Defense Secretary Carter speaks to troops at Nellis Air Force Base

Editor's note: Su Phelps, publisher of Veterans Reporter News, attended this very important event.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter made a visit to address troops at Nellis Air Force Base on Aug. 26. His speech follows.


Thanks, General Silveria. Thank you so much, and thanks to all of you today whom I've already had the chance to meet. And -- and thank you.

I've got two things to say to you. First of all, thank you for what you do, and I want to elaborate a little bit on that. And then the second is to tell you from my perspective why what you do is so important. But let me start with the first one first.

You are what Stephanie and I wake up to, wake up for every morning. We never forget for one minute how much we and through us, our entire country is dependent upon what you do. So proud of you and what you do, and so grateful to you for what you do. And we don't take that for granted. I know sometimes out there, it may feel like the rest of our society takes that for granted from time to time, but I don't think they really do.

I think they know that they get a -- they get to do what they want to do, which is get up every morning and go to work and take their kids to school and have their thoughts, their dreams, because they have security. And that's not only true of the Americans, but to address and to acknowledge some of our international partners in the room for whom we're also very grateful to a world that still depends very much upon us for its security. And also much of which, and the nations represented in this room today that are not American, all of which I visited in the last few months, we're close because we share something. And that something is a set of values and a caring about others, which certainly characterizes my country, but that is also what we share with some of the others who are present here as well.

So what you do is the most important thing that any person can possibly do, which is provide that without which the rest of life can't be had, and you do it with behind you a set of things that you stand for, and that we together stand for that make it something that we do not only for ourselves, but on a bigger stage as well. And you do that with such unbelievable skill.

And here, I've got -- listen to that. You've got to love that, right? That's the sound of freedom. I always wonder, how can there be people who live in the vicinity of bases who complain about that noise? I don't get it. But they do. And but to me, that's the sound of freedom.

And that is what I saw today. I've been here before. I know what you do here. But every time I come here, I'm so impressed with the quality, the -- how realistic the training is that is done here. And that's the second thing I wanted to get to, is why when you go home tonight or when you make a call to a loved one, a mom and dad, kid, spouse, whatever, and I want you to say that I was here on behalf of everybody else in America to say thank you for what you individually do and how they support you in doing that.

The other thing is to convey to you the central importance of what you're doing right here, right now at Nellis. We are as a country in the middle of a great strategic transition. We were of necessity and with tremendous skill focused for 15 years or so on the two conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where once again, and just to repeat, our performance was spectacular. The performance of the U.S. military, and in every way was spectacular.

We still have ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and another one, whole other subject in Iraq that we're waging in a very intense way, now, that we will succeed in, but is gonna take some time and is certainly challenging. But at the same time we're doing that, and this is where the transition comes in, we need to and are looking ahead to a full spectrum of threats represented by today's world and the future world.

So one not just limited to the frame of counterinsurgency, but including that, but a whole range of threats. You know the expression full spectrum, meaning going from relatively straightforward task, although they can be quite demanding as well, straightforward as far as the -- what they require in the way of technology and training, right up through the most demanding. This place represents that entire spectrum, and that transition from a narrow -- narrower set of missions to full spectrum.

And illustrate -- and you're at the center of that tradition -- that transition. You here at Nellis Air Force Base are at the center of America's military transition to full spectrum.

And the new technology that's just behind me here, the F-35s, and all the other stuff, space, cyber, electronic warfare, all the other technology represented here, that is a ingredient of this strategic transition, and the most important ingredient of it is you, because all this doesn't matter without you. Without skilled people who know how to operate, who know how to maintain, who know how to imagine future operations, conduct future operations, without you the technology doesn't get us anywhere. So at the end of the day, the most important ingredient of the finest fighting force the world has ever known is you, the people in it.

So you're doing the most important thing you can be doing now as members of the U.S. armed forces, and I dare say that's true, although I can't speak for them, of our partners as well, but certainly for the U.S., you are at the center of a strategic transition. And I can't speak with you about technology and how good you are and what a debt the country owes to you without mentioning the budget, and I'm just going to say one thing, and I'm going to try to, as my grandmother used to say, keep a civil tongue in my head.

But, we can't do new technology. We can't attract and retain the very best people. We can't do the very most intense and high end training, let alone operate without an adequate budget. And we are about to, I'm sorry to report to you, go into what would be the seventh consecutive year where the country didn't go -- didn't -- and Congress didn't pass and the president didn't sign a new budget before the current budget year expired. That's the possibility that we face at the end of September. And I have nothing good to say about that at all.

It's not what you deserve. It's not what the country deserves. It's not what the gravity of what you do warrants. It is disruptive. It is wasteful. It is unfair to you. It is quite honestly embarrassing for us, and we need to come together as a country and get above this kind of bickering, partisanship and so forth, rise above it, and pass a -- a normal budget with a normal multi-year horizon for the Department of Defense.

That's what the country deserves, and I remain hopeful that through the leadership of excellent members of Congress, and we have Congresswoman Titus with us today, that we will be able to surmount that. And I just needed to say that.

Final note. You, in addition to us being very proud of you, immensely proud of you, I hope you're proud of yourselves, because you are doing the thing that so, that others don't get to do in their lives, and that is to be part of something bigger than themselves: part of the greatest mission that any person can have, the greatest honor that anyone can have, and that is to provide security.

So I hope as you work so hard here, and your work is so demanding, and we ask so much of you, that you keep in mind that you're doing the noblest thing that people can do, and we can't thank you enough. We think of you all the time. And I, on behalf not only of myself and Stephanie, but the entire department, want you to know you are foremost in our minds every day.

With that, I have some time for here, questions from you or comments, if you have something you want to say or something you think I ought to know, and then I'm going to get a chance to look each and every one of you in the eye, shake your hand, thank you personally and directly for what you do, and give you a coin.

So let me start by asking if there's anybody, who I'm sure there is. There's some mics here, and just walk up, and can be a question to me, or it can be a comment, something you think I ought to know.




Q&A Session follows:

Q: Sir, Second Lieutenant John (inaudible), serving as a acquisition professional OT 59th Test and Evaluation Squadron. So, not many acquisition professionals are represented in the higher leadership positions, and you have a science and technology background, and you've done a lot of acquisition work. How would you say that's going to serve you to lead the entire military?

SEC. CARTER: Well, you're right, but I don't think that's so much a problem in -- for me or in my role. I do have that background. I was undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics for a time. This is obviously a completely -- and then I was deputy secretary of defense, and I'm now secretary. These are all completely different jobs and require very different OPTEMPO and where your mind is in a different place. I want to take your question to another place, which is where you may have intended, and that is this. I and some important leaders in Congress, notably our two committee chairs, Senator John McCain, and Congressman Mac Thornberry believe that it is important for the military services that acquisition professionals, within the military side, now never mind being secretary of defense, that there be a way for acquisition professionals to proceed to senior positions of leadership in all of our services. And that's not to say that they should do that in preference to any other specialty, but they ought to be as represented at the upper ranks as any of the other specialties. So I do believe that's important. It's less important where the secretary of defense's background is. I think the most important thing for a secretary of defense is that he or she knows that they -- that they love the troops and that they are personally as dedicated to providing security for the American people as each and every one of you. That's the most important thing. But we do need to involve the military uniform side more in acquisition than has been the case for maybe 30 years or so. I think that's important, and probably was what was behind your question.




Q: Good afternoon, sir. Captain Jackson, 11th Reconnaissance Squadron Creech Air Force Base.

I read an article that you -- that you were mentioned in last week in Military Times about how you want to change the military personnel system. Seemed a very disruptive and revolutionary and almost, about time almost, about 20 years overdue.

How do you plan to actually implement it with so many stakeholders entrenched in a system that's over 50 years old?

SEC. CARTER: Okay, so I don't know that everybody heard that, but the question is what about the future of -- now you're speaking of the military personnel system. And you're right.

I am looking from root to branch at how we manage people in the department because people are the most important things we have. They're what make us -- what makes us great.

Now, there's a lot to be said, I need to tell you right at the beginning, for the military system as we now have it. Up or out has its advantages in terms of the ability to make sure that we have quality people who climb to the highest ranks. Also, the military is a profession of arms, and therefore there are always going to be limitations to how much you can hire laterally. So there are certain things that go with the profession of arms that make it not like other jobs.

At the same time, I think we have to look around our society and realize that we have learned and many businesses have in recent decades a great deal about how to do better at attracting, retaining, training people. And I think some of those lessons, we need to carry into what I call the force of the future.

And I call it the force of the future because we have the very best today. You represent that. You're the finest fighting force the world has ever known. One of my jobs is to make sure that the people who come after you and me are as good as you are.

And we can't take that for granted, because generations change, the economy changes: in this case improves as it has in recent years, compared to say 2008. Technology changes and our knowledge of how to make people better, what attracts people, how families organize themselves and family life and how spouses and service members try to organize their lives. There's a lot that's new. We need to keep up with that in order to have the best. I am determined that we continue to represent the very best of American society in our military and that we continue to have the very best fighting force in the world now as we do now in the future.

That's going to require some thinking and some ingenuity. That's what I mean by the force of the future. Is it going to entail some change? Yes it will. Because we need to learn, adapt, and get better to stay the best.




Good afternoon, sir. I am Senior Airman (inaudible) with the 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron out at Creech. I am avionics specialist on the MQ-9 Reaper. And I was wondering, what are the new implications being put forward to stop maybe terrorists coming to the United States?

SEC. CARTER: Okay, the question was what about terrorists coming to the United States. Very good question, and the -- if you don't mind, I'm going to kind of enlarge the question a little bit. We have in our portfolio of missions as a military now and in the future.

And I'm sorry I wish I could tell you this isn't going to stay this way, different groups, different movements will be defeated over time. But the reality is that the -- that destructive power of a kind that was previously only open to large groups of people increasingly becomes open only to small sub-state groups and so forth. And so in addition to state threats, we're going to continue to have sub-state threats, and we're going to have to be good at defeating them and protecting our people from them.

And ISIL is only the newest in chapters of that. We will defeat them because we are the many and they are the few, and we are the organized and they are not. And we are the noble and the right, and they are not. And so we will win.

But we -- this is a continuing effort that we're going to need to keep after. The specific -- and so this is a broad effort, as so many military campaigns are. We are conducting air operations, which those of you in this room know very, very well: very effectively in Iraq and Syria today. But that's just part of the picture. Also, we need good intelligence. We need the efforts of other international partners in order to be successful, and many of them are represented in this room as well, we need them. And we need to control foreign fighters: foreign fighters coming to the United States and some American citizens who go abroad and then come back.

That is not principally the responsibility of the Department of Defense. It is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security, and the law enforcement community, including the FBI. So I don't want to speak for them, but I think they are as alive to this danger as we are. And just to be specific about it, I get every day reporting on precisely that phenomenon. Foreign fighters or threats trying to get in the United States or that we believe might have gotten in the United States, now we -- they really, those other departments, are pretty good at finding them, but they're not going to find them all, as sadly we know.

But that's got to be part of the campaign. They can't leave everything to us. We can't play a total away game. We need to play a home game as well. That's not principally our mission, but it is the mission of the Department of Homeland Security. Many states and municipalities, police departments, first responders of all kind, and sadly, that's going to be necessary, because good as we are at destroying terrorism abroad, there will be in today's connected and traveling world, some number of people from time to time who get through. Of course, we can't stop all Americans who get some crazy idea in their heads, or have been, you know, on the Internet in some troubled way, getting inspired by that kind of thing from traveling abroad and coming back.

So it's an away game and a home game at the same time. We have to fight them both.




Richard Blakely, 820th Red Horse Squadron. Do you have any plans to increase morale military-wide?

SEC. CARTER: Yes, well I certainly have ambitions to increase morale force-wide. I -- morale is -- it -- to me, and I don't know exactly what you have in mind with your question, but in general, the -- I don't want to speak to morale of members. I don't want to speak for other members of the force. But the spirit and the level of dedication of our force, I find very admirable and ever-present.

I do worry, and this may be responsive to your question, about people who leave because they find the conditions of service are not ones that are compatible with what they want to do. That gets back to the force of the future thing. We need to retain people.

That's partly a morale question. It's a compensation question. It's a family and dignity question. So there are lots of different dimensions of it. But -- and in that sense, I do think that we can't take for granted, and I certainly don't take for granted as secretary of defense, that I can attract the people who will make this continue to be the finest fighting force the world has ever known in the future, unless we are attentive to what it takes to attract the very best in today's society, the very best Americans, and unless I'm attentive to what it takes to keep good people.

Because you all have alternatives. One of the wonderful things that I am so proud of is how successful our veterans are. They get great employment possibilities. They get great jobs.

That's a wonderful thing to me. I hate to see any of you leave, because you're so good and we depend upon you so much. But I know that that's gonna happen.

If you go out and you have a bright opportunity after you leave here, though I'm sorry to see you go, there's a good side to that, because somebody else who's coming along is gonna look at that and say you know what, the military's a real way to get ahead. It's a good place to have been. So, even if I can't keep you for your whole career, if you get out and you do well, that's good for us, because it means that good people will come in.

So there are a lot of dimensions to morale. I mean, part of it psychological, but I think part of it is how we treat our force and how we conduct ourselves with respect to the force of the future, and that's why I'm so intent upon exactly that -- that issue.

Look, y'all. Thank you once again. And just to repeat, what you do is the noblest thing that anyone can do. And it's a wonderful feeling that not everyone else in society gets to have to go to work in the morning and know that you are doing the noblest thing that can be done, which is to provide security. I know it's difficult. I know it's tough. I know it's dangerous. There's a lot that's challenging about it. But it does have that.

And I hope you appreciate that, and I know your families do. I'm sure they're as proud of you as we are. And boy, I'm just so proud of you.

So thank you, and I look forward to looking each one of you in the eye individually and shaking your hands.