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Remarks by Secretary Carter at the Air Force Association's Air & Space Conference 2015, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, National Harbor, Maryland

Sept. 16, 2015
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter


Scott, thank you for that introduction and Secretary James, General Welsh, Betty and the whole gang here. I know most of the people in this room. It's good to be with you.

We have a number of distinguished guests, elected officials and our wonderful, wonderful airmen and the 100,000 members of the AFA. To all of you, thanks for having me here today. To you and to the nearly half million men and women in the United States Air Force who are serving around the world on active duty, in the reserves, or National Guard, an early happy 68th (birthday) to you.

I can see the strength of the Air Force in so many of its leaders and members who are here today. I see it Larry Spencer. Where are you, Larry? Larry, my long-time friend who actually grew up just a few miles from where we stand today, and throughout his career, from when he enlisted in 1971, General Spencer's never forgotten where he began or where we draw our strength from, which is from our people.

As he rose through the ranks, he frequently brought enlisted members together to advice him on how to make improvements on quality of life, housing, other things, and even today, as he helps to lead the AFA still working for our wonderful people. Thanks Larry, for your dedication.

In a year in which we mark the 100th anniversary of the successful use of combat aircraft, the theme of this gathering, reinventing the aerospace nation, could not be more appropriate. Over the past century, no nation has used air power to demonstrate its global reach to compress time and space like the United States. Today, it's vital to innovate and re-invest in the people, strategies and technologies that will allow America's military to be dominant in the second aerospace century.

I made three commitments the day I was nominated as secretary of defense a few months ago, and the first is my commitment -- the first and most sacred is my commitment to the people in the current force, including active duty, Guard, reservists and veterans and their families.

And the second is my commitment to help the president devise a national security strategy suited for the new century, protecting our country, keeping us strong, respected by our friends and feared by our enemies.

And third is my commitment to our future and to the force of the future, where innovation and technology remain pillars of American strength and where we continue to recruit and retain the best America has to offer.

Today, I'd like to talk to you about these commitments and how the Air Force is supporting each one of them. Let me start with my first commitment to our people, because it's our people that make our military the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

Since Desert Storm, our Air Force has been at war. Over that time, our force has gotten leaner and our platforms have gotten older. All the while, the men and women of our Air Force continue to provide the United States the flexibility to demonstrate the example of our power and the power of our example anywhere in the world.

It's our airmen who have conducted two-thirds of all airstrikes against ISIL since last September, enabling partners on the ground to being to take back the territory ISIL took in Iraq last summer. It's our airmen we sent to Europe to take a united stand against Russian aggression with our NATO partners, deploying F-22s, spearheading a persistent and dominant air, land and sea presence in the region.

Our strategic approach to Putin's Russia is strong and balanced, and necessitates a new playbook for the NATO alliance, in which our airmen play a vital part. And whether we needed to provide immediate relief to Nepal after a horrible earthquake or to convene a global effort to contain Ebola in West Africa, our Air Force also has helped lead the way.

Now there's one young airman, Dustin Temple, who with his actions last September exemplified the commitment of our Air Force and what it means to our military. Senior Airman Temple was assigned to a Joint Special Forces in Afghan Commando team responsible for taking back part of the Helmand River Valley. When blistering enemy fire suppressed his team and a sniper hit a teammate, he dragged him from a rooftop and carried him across 100 meters of open terrain, and when we reached the helicopter, the fight wasn't done yet, so neither was Airman Temple or his Air Force teammates.

Hours later, when supplies began to run out, he sprinted out into the open, not once but twice, to reach a supply helicopter, allowing his team to keep the enemy engaged.

All told, over 48 hours, Airman Temple and his team controlled 20 fixed-wing assets and 28 attack helicopters for a total of 26 engagements. In the process, they saved the lives of 38 friendly forces.

That kind of strength and resolve that Dustin Temple and his team showed is in the DNA of our airmen. It's been a privilege, as secretary of defense, to see their strength firsthand on visits to our bases across the country and around the world.

For our airmen, ‘fight tonight’ is not just a slogan, it's a mind set they carry with them. Wherever they serve, whatever the threat, our airmen are ready to defend one another, defend America's interests and demonstrate our highest values.

Few others know better than you, our greatest responsibility is to make sure we never put a single one of America's brave sons or daughters or their families in harms way without the greatest care and reflection about how it benefits our nation. And our responsibility extends to all generations, to our veterans, to our wounded warriors, to the fallen and their families and those on the front lines today.

We've made tremendous progress in recent years and I'm grateful for the support and partnership AFA has provided to our force for nearly seven decades.

My second commitment is to the president, to provide him candid strategic advice and to implement his decisions with our accustomed excellence. Every strategic decision we make should be a step towards keeping us safe, protecting our country and protecting our allies and friends. After a period of 14 years when our men and women in uniform performed with tremendous professionalism, skill and valor in Iraq and Afghanistan, the force is now at the start of a critical strategic transition.

As our military adjusts its focus on counterinsurgency and re-doubles its full-spectrum capabilities, the Air Force will play a critical role. Just take the Asia-Pacific, a region that encompasses close to half of humanity, counts for more than half the world's economic power and where we are positioning the majority of the Air Force is high end assets. This is part of a present strategic re-balance, where we're working to align our security, economic and diplomatic investments in the region to match our vital and growing interest there.

Our re-balance has always been about sustaining peace and prosperity across the Asia-Pacific and helping the region continue to fulfill its promise. We will preserve America's support for a regional security architecture in the Asia-Pacific that is inclusive enough, capable enough and resilient enough to ensure that all nations -- all nations have the opportunity to continue to rise.

Here, the Air Force is playing a vital role of the stronger posture in the region, including tactical aircraft like the F-22, space and cyber forces, and ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets like MQ-9 and the Global Hawk. We will continue to strengthen and modernize our infrastructure in places like Guam and across the Pacific and we will continue to deepen our security cooperation with long-standing allies, like Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines, and new partners, like India and Vietnam.

We'll strengthen our partnerships, our presence and posture so that the Asia-Pacific is a region where everyone rises together, and so that its security architecture grows stronger, not weaker.

With China, we see our relationship is defined by elements of both cooperation and competition. Our military engagement with China seeks to build sustained and substantive dialogue to advance concrete practical cooperation in areas of mutual interest and to enhance risk-reduction measures, to diminish the potential for miscalculation.

At the same time, given our concern about China's growing military capabilities and coercive approach to disputes, we're taking prudent steps to prepare for heightened competition. Along with many of our Pacific partners and nations across the world, the United States is deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict, among claimant states.

As a Pacific nation, a trading nation and ally and partner to many -- most actually, of the nations of the region, from Japan to Australia to India, the United States will persist in its decades-long strategic approach. First, we will continue to seek a peaceful resolution of all disputes. To that end, there should be an immediate and permanent halt to land reclamation by all claimants.

We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features. We all know there's no military solution to the South China Sea disputes. Right now at this critical juncture, is the time for renewed diplomacy focused on finding a lasting solution that protects the rights and interests of all. As it is central to the regions -- regional security architecture, ASEAN must be part of that effort.

Meanwhile, the United States will continue to protect freedom of navigation and overflight, principles that have insured security and prosperity in this region for decades. There should be no mistake. The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world.

America, alongside its allies and partners in the regional architecture, will not be deterred from exercising these rights. After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.

Finally, with its actions in the South China Sea, China is out of step with both the international rules and norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific security architecture and the regional consensus that favors diplomacy and opposes coercion. These actions are spurring nations to respond together in new ways, including bilateral and multilateral exercises with us, joint operations with us and the new U.S. maritime security initiative.

The United States will always stand with its allies and partners. It's important for the region to understand that America is going to remain engaged, continue to stand up for international law and universal principles, and help provide security and stability in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come, as it has for many decades.

And that brings me to my last commitment, which is to the future of our country and the great institution that I now have the privilege to lead. To stay the best, we have to embrace the future and that has several dimensions. We need a 21st century personnel system to match a 21st century military. We have to be open to a wider world of technology and we need a sensible long-term budget that does right by our military and our taxpayers.

For our people to stay the best, we have to attract and compete for the best talent from a new generation. We have an all-volunteer force, so for us to keep recruiting and retaining the best, the military has to continue to be recognized for what it is, which is a wonderful place to work and serve.

We're aligning our personnel management system with 21st century trends, like the digital revolution and talent management. We must also understand the reality that some young Americans aren't satisfied with industrial era career tracks. You may have read about recent proposals on personnel changes. We're thinking many ideas through and we need time to get the best ideas and advice, especially from the armed services. The people of the U.S. Armed Forces are the best and always will be the best and how we manage them should be too.

Today, we need to innovate not only to continue to attract the best people, but to develop the next generation of capabilities. Our technology remains the best. At the same time, we can't ignore the overall trend. High-end military technologies long possessed by only the most advanced foes are finding their way into the hands of both non-state actors and previously much less capable militaries.

It's evident that nations like Russia and China have been pursuing military modernization programs to close the technology gap with the United States. They're developing platforms designed to thwart our traditional advantages of power projection and freedom of movement. They're developing and fielding new and advanced aircraft and ballistic crews, anti-ship and anti-air missiles that are longer-range and more accurate.

Just as Russia and China have advanced cyber capabilities and strategies ranging from stealthy network penetration to intellectual property theft, criminal and terrorist networks are increasing their cyber operations. Low-cost and global proliferation of malware have lowered barriers to entry and made it easier for smaller, malicious actors to strike in cyberspace.

From cyber to electronic warfare to threats in outer space and under the sea, we need to redouble our effort on those frontiers, and just as DOD and government investment played a historic role in helping spur ground-up technology innovation in the past, from the Internet to GPS to Apple's Siri, today we need to invest in new technology, new partnerships and new innovation for this new environment.

All of this, having the best people, maintaining the best technology and executing the best strategy, takes resources. To that end, we proposed investments in key areas of the U.S. Air Force program to support this strategy in the president's 2016 budget. In our nuclear deterrence forces, in space and counter-space capabilities, in counter-A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) platform systems and technologies, in cyber capabilities, in guided munitions and in intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platform systems and technologies.

I believe these remain the right areas of focus for the Air Force program in PB17 and I look forward to continuing conversations with Air Force leadership and the senior leadership of the department about these investments. Throughout these discussions, we ought to be clear and determined about the way forward, given some real constraints we face.

Time and again, our military has proven extraordinarily capable and adaptive, and despite the decrease in defense spending since fiscal year 2013, the four big pillars of our national defense strategy remain sound, providing for homeland defense, having the capacity and capability to respond to multiple contingencies at the same time, conducting a global counter-terrorism campaign with partners and responding to emergent 21st century threats, like cyber and space.

But we also can't ignore certain constraints on our operations and strategy. Budget uncertainty, a decrease in defense resources and congressional reluctance to agree to proposed reforms, including eliminating overhead and unneeded infrastructure, retiring over platforms and making reasonable adjustments in compensation, amount to attacks on how we plan and how we operate.

If we have to carry these burdens further, it's clear that we'll have to approach parts of our defense strategy differently than we have before. I believe we should be thoughtful and direct about this, as the department will have to make changes in order to provide the best defense for our nation.

Before I close, allow me to say just a few words about the immediate budget impasse we find ourselves facing right here today. Even as we need to innovate, to continue to attract the best people, to develop the next generation of capabilities and to meet the current generation of threats yet again -- yet again, we face the real risk that political gridlock will hold us back.

With only 14 days remaining in this fiscal year, Congress has yet to pass appropriations bills that will appropriately fund the government for the coming year. Without a negotiated budget solution in which everyone comes together last, we will again return to sequestration, reducing discretionary funds to their lowest real level in a decade, despite the fact that members of both parties agree this result will harm our national security.

The alternative to a budget deal, a long-term continuing resolution, is merely sequester-level funding under another name. The longer a continuing resolution is, the worse it becomes, eventually resulting in a $38 billion deficit in resources for our military if Congress chooses to pursue this path for a full year. The Department of Defense has done its best to manage through budget uncertainty in recent years, making difficult choices and trade-offs among the size, capabilities and readiness for the joint force.

But as I've discussed today, over that time, Russia and China have advanced their new capabilities and new imperatives such as ensuring a lasting defeat of ISIL have emerged. In this kind of security environment, we need to be dynamic and responsive. What we have under sequestration or a long-term continuing resolution is a straitjacket.

We would be forced to make irresponsible reductions when our choices should be considered carefully and strategically. Making these kinds of indiscriminate cuts is wasteful to taxpayers and to industry, dangerous for our strategy, unfair to our service members and frankly it's embarrassing around the world.

Much about the future is unclear, but not this. The self-inflicted damage from sequester, a long-term continuing resolution and continued budget uncertainty would send the wrong message at the wrong time to the world. Without reinvestment and recapitalization, without a long-term budget horizon, we simply cannot achieve what AFA has brought us all together to achieve, which is reinventing the aerospace nation.

Yesterday -- yesterday, I had a chance to speak with a dozen of our most distinguished airmen who came by my office with their families. They were public health technicians and intelligence analysts, (inaudible) men experts. As individuals, they were remarkably impressive. Taken together, they're a powerful portrait of our country's greatness. They were a reminder of the dynamism of our military and our Air Force, of our ability to see beyond the horizon and seize opportunity, whatever the weather may bring.

The Air Force delivers personnel, capabilities and support over lands and oceans from the biggest city to the smallest FOB [forward operating base]. It helps us to understand the world with clarity and allows us to see what we can achieve -- that we can achieve what we once believed impossible. The men and women of the Air Force and of this organization, AFA, have been a critical link between where we are and where we need to be. You have helped change this country and change the world.

Together in these next few weeks, we must push for the sensible decisions we need so the Air Force can continue to succeed, so that America can fly and fight and win so that we can outperform, out innovate and out compete anyone in the world. The decisions and investments we make in the next several months, in the next several years will determine our strength and security for the next several decades.

From cyberspace to outer space, to the defense of the global commons, every one of us, not just in this room across the country, benefits from the security and peace of mind our Air Force provides. That's why it's so important and why we must all be part of the effort to reinvent what AFA calls our aerospace nation. That's our opportunity and that's our obligation and that's how we will continue America's supremacy in air and space, for the next aerospace century and beyond.

Thank you.


MODERATOR: Well, we have a few minutes, and the secretary has agreed to take some questions. So I'll throw out the first one.

Your predecessor saw a shift in emphasis from ground troops to air and naval forces in the rebalance to the Pacific. For the post-Afghanistan world and facing into the 2020s, does that still hold in your view? Do we need to rethink our strategy, given Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and the continuing unrest in the Middle East?

SEC. CARTER: No, I think it's still basically true. The -- we were for 14 years rightly of necessity and I think with unbelievable professional excellence, all in for the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in that context those -- all services participated, including the Air Force, in ingenious and incredibly courageous ways.

They also caused an increase -- us to deliberately increase our number of ground forces so that we could continue to rotate forces in with a reasonable OPTEMPO [operations tempo] to those regions. That demand signal for that particular part of the force has gone down, I think that's what the reference is too and the rebalance is, as I noted, a strategic imperative for the country because that part of the world, more than any other single part of the world, will determine America's future.

And we're playing a winning hand there of decades of strength and being the pivotal power there. We need to continue that. That said, we need to be realistic that in the last year also has emerged -- put it bluntly, Vladimir Putin's aggression in Europe, to which I referred which is an unwelcome but quite visible development, and that's a new strategic reality we have to take into account in which the Air Force also plays a crucial role.

And then finally, we have the equally under -- unforeseen and unpleasant development of the need to deal a lasting defeat to ISIL in which air power also is playing right now the dominant role, because the way to achieve a lasting defeat against ISIL is to find, help train and enable ground forces that are local to hold the defeat of ISIL -- once ISIL -- we all know that can't do this from the outside in, you have to do this from the inside out. And air power is a significant part of that.

So the demand signal for the Air Force goes up in all of these dimensions and that's why I'm so concerned about the budget gridlock. It just puts us in an impossible position, and on top of that, what I call the added tax of moves that you all have determined are necessary, difficult adjustments and forced structure and infrastructure, that we need to make. Otherwise, we're paying for something that we know isn't the top priority.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Are the Air Force and DOD strategies like a better buying power? The third offset and strategic agility capable of keeping us ahead of other threats? Or are they simply improving acquisition of the margins?

SEC. CARTER: Well, I hope they're not and it doesn't -- the statistics don't show they're improving acquisition at the margins. I'll give you a few examples. In terms of the performance of major defense acquisition programs, the recent data actually shows that some of the changes we've made have had a real effect.

That's very clear in that data, but we need to keep pushing on. We need to keep pressing on and the respect in which the current -- current needs are particularly apparent is in the need for agility to send out -- one of things that's been a big priority for me and -- and Debbie and Mark and the whole team, has been to connect us to the technology base in a way that continues the proud tradition of being the first -- as I say, the firstest with the mostest with new technology.

But when I started my career, all the technology of consequence originated in the United States and most of it originated in sponsorship of the defense department. That's not true anymore. There's still a lot that we do, a lot that we build and innovate and create, but not everything.

So we need to be able to build a bridge to a wider world of technology.

I'm confident we can do that and that we will remain the very best. We have the most innovative country and most innovative military in the world, and we have the most friends and partners around -- people like working with us. We have all the friends and partners around the world because we're competent and strong but that's -- it's not only that, it's because we treat them decently and we stand for things that people want to stick up for.

So we have tremendous strengths and I'm completely confident about our strategic future. We just need to make sure we don't have self-inflicted wounds along the way.

MODERATOR: I guess along those lines, do you think the nuclear triad should be funded as a separate entity from the regular modernization needs of the Air Force and Navy? So it's a potentially enormous bill that could edge out much of the other needed modernization programs, so how do we strike that balance?

SEC. CARTER: Well, the nuclear deterrent is a must-have, you really need to start there. It's not the force element that's in the headlines every day, thank goodness, right? But it is the foundation. It's the bedrock and it needs to remain healthy and -- and we all know that we need to make additional investments in that, both in the Navy and importantly in the Air Force.

And you all are doing, I just think tremendous things to strengthen the Air Force's nuclear posture. I really commend you for doing that in recent years. It needed to be done and it's very, very important.

Now, the money's got to come from somewhere and you -- you don't get money by relabeling it and so the hard question remains where the money comes from in all the services, and I think we ought to face that question and stick to the central commitment of having a nuclear deterrent. That's the fundamental principal.

MODERATOR: Turning back to the battle against ISIL, what's the U.S. and partner nations doing to counter the ideology that basically drives ISIL -- ISIS? It's widely believed we can't defeat a true kinetic energy, so how do we defeat the basic ideology?

SEC. CARTER: Well, a candid answer to that is I don't think we're doing enough and that we're doing well enough against the message. We are having strategic impact on ISIL, eliminating leadership, the ability to mobilize, organize and so forth. But they take advantage of the information domain in a way that we don't really have an established way of countering, and that's what leads to these lone wolves and these kind of losers at the keyboard who can turn in -- who can turn very dangerous and threaten our people.

I think we need to get better at that and at the foreign fighter aspect of it. Now, that's not principally our responsibility in the Department of Defense and this is why it's so important to keep in mind that the fight against ISIL is not only a military fight, that's essential and important and we'll do it and I know we'll be successful, but it's not the whole battlefield.

And that's why we talk about the strategy towards ISIL, we talk about all the lines of effort, countering financing, countering foreign fighters, countering messaging and so forth and I wouldn't be honest with you if I didn't say that as a government, we're not as good as those other things as we are a military -- good at what -- doing our military tasks and I feel it every day.

MODERATOR: Thank you.

This will be the final question, and it'll kind of tie up some of the impacts you referred to, I think, on the budget issues, but how do we in DOD continue to attract the best people, both uniformed and civilians, when there is such uncertainty in the workforce and force reductions and the furloughs that were implemented a couple of years ago?

SEC. CARTER: Okay. Well, it's a good question, that's one I really feel passionately about and it's what lies behind my desire for us to be thoughtful about that and be adaptive in that regard. We have -- you've got to start at the military and civilian, you asked about both.

In the military, we have a fantastic system. It works very well and we need to just look ahead to future generations and to how the world is changing and make sure that we continue to attract and retain the best, as we have today. We have the best fighting force today, so the question is how do I leave to my successors and my successors' successor as fine a gift as they left to me. I have that mission, we all have that mission. So we need to be thoughtful about it.

You know -- and then -- and the civilians, I can't really claim we have a good system for managing civilians. I actually think it's appalling and we don't treat them very well and I sometimes ask myself why do they stick with us. But I know why they stick with us, and -- and I know -- and this is why we have the finest people in service as well, because they -- because of the mission.

They want to make a difference. They want to keep the country safe and they want to leave better future for our children, and they put up with all the crap we deal because they're committed to that mission and that is very admirable. But you know, I don't think we should take that for granted. So I think we do need to think about what kinds of things the next generation people -- of people will find attractive in service, try to provide that in a way that in whatever ways are consistent with the profession of arms.

You know, this isn't a game, this isn't a company. It'll never be the same. It'll always be different, but we have to think carefully about how to keep up and keep ahead and keep connecting to our society because it's a tiny sliver of you who serve and we need to remind the rest of -- that nothing else matters if they're not safe and if they're not protected. So it's an essential task.

And one of the things -- a closing note, I obviously -- this really gets me going. One of the things that is so fantastic about this era compared to when I started out in life, is the appreciation widespread in our society for the military. And boy, I remember when it was different and it -- one example of that is veterans hiring, which I'm also passionate about.

And you know, I hate it when people -- good people leave -- you know, I wish they'd stay and I want to hang onto them. However, when a good person leaves and does well, it says to someone else who's coming in, "That is a great place to be, to learn, to develop my skills, to develop my leadership skills, my character and my record as an effective person."

So our veterans today are recognized. I talk to employers, they want to -- they recognize that somebody who served with you is a very, very good bet, and that's a great thing and it's a little bit of a drain on us and that bothers me when people go out the door. On the other hand, I also know it's a magnet for people to come in and that way of connecting to our society and for them to recognize not only the importance of what we do, but the excellence of our people, is so important to me.

And man, am I grateful to be the secretary of defense in this era and not 40 years ago.

MODERATOR: That's a great way to end this, and we thank you so much for being here.