Remarks by Secretary Esper at the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air
Space & Cyber Conference
National Harbor, Maryland, September 18, 2019
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER: Morning. Good morning, everyone. How’s the greatest air force in the world doing today?
All right, very good.
I take — Matt, I take umbrage at that last comment about talking to airmen. I can guarantee you, I’ve gotten sick in the back of many fine Air Force aircraft —
— while holding my static line, and loadmasters coming after me saying, „Sir, please don’t get sick.“
Anyways, thank you for – Secretary Donovan, for that very kind introduction.
And happy birthday, again, to the United States Air Force, 72 great years. Give yourself a round of applause.
It’s great to be here at the Air, Space and Cyber Conference. Thanks, also, to the Air Force Association for putting this wonderful event together.
I want to start by acknowledging the Air Force’s exceptional leadership team. Sec. Matt Donovan has worked tirelessly over the past four months, as he has stepped up and filled the role as acting secretary of the Air Force. Being thrust into the position on short notice is no easy task. Believe me, I’ve had to do so myself.
But, Sec. Donovan has continued to keep the Air Force on glide path.
So, Matt, relief is on the way. Great job.
As this audience knows well, the president has nominated Barbara Barrett to be secretary of the Air Force. She is highly qualified for this position, and we expect the Senate to take a vote on and confirm her soon.
Gen. David Goldfein, thanks for your steady leadership, particularly over the last — past three years as chief of staff of the Air Force. You’ve done a great job. You continue to ensure that the 685,000 active duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian members of the Air Force are ready to accomplish their mission.
And Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright — where are you, Kaleth? There you are. I saw you earlier. Thanks for all you continue to do to take care of our airmen and their families.
And perhaps most importantly, thanks to all the airmen in attendance today. We appreciate what you do. Your presence here represents your commitment to the Air Force and your desire to continue learning and serving.
And, as always, thanks to the families as well for all they do to support our mission. Our military spouses and children serve and sacrifice as well, and I’m fully committed to ensuring we provide them the support they deserve.
Now, I’ve been asked today to talk to you about the National Defense Strategy. It is fitting this year’s conference is titled, „Expanding the Competitive Edge,“ because the NDS is all about competition.
Great power competition, to be specific, has re-emerged in a way that we have not seen since the end of the Cold War. Succeeding in this new era and winning that competition that is under way requires us to adapt. The strategic environment has changed. And therefore, we must change as well if we’re to maintain this overmatch we have held for decades. Across the Department of Defense, we must adopt a mindset of competition that influences everything we do.
This morning, I will talk for a few minutes about what competition looks like through the lens of the NDS. I’ll then leave the remainder of the time to take your questions, because it’s important for me to hear what’s on your mind.
To set the stage for this discussion, let us briefly recount our own recent history.
Eighteen years ago this month, al-Qaida launched an attack against our homeland unlike anything seen since Imperial Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. In response, the United States committed itself to bringing justice to the terrorists and preventing an attack of that sort from ever happening again.
In 2003, we expanded the war on terror to Iraq, where we defeated Saddam’s military, fought a counterinsurgency campaign and, most recently, eliminated the physical caliphate of ISIS.
The majority of airmen sitting in this audience today have spent their entire careers fighting these wars. As a result, our military has become very proficient in low-intensity conflict.
For decades now, the Air Force has dominated the skies. Air superiority has been relatively uncontested, persistent ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] has become the norm, and precision airstrikes are now the weapon of choice.
But the conveniences of today — please, yeah.
I figure we’re in a room of airpower advocates, I thought — but only one clapped.
I’ll read that sentence again, if you want me to tee it up for you.
But the conveniences of today’s battlefield will not be the realities of the future. While the United States military was focused on ongoing operations in the Middle East, our strategic competitors were actively modernizing their militaries, growing their power and expanding their influence.
Russia remains our greatest near-term security challenge. Its invasion of Georgia in 2008, annexation of Crimea in 2014, and sustained aggression in Ukraine demonstrate Moscow’s continued efforts to unilaterally redraw international borders.
Russia’s hybrid style of warfare presents a persistent threat to our European partners, particularly those former Soviet states that are now more closely aligned with the West.
China presents an even greater long-term challenge. Aside from its growing military power, China is enacting its comprehensive One Belt, One Road initiative to gain economic leverage and military access around the world.
Take Sri Lanka, for example. Struggling to repay its debt to Chinese firms, Sri Lanka handed over rights to a strategic port to China for 99 years. This long-term strategic access is precisely what Beijing desires, and it’s coming at the expense of other nations‘ sovereignty.
While much of the world has started to become aware of the hidden costs associated with doing business with the PRC, for many countries, the near-term economic benefits are still too enticing.
So, what does this all mean for the United States military? Put simply, some of our long-held advantages have started to diminish. Great power competition once again has returned to the global stage. If we are to remain the world’s preeminent military power, then we must change course away from the past and face the challenges of the future head on.
The National Defense Strategy is our guide to effectively competing in today’s complex security environment. Everything we do must be aimed towards achieving the goals and objectives of that strategy. If something does not, then we should question, „Why are we doing it in the first place?“
Within the Department of Defense, a collective effort is underway to realign our resources and activities in support of our highest priorities. One way we are doing this is through our defense-wide review which is putting a microscope to our budget. Our current focus is on what’s known as the fourth estate, but eventually we will address other parts of the DOD enterprise.
This effort isn’t just about saving money. It will allow us to give our warfighters more of what they need to deter our adversaries and, if necessary, to fight and win.
Similarly, we are instituting a process to review our force posture and major operational plans. Not only must we ensure that we are doing things right, we need to ask ourselves, „Are we doing the right things?“
From budgeting to modernization to operational planning, we are instituting a disciplined approach to NDS execution ensuring our time, money and manpower are being used most effectively.
Over time, this is helping us better understand how to balance the needs of today with the requirements of tomorrow, and it’s allowing us to more effectively trade off building readiness with consuming readiness.
As we prepare the joint force for the demands of the future, it is clear that this competition is expanding well beyond the traditional conception of war.
As a young military officer in the 1980s, I grew up in the era of air-land battle. Back then, wars were fought in the air, land and sea domains, but today that has clearly changed. Space and cyber have now emerged as new warfighting domains. And while technological progress in these areas has generated great opportunity, it has also created vulnerabilities that our adversaries seek to exploit.
It is time now for us to focus on developing joint concepts and doctrine to fight in a multi-domain environment, building upon the great work done by the services in recent years.
Competing in multiple domains requires organization changes as well. Three weeks ago, I signed the documents formally establishing the United States Space Command.
Is that you, Gen. Raymond?
Air Force of one, right? Space Force of one right now. Anyways, it’s a —
I won’t go there.
Setting up this unified command under a great commander is a critical step to ensuring we can defend our national interests in space. SPACECOM is now responsible for our daily operations of running our space systems and ensuring that our space capabilities are integrated into all of our plans and operations around the world.
Led by Gen. Jay Raymond, SPACECOM is off to a solid start. However, this command alone is not enough to truly posture ourselves for long-term dominance in space. We must take the leap ahead and create an independent Space Force as our newest armed service.
The creation of Space Force will allow us to develop a cadre of warriors who are appropriately organized, trained and equipped to deter aggression and, if necessary, to fight and win in space.
Just like in 1947 when we separated the Air Corps from the Army, the time is now to allow our space professionals to branch out and prepare for our future in space.
America’s adversaries are already fielding new weapons to attack U.S. satellites and space-based systems. The next big fight may very well start in space, and the United States military must be ready.
America’s adversaries are already fielding new weapons to attack U.S. satellites and space-based systems. The next big fight may very well start in space, and the United States military must be ready.
For all our industry partners here today, you have a role to play in this competition as well. The NDS recognizes that our current acquisition processes are not responsible to the needs of the force. Historically, we have over optimized for exceptional performance, searching for the perfect solution at the expense of providing timely capabilities to the warfighter.
A rapid iterative approach to capability development will allow the department to more effectively partner with the private sector. Unlike previous eras where defense drove technology R&D, today, we see significant innovation happening in the private sector. The military must work closely with industry to integrate these game-changing technologies into our warfighting systems. And this is where we need your help.
The world is changing faster than ever. We can no longer afford to focus on exquisite development programs that take many, many years to complete. In the future, all of our systems need to be upgradable and adaptable in a more (inaudible) timely manner. Otherwise, we risk losing the advantage before we even field the system.
Move with us into the future. Help us provide our airmen the platforms, weapons and equipment needed to continue dominating the skies, as they have done so for so many years and decades.
In closing, I’m confident that we have the strategy needed to win the competition I’ve talked about today. But implementing the NDS will require discipline, execution and the guts — the guts to make tough decisions.
We cannot be wedded to the past or stymied by the inertia of the present. Rather, we must be guided by our strategy and focused on our priorities. If we can do this — if we can do this, we will preserve America’s military dominance for generations to come.
Thank you once again for the opportunity to speak to you today. I’m proud — very proud of all that you do to keep our country safe. And I look forward to your questions. Thank you all very much.
MODERATOR: Okay. The rules of engagement are that there are some microphones out there for you to line up and ask a question. Please, questions, not speeches. And while you’re lining up, I’m going to ask one.
Which is, as you swing the department — in particular the Air Force — to the future, how are our friends in Congress coping with that?
SEC. ESPER: Repeat the last part of the question, I didn’t hear.
MODERATOR: How are our friends in Congress coping with the idea that programs are going to stop, and new programs are going to start?
SEC. ESPER: You know, I think — I think Congress is very anxious for reform. I had a chance, yesterday, to have breakfast with the leadership of the House Armed Services Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee. They are very receptive to our push forward to reform the services and to reform DOD.
I think there’s broad appreciation for the challenges we face. They are looking for leadership. And I think, for the most part, they will be supportive.
That doesn’t mean everything. Clearly, any program, project, activity, you name it, has some type of constituency out there. But, look, I think if we come in clear-eyed with a — with good arguments and a clear reason why this is the right thing to do, generally we will be supported by Congress.
And I want to believe that what we did in the Army is proof positive of that, over the last year. And the initiatives that Sec. Donovan and Gen. Goldfein are leading today are also proof positive of that.
So I think Congress will be supportive. We all recognize, is that the budgets are at the highest they may well be for some time. So if we do not capitalize on this moment, we will lose it and we could find ourselves well behind for many, many more years to come.
MODERATOR: Okay. Why don’t we start over here? I think I see some people on the right over here.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Jon Harper with National Defense Magazine.
SEC. ESPER: Where are you, Jon?
Q: Right here.
SEC. ESPER: Oh, okay. Gotcha.
Q: Thank you.
You said that Russia is the greatest near-term threat and China is the greatest long-term threat. Are there unique capability sets that the Pentagon needs to pursue that would apply to each of those threats? Or do you see, sort of, next-gen capabilities as applying to dealing with both of those threats?
And also, you noted your — your budget review that’s ongoing, that’s going to expand. Are there any specific types of capabilities that you anticipate will receive greater funding in the coming years, and certain types of capabilities that you’ll — that we’ll see cuts in?
SEC. ESPER: Well, I’ll take the first one because you’ve got a long line behind you.
Let me just say this. Clearly, when we look at the target sets or the challenges faced, presented by either Russia or China, you see a lot of similarity. We know we need long-range strike, we know we need ISR, we know we need all these critical technologies. We need to leverage directed energy. All these things will apply to both — to the challenges we face and are presented by both countries. And, again, clearly, space and cyberspace are exceptionally relevant.
So I think we need to develop a broad set of capabilities. And we will adapt them from there, based on a particular set.
So I think it’s one thing we’re looking at as we go forward. We’ve begun a process to review our — our plans, and that is well under way. I think I do my first one this week, and another one in a couple weeks.
And that’ll all inform how we — not only how we budget, but obviously how we do our R&D and those things that we need to make sure that we prepare for the future.
And my job is — a big part of my job is about preparing for the future. If I’m not looking out for the future, who is? And so that’s a challenge of myself, the service secretaries and the service chiefs, to be thinking five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road.
MODERATOR: How about on the left?
Q: Yes, sir, Sec. Esper. Thank you for your thoughts. Thank you for your leadership. (inaudible), airman for life.
The NDS does a great job of focusing the military on peer competition. My question is, that competition is much bigger than military: It’s economic, it’s political, it’s technological. How do we begin to educate America, the American people, about this peer competition, and engage them in the other aspects that are not military?
SEC. ESPER: Yeah, it’s a good question, you know.
And I would say this: The NDS is obviously not just about peer competition. I think what’s exceptional about it, is it’s finally drawn it out and focused us on it. But it also talks about other countries — Iran, North Korea, et cetera — and violent extremist organizations. And I would argue that all those take a whole-of-government approach.
So that is one of the things we’re working with now, as we develop what are called global campaign pluses. What that challenges us to do is not just think about how do we — how do we address China in INDOPACOM [Indonesia-Pacific Command], but how do we also compete with China beyond INDOPACOM. And then how do we do that, as you said, with a whole-of-government approach.
There may be some parts of the world where — let’s take Africa, for example — where we may want to leverage more the aid and the soft power programs. And other parts of the world, where we need to do exactly what you’re saying.
And we’ve got a great interagency to do that. Our challenge is to tee that up to that process. My responsibility to do that, to take it to the other agencies and say, „Look, this is our game plan. Help us shape it, and then help us implement it.“
And that’s what we need to do. That is the challenge.
Q: Thank you, sir.
MODERATOR: Back to the right.
Q: Hello, Secretary. I —
SEC. ESPER: Hi.
Q: Having overseen the standup of Army Futures Command in your former post, I was wondering what do you think the biggest takeaways or lessons from that process that you would — would be that you would like to pass on to U.S. Space Command as it, kind of, hits the ground running?
SEC. ESPER: Look, I think you have to be very clear about what your goals are and your reasons why, number one.
Number two, you have to be very transparent about the process that you’re going to go through to get there, not just internally but externally with the media, with Congress.
And, number three, I would say that you have to take into consideration the views of the people who may be resisting, the naysayers and others. But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to move forward. Because otherwise, you’ll never — you’ll never move.
I mean, if we — again, I mentioned in my remarks about pulling the Air Corps out of the Army in 1947. I wasn’t alive then, but I can assure you, there was a lot of bureaucratic resistance to that.
But it was the right thing to do. I mean, that’s why we got the greatest Air Force in history, because we were able to pull it out of the Army, out of a — out of a service dominated by ground combat land warfare thinking, and allow the great pilots and airmen and leaders of that era to really develop it as a branch, as a service.
So you just — at some point, you’ve got to ignore the naysayers. I say, you know, you’re never going to get consensus, don’t try and get consensus but go forward, move forward, do the right thing. And history will treat you kindly.
MODERATOR: Back to the left.
Q: Hey, good morning, sir. Thank you. (inaudible) from Air Force Global Strike Command A-4.
What will the mission be of the Space Force once it’s established?
SEC. ESPER: Just like any other service: Title 10, organize, man, train and equip the forces we need to engage in space.
And that’s — that warfighting responsibility of Gen. Raymond, just like any other combatant command, to tell us what are the requirements to fight in space, from an organizational perspective, or in terms of how we would fight the fight technologically, et cetera.
So much of the requirements will be driven by SPACECOM, down to that service, to tell — to inform how they should organize, train, equip, field, et cetera.
Q: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Back to my right.
Q: Good morning, sir. Lieutenant (inaudible). I’m an information operations officer at the 352 Special Operations Wing in England. Thanks for your time this morning, and taking questions.
Sir, my question for you is, how are postured as a military to compete and fight in the current strategic environment, and really giving our junior officers and NCOs the ability to execute when we’re shifting from the kinetic fight to more of a non-kinetic, when those approval processes and authorities reside at such a high level?
SEC. ESPER: Yeah, let me see if I can pull that apart a little bit.
I don’t — I don’t think we’re optimized from a force location perspective, so I think that’s one of the things we’re looking at, as I — we’ve begun this NDS review process. So we need to think about how we position ourselves around the globe to optimize.
And then we — we do need to think in terms of — and this is the job of the service — to think how do we organize, train and equip — again — our airmen to make sure that they’re capable of performing across that full spectrum of operations.
And then I’d say, we’re not shifting from kinetic to non-kinetic. What we’re doing is expanding the scope of the capabilities. And that’s a big challenge for the Air Force, the Army and the Navy is to really find that talent, recruit it, develop it, particularly when you talk cyber, because there’s a — you know, a select pool of people that can do that and they have a lot of other incentives to go work outside the military.
So it’s balancing all those things to make sure we’re — again, we’re properly positioned for the future. Because my personal view is, the first shots of the future fight will be either in the cyber domain or — maybe it’s an „and“ — and the space domain. And so we’ve got to make sure we have sufficient capability there because that’s critical to our capabilities to fight and win.
Q: Yes, sir. Thank you.
MODERATOR: My left.
Q: Thank you for coming, sir. (inaudible), Brigham Young University.
Given your tenure in the past in the Army and the number of airmen in the room, can you please provide comments about the coming Army-Air Force game?
SEC. ESPER: That’s the toughest question I got in a while.
Okay, let me think.
I think it’ll be a very good game.
SEC. ESPER: I hope no one is injured. And I hope everybody plays to their fullest potential.
MODERATOR: Great question. Back to my right?
SEC. ESPER: That’s called a — that’s called a dodge, by the way.
Q: Mr. Secretary, I want to know what the Air Force and military at large’s response was to the Senate Appropriations Committee report on 2020 budget. I’m quoting this from the Air Force Magazine, which quotes the report from the senators.
„The Air Force had the opportunity to make responsible and deliberate strategic budgeting decisions, as well as plan for the prospect of topline leveling or downturn (inaudible) acquisition strategies on key investment programs, divested or insufficiently funded key capabilities –„
SEC. ESPER: I’m — I’m sorry, I —
SEC. ESPER: Just — just give me the question. I couldn’t hear what it — what’s the question?
Q: Basically what is the military’s response in regards to the senators‘ comment on Air Force funding and how we’ve used it in the last three years and going forward?
SEC. ESPER: Okay, that’s pretty open.
Look, I — again, I — I can’t speak to specific things said about the Air Force, but I think generally the defense matters on the Hill, the defense committees are very supportive of DOD.
There are always things that — that — that catch particular attention in any year between — with regard to what a service may propose and what the Hill may think, or between what different parts of the Hill think, but I think generally they’re very supportive of the programs. And I think the Air Force has a — a very well developed modernization plan, which augurs well for the future and our ability to implement the NDS.
But nothing has come out in particular that’s said somebody’s dissatisfied or disappointed. Nothing that comes to mind right now.
SEC. ESPER: I think we have time for one more?
MODERATOR: We’ve got — we’ve got time for one more and — and actually probably two more. The clock’s running a little fast.
SEC. ESPER: Okay, lightning round.
MODERATOR: In the back there? Back to the other side here?
Q: Good morning, sir. Lieutenant (inaudible) —
SEC. ESPER: They — they couldn’t lower that mic for you?
Q: You know, I’m trying — I’m rising to the occasion.
SEC. ESPER: I know, you’re on your tippy toes.
Q: Good morning, sir.
SEC. ESPER: Aim high there, Air Force.
Q: Oh, goodness.
MQ-9 intelligence —
SEC. ESPER: If you jump, I’ll catch every other word.
Q: Oh good.
Before I lose my ability to speak, any comments about efforts into the interpretation and communication of proxy warfare realities, especially to decision-makers and then once again the public — a gentleman here had an in the vein kind of question — especially with our near-peer adversaries?
SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I’m — I’m — I’m not sure I understand the question but I’ll try and answer it.
Look, I — you know, the Russians have really brought to bear in the last several years this — this notion of proxy warfare, hybrid warfare, gray zone warfare very effectively in — in Crimea and Ukraine. And I think it’s a — it’s a new challenge, a new threat we’ve adapted to.
It speaks to, I think, the fact that they know they don’t want to and cannot confront us conventionally, and so they are looking at different ways to — to challenge us, to strategically compete at a level below direct armed conflict.
So it’s a — it is a new form of warfare. I mean, it’s — in — in — in many ways, at least something we haven’t prepared for, but it is something we have to prepare for. So as we look at how we prepare our plans — our campaign plans for these different theaters, we are trying to get to now strategic competition below that level.
And that includes not just what we do as a military but it also includes, as one of the previous questioners said, how do we employ other — other parts of the government to — to deal with this, to change the — the — the strategic narrative, to conduct information operations, et cetera, et cetera?
I think that’s a big challenge for us. We’re very good at military operations, but we start getting into this — this gray area, when you get left of conventional conflict, it becomes more challenging for us.
Q: Thank you, sir.
SEC. ESPER: Thanks for your service.
MODERATOR: Let’s do one more.
SEC. ESPER: Okay, last one.
Q: Yes. Thank you, sir.
During the Cold War, we were competing with the Soviet Union but our economies were completely separate from each other. How would you compete and contain a country like China where our economies are more intertwined?
SEC. ESPER: Yeah, it’s a great question.
I think it’s one of the reasons why China is such a long-term, strategic competitor, because it has that potential that the Soviet Union did not have. We had the advantages of economy, culture, values, you name it — technology, and the Chinese bring to bear a lot of those same things: a very strong economy, 1.4 billion people, great economic potential.
And so that is — that’s what concerns me most, as we look into the future 10, 20, 30, 40 years, is how can — will China bring all of that whole-of-government, and economic power in particular, to bear against us, particularly when they’re well-integrated across the global economy?
Particularly in the Asia-Pacific — I was there just a few weeks ago and if you talk to countries, they’ll tell you behind closed doors, „Look, if we do this, they’ve already threatened to cut off trade or they’ve threatened to — to — to limit this innovation or they — they won’t provide us this loan or grant.“
And so they are using that economic power as a strategic tool to coerce, influence others into a — a position of — of — of subordination, if you will, to what China wants, and that’s a big challenge for us.
MODERATOR: So Sec. Esper has agreed to stick around and have some photos, but — ‚cause I know he’s likely to be mobbed, rather do it as a mob, we’re going to ask him to come down on the floor. It certainly will be a little bit safer than trying to get people up here.
And before he does that, I want to give him the famous AFA socks.
SEC. ESPER: What is — what — what is it? Socks?
MODERATOR: (inaudible) is always wearing these colorful socks and (inaudible) having a sock competition. (Inaudible).
SEC. ESPER: Nice, great. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: It’s a very limited edition, by the way.
SEC. ESPER: Okay.