Speech
Secretary of Defense Speech

Secretary of Defense Allies and Partners Remarks at Atlantic Council

Oct. 20, 2020
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

Well, good afternoon, and thank you, Fred, for that kind introduction. It’s great to see you again. And thank you also for the quick remembrance of General Brent Scowcroft. He was a great man, an outstanding leader, and he is missed by all. He taught us all a great deal. So thank you for that too.

It’s a pleasure to be here with all of you, and I want to thank the Atlantic Council for hosting today’s discussion. For decades, your expertise has been vital to strengthening transatlantic ties, and will be even more critical in the years ahead as we face an increasingly complex security environment. 

Since my confirmation as Secretary of Defense well over a year ago, my number one priority has been implementing the National Defense Strategy. The NDS tells us that we are now in an era of great power competition, with our primary competitors being China and Russia. At the same time, we face ongoing threats from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. And finally, regrettably, we will be dealing with Violent Extremist Organizations for years to come.

As we prepare the Department for these challenges, the NDS guides us along three lines of effort: first, improving the lethality and readiness of the force; second, strengthening alliances and building partnerships; and third, reforming the Department to redirect our time, money, and manpower to our highest priorities. I also added a fourth, personal priority: taking care of our Service members and their families. 

To drive lasting change across an enterprise as large and complex as the Defense Department, we distilled these three lines of effort into ten targeted goals. These include tasks from focusing the Department on China, updating our key war plans, and modernizing the force by investing in game-changing technologies, to reforming the Fourth Estate, achieving a higher level of readiness, and implementing enhanced operational concepts such as Dynamic Force Employment. It also includes establishing realistic joint war games, exercises, and training plans, and developing a modern joint warfighting concept that will ultimately become doctrine. 

I’m proud to report that we’ve made solid gains across the board. In recent weeks, I’ve detailed our progress in improving readiness across all three services and building a more lethal force, namely a future Navy of more than 500 manned and unmanned ships called Battle Force 2045. Today, I’d like to focus on another top 10 goal: developing a coordinated strategic approach to strengthen alliances and build partnerships. 

Forged through the fires of combat and shared sacrifice, America’s network of allies and partners provides us an asymmetric advantage our adversaries cannot match. Rooted deep in our common values and interests, many of these relationships have weathered the storms of history and remain the backbone of the international rules-based order. 

Most people are familiar with the critical role that America’s oldest ally – France – played in our Nation’s founding. But lesser known is the fact that 1,800 Knights and volunteers from Malta enlisted in the French Navy to aid Americans in the cause for freedom. Together, they played a decisive role in the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off maritime support to British forces at Yorktown, and ultimately forcing their surrender. 

Only a few decades later, Malta stepped up again, providing a key port for American ships in the fight against the Barbary pirates. 

And in the 20th century, the United States answered the call after Axis powers waged a relentless bombing campaign against Malta during World War II. Through resupply operations, Allied nations broke the Axis siege, rescuing the people of Malta and establishing a launch pad for victory in North Africa. 

Today, our two nations remain steadfast partners, and several weeks ago, I visited Malta to see our cooperation in action at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, and discuss the challenges we jointly face in North Africa. Examples like these illustrate the importance of aligning with like-minded nations – large and small – to maintain the free and open order that has served us all so very well for decades. 

Today, our global constellation of allies and partners remain an enduring strength that our competitors and adversaries simply cannot match. In fact, China and Russia probably have fewer than ten allies combined. However, our ability to maintain this advantage is not preordained, nor can we take our longstanding network of relationships for granted. 

On one hand, our primary competitors – China and Russia – are rapidly modernizing their armed forces, and using their growing strength to ignore international law, violate the sovereignty of smaller states, and shift the balance of power in their favor. 

China’s militarization of land features in the South China Sea and Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine demonstrate their brazen attempts to chip away at the autonomy of others and undermine the resilience and cohesion of countries and institutions critical to U.S. security, including NATO.  

On the other hand, Beijing and Moscow are also using broader yet more subtle means to exert economic leverage over such nations and institutions and coerce them into suboptimal security decisions. 

Through its One Belt - One Road Initiative, the PRC is expanding its financial ties across Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, with the ulterior motive of gaining strategic influence, access to key resources, and military footholds around the world. 

In fact, the smaller the nation and the greater its needs, the heavier the pressure from Beijing. 

For example, Belt and Road Investments have created unhealthy economic dependencies in Burma, and they have pushed Laos into an unsustainable debt burden. In Cambodia, China has received generous land entitlements to construct ports, airfields, and associated infrastructure that could be used for military purposes to extend Beijing’s strategic reach. 

Helping other nations resist aggressive military posturing, financial entrapments, and other forms of coercion will require us to break from business as usual. 

It will require us to align the Department’s efforts and resources for maximum impact and influence. 

And it will require us to think and act more strategically and competitively.

Today, I’d like to share with you two recent initiatives that will help us do just that: the first being the brand new Department of Defense Guidance for Development of Alliances and Partnerships – we call it the GDAP – and the second being Defense Trade Modernization. 

Together, these efforts will help us build the capacity and capabilities of like-minded nations and foster interoperability with friendly militaries, while promoting a stronger domestic industrial base that can compete in the global marketplace. 

First, to meet the demands of 21st century great power competition, I directed the Pentagon’s Office of Policy to develop a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive strategic approach to strengthening alliances and building partnerships. 

And earlier this month, I’m proud to report that we officially set this into motion when I signed out the GDAP, which will drive this new strategy for how we engage with allies and partners around the globe. 

In the past, our international engagements were guided by regional priorities and interests. But we are now in an era of great power competition that is global in nature. This reality requires a common set of priorities across the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Services, and the Combatant Commands, that will drive our interactions with our foreign counterparts and improve our effectiveness. 

More specifically, the GDAP will enable us to: prioritize, align, and synchronize our security cooperation activities across Title 10 authorities to build partner capacity; better articulate the Department’s needs for priority ally and partner warfighting roles through future force planning; focus our efforts to help them shape their militaries into more capable forces; and measure and track our progress across a wide range of tools available to the Defense Department.

For example, I have focused the Department’s management team on four important elements of the Department’s competitive tool kit: key leader engagement, International Professional Military Education, the State Partnership Program, and Foreign Military Sales. 

First, under key leader engagement, we are developing detailed ways to prioritize engagements, establish a common set of objectives, and chart our progress with each country. In any given week, scores of senior leaders from across the Department are engaging with their counterparts around the world. Over the past year, I have personally conducted over 200 meetings with foreign partners from over 60 countries across the globe. In the last month alone, I traveled to six countries in North Africa and the Middle East; met with Defense Ministers of eight countries from Europe and Asia; and conducted calls with another six, as well as NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg. 

Previously, we did not have a central repository for tracking senior leader engagements across the enterprise, let alone directing them, and then measuring progress against our collective goals. It is very difficult to improve a process – let alone a relationship – if you don’t have a goal, and you don’t measure it. Nor can you make a resource like key leader engagements more effective in strategic competition if you don’t monitor and assess it. So we are now tracking and analyzing these engagements across the enterprise. This tool will also give senior leaders enhanced awareness on areas to engage and advocate for participation in exercises, for key Foreign Military Sales, and for other means to help build the capability and capacity of ally and partner militaries. 

Here’s how we’re putting this into action. In preparation for the upcoming NATO Defense Ministerial, I recently held bilateral meetings with our allies Romania and Bulgaria to further expand our defense cooperation, to discuss ways to optimize our force posture on the continent, and enhance the deterrence of Russia in the Black Sea region. 

These types of targeted key leader engagements will be essential as we implement the reform plan we announced this summer to reposition our forces in Europe to better align with great power competition. In consultation with our allies, we will continue to refine and enhance our moves in line with our five key principles: 

    Number one, enhance deterrence of Russia.
    Number two, strengthen NATO.
    Number three, reassure allies.
    Number four, improve U.S. strategic flexibility and European Command operational flexibility
    And number five, take care of our Service members and their families in the process.

Indeed, since that announcement, as well as the signing of the Defense Cooperation Agreement with Poland, my recent meetings with the Defense Ministers from Romania and Bulgaria, and correspondence received from Baltic States, there is now the real opportunity of keeping the 2nd Cavalry Regiment forward in some of these countries on an enduring basis.

Moreover, when I address the entire Alliance later this week, I will continue to push for improving readiness, increasing burden sharing, and solving common challenges in light of my recent bilateral discussions. 

We have made solid progress in several areas these past few years. When it comes to burden sharing, for example, from 2016 to now our NATO allies have added a total of $130 billion to defense spending thanks to the United States’ leadership. Even better, we expect that figure to top $400 billion by 2024.

As of June, nine Allies were meeting the two percent of GDP defense spending commitment. That is up from five in 2016.

And while we recognize the challenges and costs posed by the COVID pandemic, our threats today have not diminished. Rather, they have only been exacerbated as nations turn inward to recover, and our competitors seek to exploit the global crisis. 

That is why we urge all member states to uphold their commitments and contribute more to our collective security. This goes beyond NATO as well. We expect all allies to invest more in defense – at least two percent of GDP as the floor. We also expect them to be ready, capable, and willing to deploy when trouble calls. And we expect them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States in confronting Chinese bad behavior and Russian aggression. To overcome the increasingly-complex threats in the 21st century and defend our shared values, there can be no free riders to our common security. 

A second tool we use to operationalize the GDAP is International Professional Military Education. One of our best means for strengthening existing partnerships and cultivating new ones is education and training programs, especially those run right here at home. 

The United States provides allies and partners with access to almost 400 U.S.-led Professional Military Education courses for the next generation of foreign leaders to learn alongside our best and brightest.

I have personally benefited from these sorts of programs, from attending West Point with students from other countries, to training at the Hellenic Military Academy in Greece as a cadet, and studying with an officer from Africa during the Army’s Infantry Officer Basic Course in 1986. 

Programs like these promote closer relationships with valuable partners around the world while also introducing them to our training, equipment, values, and way of life. That is why I have asked the Department to find ways to expand the programs with the highest potential for enduring impact, increasing their student participation by 10 percent in fiscal year 2021, and over 50 percent between fiscal year 2021 and 2025. At the same time, we need Congressional support for expanded Defense Department authority to conduct these programs if we are to truly maximize their impact over the long run. 

Third, we are exploring ways to optimize and expand the State Partnership Program. Established in 1993 by the National Guard Bureau, this program was designed to build relationships with former Soviet Bloc nations. Starting with just three partnerships in the Baltics, today it boasts 82 around the world – and each U.S. state, territory, and the District of Columbia has at least one partner. 

The program continues to grow and expand with four relationships pending. I’d like to add eight on top of that by the end of 2025. To support this we are looking at increasing funding and making those resources more consistent and predictable – but we need Congressional support to do so. 

At the same time, the program must also shift its focus to frontline and emerging partner nations to compete with China and Russia. We will undertake an independent strategic evaluation to look at all existing partnerships to help us find efficiencies and increase the effectiveness of this important program. 

Finally, under Foreign Military Sales, we are focused on the need to better utilize our premier equipment, technology, and systems as a strategic tool to improve ally and partner warfighting capabilities, while building interoperability with our Armed Forces and deepening the relationship between our countries. 

In fiscal year 2019, we maintained sales of more than $55 billion for the second consecutive year, which increased our three-year rolling average for sales by 16 percent.

In the Indo-Pacific alone, there are currently worth – more than $160 billion worth of projects under way, including $22 billion in newly initiated projects in this fiscal year alone – which is almost half of all Foreign Military Sales globally. We are providing F-35 aircraft to Japan, Seahawk and Apache helicopters to India, and F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, to name a few examples. 

And as a supplementary tool to counter Chinese aggression, we are also delivering excess defense articles to partners in the region. For instance, we are providing Vietnam an additional high-endurance coast guard cutter for enhanced maritime security in the South China Sea.

The strength of Foreign Military Sales as a tool for advancing our relationships is equal to its potential for unleashing our domestic industrial base for innovation at home and strategic competition in the global marketplace.

So in line with the GDAP, we launched a complementary, parallel effort to further prepare the Department for Great Power Competition: Defense Trade Modernization. 

This initiative seeks to solve two core problems. First, I continue to hear from foreign Defense Ministers and U.S. industry that our defense export processes are often too slow, opaque, and complicated. 

Second, we must compete with China and Russia, whose state-owned industries can fast track military exports in ways that we cannot – and would never want to in many cases. As Beijing and Moscow work to expand their share of the world’s weapons market, they attract other countries into their security networks, challenge the United States’ efforts to cultivate relationships, and complicate the future operating environment at the same time.

In light of these challenges, we set out to reform our approach to make the United States more competitive in the global marketplace and to strengthen our cooperation with allies and partners. Going forward, and in closer collaboration with industry, the Department will take a more strategic, enterprise approach to Foreign Military Sales and security cooperation.

That is why, last month, I directed several changes to our defense export systems across four key areas: 

    Number one, require early exportability for critical weapon systems. 
    Two, institute an agile framework for technology release.
    Three, prioritize countries or capabilities – or both – to capture or keep key markets.
    And four, improve the predictability of international demand to inform commercial investments and increase industrial capacity

As part of these efforts, we are developing a Foreign Military Sales dashboard, informed by the GDAP, that will track the most important cases moving along the process to ensure our partners get the equipment and systems they need, when they need them. Moreover, it will prioritize cases that enhance lethality and interoperability with the U.S., enable the domestic industrial base, and deny market space to China and Russia. 

Another example of Defense Trade Modernization in action was our work with the White House and interagency to modernize the regulations governing exports of unmanned aerial systems. Decades old rules handicapped our industrial base – and by extension, our partners – by unnecessarily limiting UAS sales. Through the President’s actions this summer, we will bolster our economic security at home, while improving the capabilities of our partners abroad. 

In the months and years to come, these efforts will provide a cohesive, coordinated, and measurable approach for how we invest in, enhance, and assess our defense cooperation worldwide. 

Great power competition requires us to engage with every nation more strategically, no matter its size. We cannot overlook countries like Malta – as history has shown. 

As an example of our new way of thinking, earlier this summer, I became the first Secretary of Defense to visit Palau – a small island country, but critical to power-projection in the Western Pacific. A year before that, I visited Mongolia, another important country in a geo-strategic location. 

At the other end of the spectrum, we need to strengthen ties with large like-minded democracies, such as India and Indonesia. 

Last week, I hosted the Indonesian Defense Minister at the Pentagon to discuss issues ranging from joint training and arms sales, to personnel exchanges, human rights, and regional political affairs.

Next week, I’ll travel to New Delhi for the third 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue between our countries. Established in 2018, these meetings reflect our nations’ ever-increasing convergence on the strategic issues of our time. 

Last year, we conducted our first-ever tri-service military exercise – TIGER TRIUMPH – with India. And in July, the USS Nimitz conducted a combined exercise with the Indian Navy as it transited the Indian Ocean. We also held our first ever U.S.-India defense cyber dialogue in September, as we expand our collaboration into new domains. Together, these efforts will strengthen what may become one of the most consequential partnerships of the 21st century. 

As we continue to bolster strategic relationships with like-minded nations, we are also deepening cooperation with our most loyal partners. Shortly after the signing of the historic, U.S.-facilitated Abraham Accords, I hosted my Israeli counterpart at the Pentagon to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge. And I hope to visit Tel Aviv in the coming weeks to follow up on our discussions.

We continue to work closely to develop advanced capabilities, particularly in missile defense. In August, our two nations completed a successful test of the Arrow 2 air defense system by intercepting a Medium Range Ballistic Missile target. And in September, the U.S. Army took delivery of its first IRON DOME missile defense system, increasing our capability to defend against a wide range of airborne threats.

Meanwhile, the signing of the Abraham Accords by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reflect their leadership in the Middle East. To address Iranian aggression in the region, both nations helped form the International Maritime Security Construct, and Bahrain now hosts its headquarters at Naval Forces Central Command in Manama. The IMSC is also collocated with the Combined Maritime Forces headquarters – a 33-nation partnership to counter illicit non-state actors and advance freedom of navigation in the region.

These are the types of targeted engagements and cooperation we hope to expand in the months and years ahead. As we look to the future, the groundbreaking initiatives I have laid out today will only further complement our wide range of objectives that implement the National Defense Strategy. 

For instance, this April, I signed the Joint Operational Training Infrastructure Strategy to integrate our efforts to modernize operational training over the next ten years – and fulfill another top 10 goal. The next step in ensuring Joint Force training replicates a high-end fight against our competitors requires incorporating our allies and partners.  

We’re already moving in this direction as we implement enhanced operational concepts such as Dynamic Force Employment – also a top 10 NDS goal. Earlier this year, as part of the new Bomber Task Force missions, a B-1 bomber flew from the continental United States and integrated with Japanese fighters for joint training near Japan. And in August, six B-52 bombers from Minot Air Force Base overflew all 30 NATO countries in a single day, integrating with allied fighter aircraft along the way. This robust show of force by a broad coalition did not go unnoticed by Moscow. Neither did our ability to rapidly deploy our bombers anywhere, at any time, sending a strong message of our commitment to allies and partners.

Furthermore, as we move through our Combatant Command reviews and optimize force posture in various theaters, we are considering additional deployments of the Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigade. Earlier this year, I directed elements of the Army's 1st SFAB to Africa to conduct train, advise, and assist missions, while we return elements of the 101st Airborne Division back home to prepare for high-intensity conflict. Elements of other SFABs are currently in CENTCOM and SOUTHCOM. These are just the first of many decisions we will make as we complete the Combatant Command reviews and pursue innovative means to strengthen our defense cooperation worldwide, while better preparing for the high-end fight. 

In closing, the United States is – and will remain – the global security partner of choice, not only because of the actions I laid out today, but more importantly, because of our capabilities, our commitments, and our values. 

Unlike other competitors, we respect the sovereignty of all nations, large and small; we uphold international rules and norms; we believe in the peaceful resolution of disputes; and we promote free, fair, and reciprocal trade. 

And thanks to the efforts described earlier, we will implement the National Defense Strategy and build a more ready, capable, stronger, and better connected constellation of allies and partners that is so very important to our national security. Together, we will continue to deter conflict, preserve peace, and defend the free and open order that has served us all so well, for many more generations to come. 

Thank you.