENTCOM Chief of Staff. And you’ve commanded the storied 18th Airborne Corps. 

Sir, you are purpose-built for this mission.

And of course, Erik wouldn’t be here today without the love and support of his wife, Mary Paige, and his daughters, Michelle and Sophie. 

So Mary Paige, thank you for the incredible volunteer work that you do for our military spouses and families. 

Now, Erik, I’m told that you give every officer of yours a copy of the book “Gates of Fire,” 
which is a novel about the courage of the Spartans. And I’d like to share one of the book’s lessons on leadership. It says that a leader should take on the harshest burden. A leader, quote “lifts first and sets down last.”

General Kurilla, today you lift the colors of CENTCOM and all the harsh challenges that they bring. And I know that by the time that you set them down, you will have led CENTCOM bravely forward. 

Congratulations, General Kurilla. I look forward to your leadership of this great command.

CENTCOM, your nation is still counting on you—to stand with our partners, to make a turbulent region more secure, and to keep America and our people safe. 

You are selfless. 

You are fearless. 

And you are relentless.

I know what you do. And I know what your families do. 

And I know how hard it is. 

And I am deeply, deeply grateful. 

Your president is deeply grateful. 

And your country is deeply grateful. 

Thank you again, CENTCOM, for everything that you do. May God bless you and keep you safe. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

Thank you.

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