Transcript

Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper Media Availability at Minot AFB

Feb. 19, 2020
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper; Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D.; Senator Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER: Well, let me begin by saying it's a real privilege for me to be here at Minot Air Force Base. I'm joined by your two great senators, who are big supporters of the United States military and this base's mission in particular. 

I've had a good time meeting with the commanders. I visited the 91st Missile Wing and the 5th Bomb Wing. And as you saw, I had a chance to climb through the B-52. I had a chance to go down into one of the silos and meet -- go visit a launch control center. 

It's been a very good education for me. Why is that? Because the nuclear strategic triad is the most important part of our military. It's key to our nation's defense, it provides that strategic nuclear deterrent that we depend on day after day, that we've depended on decade after decade. 

So it's very critical that the triad remains modern, that it remains effective, reliable, safe and credible. That's why the Trump administration has put significant funding in this year's budget into modernizing our triad, all three legs and other parts of it as well, to do that.

So we've had great support from Congress, from your two great senators as well. But it's a chance for me to come out and see and understand better what we do on the bomber side and on the missile side, but also to share with the command and the airmen how important this mission is and how important Minot is to that mission.

So with that, I will take your questions -- and I'm sure the senators. Unless you want to say -- both of you want to say something as well?

SENATOR JOHN HOEVEN, R-N.D.: Just maybe a word of welcome. Secretary, thanks so much for coming here, you know, making it a priority to get to Minot Air Force Base. We really appreciate it -- and bringing your wife Leah as well. It means a lot.

There's a saying out in front of the gate, you all saw it as you came in. It's, "Only the Best Come North," and that's true. We have the finest men and women working here at the Minot Air Force Base, doing an incredible job defending this nation and they have had a high ops tempo. They've been all over the world, from the Korean Peninsula recently, in joint exercises with Japan, throughout the Middle East. 

It's the only dual nuclear base that we have and they do an amazing job. And we're putting a big investment in it, so we want to thank you for your support. We're doing upgrades to the B-52, which is an incredible aircraft, to all the weapons systems, to the missiles -- ICBMs, and new helicopters. So -- great people doing a great job defending this nation every day. We need to support them with these upgrades; you being here shows that kind of support. We appreciate it very much. Thank you.

SEC. ESPER: Thanks, Senator. Thank you.

SEN. HOEVEN: Thank you.

SENATOR KEVIN CRAMER, R-N.D.: Well, I'll just add my welcome as well. One of the things that I really appreciate about the secretary's visit here -- and it is reflective of the priority that the administration has put on, not just this base, but certainly the nuclear triad and nuclear modernization. 

This base is critical to -- well, it's reflected in the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act, it's reflected in the president's budget. The budget that just came out was -- certainly reflects the priority -- the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent is, certainly the helicopters as well, the re-engining plan for the B-52.

But here's, to me, the real emphasis of importance is that when the secretary came to see me prior to confirmation and I invited him to Minot, and I said, really, if you want to be there at the best time, come in February. If you don't come in February, you've really not been here. And look at this. Isn't this...

SEN. HOEVEN: Here he is.

SEN. CRAMER: ... This is a -- this is a reflection of how cool it is to be in Minot. So just, thank you for being here ...

SEC. ESPER: It's great here.

SEN. CRAMER: ... absolutely.

SEC. ESPER: OK, I'm sorry. Your question?

Q: What is the purpose for your visit today?

SEC. ESPER: Well, again, to demonstrate the importance that Minot and the two missions it has here, the bomber and missile mission, have to our nation to keeping it safe and secure and to deterring war. At the end of the day, we're trying to deter war. And so, I just wanted to do that and every chance I had to thank the airman, the officers, the enlisted personnel, the NCOs, thank them for their service to our country.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned the additional investment in modernization. At the same time you're doing that, you're also trying to get Russia and China to join in a three-way negotiation to -- for arms limitations. What sort of incentive do you think the Chinese would have to do that?

SEC. ESPER: Well, we have to work these issues. I know you're referring to New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty]. I think one of the things we must do is we must make sure that if we pursue -- proceed with New START, that we capture the new Russian strategic weapons.

I also believe that the Russians should bring underneath that treaty the non-strategic nuclear weapons. And then, of course, the Chinese. Why is it that both China and Russia are both modernizing and expanding their nuclear arsenals?

If we want to preserve strategic stability using arms control as a counter part of that, as a -- as a -- as a tool in that toolkit, then China should be in as well, in terms of where we are and where we're going in the future.

SEN. HOEVEN: Can I add, Mr. Secretary, if we don't make these upgrades, if we don't make these investments, what incentive do the Russians or Chinese have to negotiate with us, right?

SEN. CRAMER: In fact, his being here, I think, is part of that very deterrent, so they can see things like the B-52 and the modernization -- and the modernization of the whole nuclear fleet. That is an incentive exactly for them to come to the table, without a question.

SEC. ESPER: OK.

Q: Thanks. So sir, there's been a history, several of the missile bases, F.E. Warren, here as well, with some drug use and issues with personnel. A lot of that was addressed in the last couple of years, but there's a case that popped up at F.E. Warren fairly recently with marijuana use.

How concerned are you about drug use among the security forces at these bases and kind of the culture of whether people are frankly happy to be here or not?

SEC. ESPER: Well look, drug use unfortunately happens within our military at times. During my time in service, you know 20 some years, I -- I saw it. It's -- it -- these things happen. It's much -- it happens at a much lower rate in the military than it does in our broader society.

We've seen society change along these lines. But look, I have faith and confidence in our commanders and our NCOs that they will deal with these issues and make sure we set the right standard with regard to what's expected of our airmen and our soldiers and our sailors and our marines when it comes to drug use in the military.

I'm very confident that the chain of command will deal with it. And I had the chance today to talk with a couple of the commanders about how do we make sure that we address quality of life issues for the airmen; how do we address stress; how do we address the things that -- that sometimes underlie the issue that you're mentioning.

SEN. HOEVEN: Everywhere we went, the secretary was asking people various questions about, you know, “how do you like it here?” “What can we do to make sure that it works well?” Showed a lot of care about quality of life for the airmen and the airwomen that work on all the different missions here in the base. He -- he talked to all of them and asked them that question.

SEN. CRAMER: And I think one of the things that, to piggy-back a little bit on that, that's special about Minot and the nuclear triad in general, and we saw it in, you know, a big way today. The standard here, there's only one standard and that's perfection.

And so, you know, we don't -- perfection requires, obviously, a level of discipline that's even higher here than it is on many bases.

SEN. HOEVEN: It's fun to watch him because he asks them, you know -- you know, “how can we make this better?” and they're almost not sure if they should answer because they're talking to the secretary of defense. But he shows he cares and he's really listening to them, saying, “OK, how do we make this as good as we can make it while you're giving service to your nation?” It's -- it's impressive to see.

Q: How much did you advise President Trump on the -- on the defense budget for (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER: Look we -- we obviously work a lot with the White House with regard to the defense budget. We want to make sure that we are completely in line with where the president has taken the country. The president was very clear to me, to the Pentagon, to the Hill, that modernization of our strategic nuclear forces is priority number one. So we made it priority number one in our budget. And the numbers should show that.

SEN. HOEVEN: And it does. This is a very strong budget for Minot Air Force Base, and we want to thank the administration for that support.

SEN. CRAMER: But with the budget in general for -- for defense, remember, this -- this president came into office after eight years of diminishing our budget, seriously diminishing it. Which was a reflection of how low the priority for -- for national defense was. 

And that -- that's been a deep hole to dig out of. I think we're there in terms of we're on the right trajectory and we've added tremendously to it, but we have to be able to continue to maintain that, otherwise -- otherwise you're just always playing from behind. We want to always -- we always want to be in front.

STAFF: Thanks, guys.

SEC. ESPER: OK. Thank you everybody. Thank you. 

Q: Can we get a photo?

SEC. ESPER: We'll get one over here by the airplane.