Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper gives the keynote remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Simi Valley, California, December 7, 2019.
Throughout the years, the Reagan Defense Forum has probably welcomed secretaries of defense past and present. This year, we are honored to be joined by former secretaries Madison Panetta at Table 10.
And our special guest today is a 27th U.S. Secretary of Defense, Dr. Mark T. Esper. Let me set the scene. It was 1991. The 101st Airborne was preparing to deploy for Operation Desert Shield, Desert Storm. Major General Pa, commander of 101st had a question for Colonel Tom Greco. Is there anyone you want to recall to your unit for deployment? Absolutely, said Greco. That man is Lieutenant Mark Esper. He is the man I want to come back. Of course, Esper answered the call. Mark served as an officer with the Screaming Eagles of 101st Airborne, and in recognition of his leadership and ensuring the defeat of the Iraqi regime, Greco recommended Mark for the Bronze Star. That was just one of many commendations he earned during his service. Greco saw now Secretary Esper’s leadership up close and under the most trying conditions. And nearly three decades later, on the eve of his Senate confirmation as defense secretary, Greco was still singing his praises. In interview, he said, quote, Esper served in all three military components. He served in large corporations in support of defense. He’s walked into the boardrooms and on the frontlines. The Retired Colonel said, hard to imagine anyone with any more experience. And that is a backdrop that enabled Secretary Esper to earn one increasingly rare accolade earlier this year. And that is the Senate confirmation vote of 90 to eight. Let me repeat that. 94 and eight against, doesn’t seem to happen in this era. But I think Karl Rove is keeping track of the eight. So you’re in good stead. Now, Secretary Esper faces his most difficult mission yet, navigating the complex threats that we’ve explored and will continue explore today from the comforts of the Reagan Library. Deterring aggression and defending freedom is the focus of our forum. Yet for Secretary Esper, it is his job description. His team is on the frontlines. According to Colonel Greco, during his years as an Army officer, Secretary X Esper was, quote, always listening, always taking in as much as he could. Listening is the strongest asset of a leader, as we all know. Yet this afternoon, it is our job to listen up. On behalf of my fellow Reagan Library trustees it’s an honor to welcome to the stage for this year’s National Reagan Defense Forum keynote address. The 27th U.S. Secretary of Defense, Dr. Mark Esper.
Well, thanks, Michael, for that kind introduction. And I guess I’m gonna have to double up on my Christmas gift to Tom Greco for his kind words. But I also want to thank the Reagan Institute for inviting me here today. It’s a true privilege and an honor. As many of you know, because there’s a lot of friends of mine out there in the audience. I’ve attended this forum every year since its inception in 2012. And I found this to be an incredibly important venue to discuss the state of our national defense. It’s quite fitting to have this discussion here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to pay tribute to a leader who did so much to enhance our military strength and our nation’s security during a time of profound consequence and change, just like today. And on a personal note, I always enjoyed walking through the halls and looking at the photos. That some of my closer friends know, my mother’s side of the family or Reagans from County Cork. And over the years, my mom has claimed that we have a relationship with President Reagan. I’ve often pressed her for evidence. None has been forthcoming. And so my only other request to the library is this. As you go through your files, if you find that relationship, call me. If you don’t, I’ll give you her cell phone number (audience laughing) I don’t want to make mom mad. When President Reagan took office, he faced a Herculean task building a military capable of defeating the Soviet Union. He got to work, highlighting the dangers of insufficient defense spending and the readiness shortfalls that plague the force. He secured substantial budget increases from Congress and advocated reforms that cut the costs of defense programs and delivered savings back to the department. He spoke fiercely about peace through strength and launched a major effort to modernize our nuclear arsenal. He held innovation R&D funding is the key to American advantage over our adversaries. He articulate this vision of American strength and global engagement in our nation’s first ever national security strategy. And most importantly, he inspired us. He gave us confidence. Reagan brought to the forefront a commitment to American values, values such as freedom, human rights and the rule of law. He embodied these ideas as he rallied against the threat of communism. He stood for peace during nuclear weapons negotiations with the Soviet Union, and he championed liberty and opportunity in Berlin when he called on Gorbachev to tear down this wall. To say the world has changed since then would be an understatement. But President Reagan’s vision and strategies to secure peace for America and for the world remain as relevant today as they were in his time. And this new era of great power competition, our war fighting advantages over strategic competitors are being challenged. The international rules-based order is increasingly under attack. China and Russia. Today’s revisionist powers are modernizing their militaries while seeking veto power over the economic and security decisions of other nations. China’s economic rise has allowed it to triple its annual military spending since 2002, with estimates reaching close to $250 billion last year. Beijing continues to violate the sovereignty of Indo-Pacific nations and expand its control abroad under the pretense of belt and road infrastructure investments. Meanwhile, it is pursuing competitive advantages, often in illicit ways in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and 5G, while exploiting other nations intellectual property for its own gain. Russia is another nation intent on upending the international norms through its aggressive foreign policy, broken treaty obligations, nuclear intimidation and cyber operations. It has violated the borders of its neighbors in the pursuit of regional dominance and turned to coercion and hybrid tactics as a means to regain strategic advantage. Elsewhere, we face ongoing threats from rogue regimes, including North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and Iran’s continued efforts to destabilize the Middle East. And around the world, terrorist organizations such as ISIS continue to pose a threat to the United States and our allies. This environment presents us with a host of challenges we must overcome to compete, deter and if necessary, to fight and win tomorrow’s wars. Winning future battles requires us to contend with our competitors growing anti-access, aerial denial capabilities, hypersonic weapons, anti-satellite systems and other emerging technologies. We must develop and deploy new warfighting doctrine, including multi demand operations and command and control. To be prepared to fight not just in the air, on land and at sea, but also in space and cyberspace. This requires a robust defense budget and continued investments in our readiness and our modernization. It requires us to make tough choices to ensure our resources go to the right priorities. It requires an emphasis on innovation and cutting-edge technologies, and it requires us to leverage our growing network of allies and partners. The National Defense Strategy remains our guiding beacon to meet these needs. Our focus is on three major lines of effort. Enhancing our military’s readiness and lethality, strengthening our alliances and attracting new partners, and reforming the department to make sure our finite resources are directed toward our highest priorities. Alongside the NDS, we’re also placing renewed emphasis on taking care of our service members and their families because we know that people are a most valuable resource. Since releasing the NDS, we have invested in new equipment, improved operational readiness and continue to modernize our nuclear deterrent forces. For example, we’re developing next generation smart munitions and across our services. We’re procuring advanced fighter jets. We’re modernizing all three legs, the nuclear triad and investing in our missile defense program to protect the homeland. We’re developing unmanned naval vessels and improving the readiness of our fleet. And we’re developing a new generation of ground fighting vehicles. The department continues to invest in advanced technologies that will help us maintain our tactical advantage, such as artificial intelligence, directed energy, robotics and hypersonic weapons. Our current research and development budget is the largest it’s been in 70 years, growing funding for space by 15% and cyber by 10%. While our adversaries seek to surpass us in developing this cutting-edge technologies, we must press ahead to preserve our long held battlefield overmatch. We’re well aware to doing so, on our way to doing so. For example, we established the United States Space Command and our modernizing our space capabilities. We increased our investments in both offensive and defensive cyber space to boost resiliency against adversaries. We stood up the joint Artificial Intelligence Center to get ahead of the curve in machine learning and we are identifying ways to leverage big data to gain efficiencies across the department. Meanwhile, we are working to reallocate our forces and equipment to property theaters that enable us to better compete with China and Russia. As part of our dynamic force employment, will deter aggression by becoming more operationally unpredictable to complicate adversary decision making. This will require us to adjust our force posture around the world to become more responsive to and more prepared for future threats. It also requires us to maintain a robust network of allies and partners. We recognize that they are an inherent strategic advantage our opponents do not possess. To bolster our collective security, we continue to emphasize burden sharing and it’s working. Since 2016, our NATO allies have invested an additional $130 billion annually in defense. Nine NATO member states currently meet the 2% GDP commitment and many more on their path to reaching that goal by 2024. We continue to add more partners to global efforts to deter aggression such as the International Maritime Security Construct in the Strait of Hormuz and the more nascent integrated air missile defense effort to protect critical infrastructure in the Middle East. And we have secured greater host nation support in countries where U.S. troops are stationed abroad. Full implementation of the NDS, however, relies on more than just new concepts, smart investments and robust relationships. To be effective in an era of great power competition, it also requires us to reform. This means re revisiting our industrial era management structures and processes that were born during the Cold War. The leadership team across the department, OSD, Joint Staff, the services and combat commands must achieve a new level of integration and results with far greater speed than the Pentagon bureaucracy has traditionally accommodated. We need shared goals management based on data and accountability for NDS outcomes. To align our efforts, we have made major changes to our battle rhythm. Every week, all the department’s senior leaders, uniformed and civilian, now meet as a leadership team to measure progress toward implementing the NDS. This is a significant management shift inside the Pentagon. But we are committed to fully implementing the strategy at every level. And I’m proud to report we have already made solid progress. However, to keep up this momentum, we depend on a predictable, sufficient and timely budget. Under President Trump’s leadership and with the support of Congress, the department’s recent budgets have allowed us to rebuild our warfighting readiness, which had been depleted due to several years of insufficient funding and numerous, numerous continuing resolutions. Last year’s budget allowed us to really begin modernizing the force and increasingly lethality to meet future warfighting demands. Out 2020 budget and beyond will drive those modernization efforts and ensure their long-term success. We understand that the nation’s resources are limited. To enable sustained investment in critical next generation capabilities, our future budgets must free up those resources by divesting from legacy systems and low priority activities. We need your support to get this done. After all, great power competition is not solely the concern of the Department of Defense. The rising theft of intellectual property, cyber intrusions into public and private networks and state backed met market manipulation are consequences of China’s growing power. These activities erode our industrial base and make American innovation vulnerable to exploitation. Everyone, everyone in this room is impacted by this reality. To further complicate matters, the Department of Defense remains hamstrung by the ongoing continuing resolution. For every day under a CR, is a day we’re competing with Russia and China with one hand tied behind our back. This summer’s budget agreement showed great promise, but unfortunately we are still operating at a level $19 billion below the top line. In fact, we continue to lose nearly $5 billion in buying power for every quarter we remain in a CR. This must end. That is why I continue to call on Congress to pass an appropriations bill that provides our service members the support they deserve and allows the department to fully implement the National Defense Strategy.
Let me repeat. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines and civilians need a defense appropriations bill, now. Let’s get it done. In addition, we need Congress to grant us the authorities required to maintain an edge over our adversaries in every war fighting domain to include space. It was also essential that this year’s NDA fully authorize the creation of the space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. And I want to thank Congress for doing that, and I want to specifically thank, where’s Chairman Smith? And Congressman Thornberry, thank you both, as well as your counterparts in the Senate for doing that.
Within the department, we are implementing aggressive reforms to free up the time, money and manpower to put back into our highest priorities. The week after I was confirmed, we launched a defense wide review to begin reforming the Fourth Estate. In just four months of work, we have saved over $5 billion. By decreasing overhead, divesting legacy activities and reducing lower party programs, we are able to invest more in the warfighting requirements of the services. However, we can’t do this without the backing of Congress. When our budget comes to the Hill next year, I ask you to support our proposals and enact the legislative changes needed to get these reforms across the finish line. And to be clear, this is just the beginning. I expect every leader and each military service and OSD and the joint staff and in the combatant commands to review their budgets with the same rigour and to pre-prioritize to support the NDS. We will continue the defense wide review process early next year from a clean sheet as we start looking at the 2021 budget to ensure we make the most of every taxpayer dollar. The security, the United States of America, and in fact the world, depends on our willingness to prepare for an uncertain future. As I meet my counterparts throughout my travels, I’m reminded just how much other nations desire America’s presence and our leadership. They look to us to deter aggression, to help build their military capacity and to promote American values like freedom and respect for the rule of law. The United States plays a unique role in the world as a beacon of those principles. In his farewell address, President Reagan recounted a story from the early 1980s about an American sailor on the carrier Midway in the South China Sea. As his crews save the boat for refugees escaping communist control of Southeast Asia, one of those refugees called out to the sailor. Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man. And as the president recounted the time in his own words, he said, quote, a small amount with a big meaning. A moment the sailor who wrote it in a letter couldn’t get it out of his mind. And when I saw it, neither could I. Because that’s what was to be an American in the 1980s. We stood again for freedom. America was synonymous with freedom then, and it still is today. Our service members were seen across the world as sentinels of that freedom then as they are today, and Reagan understood that American military power was the key to security and prosperity, then, just as it is today. The United States military will continue to demonstrate leadership across the globe. We will continue to uphold America’s values. And as President Reagan championed, we will continue to promote peace through strength. Thank you all, and I look forward to our discussion.
Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Wonderful remarks. We now, I mentioned earlier we have a number of friends in the media and it’s a real honor to present somebody who’s been with us for several years now and comes regularly and a big friend of the Reagan Defense Forum, and that’s Bret Baier. Bret is serving as the Fox News Channel chief political correspondent and the anchor of the “Special Report”. So with no further ado, welcome, Bret Baier to the stage.
Thank you very much. Thank you very much. I’m going to trade seats with you because my microphone’s on this side. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
[Man] Always knew you wanted to be on the left.
Yeah. There you go. So. Good afternoon. I’ve done this for the past two years. I did it. Interviewed, H.R. McMaster, and a few weeks later, he resigned. (audience laughing) I interviewed, Secretary Mattis and a few weeks later, he resigned. Everything okay?
I guess I’ll have an easy Christmas.
Okay, just checking. Thanks for the time. First, I want to talk about this, this horrible story out of Pensacola. You can definitively say it’s terrorism today.
Well, first of all, it’s a very tragic incident. Three lives lost, eight injured. And, of course, we extend our condolences to all the families affected by it and touched by it, in our military community down there. But no, I can’t say it’s terrorism at this time. I think we need to let the investigators, the FBI, do its work and tell us get us the facts and we’ll move up from there.
It’s reported that he posted a will on Twitter praising Osama bin Laden. There have been multiple arrests. Any other light you can shed on this investigation?
You know, not at this time. Like I said, my view is to let the investigators do their work. In the meantime, we have taken precautions. Yesterday, I directed that we look at our security precautions across the services and all of our installations and bases and facilities to make sure that we’re, get the appropriate degree of security to protect our service members and our families and our communities. And that’s underway. And at the same time, I also directed that we look at our vetting procedures within within DOD for all the many foreign nationals to come for good reason to our country to train. And as as you may or may not know, anybody that comes to United States to train is or should be, is vetted by the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, and then ultimately us. So we need to relook all that. But again, I think what we need to do is make sure we understand the what’s in wise and hows of this and not jump to any conclusions before that happens.
Is there any doubt or concern in your mind deploying troops to Saudi Arabia in the wake of all of this?
No, not at all. I think, you know, Saudi Arabia’s longstanding partner of ours in the region. We share mutual security interests, primarily with regard to Iran. And the importance of there is reassuring our neighbors and partners and allies throughout the region that we’re were there to assist them, we’re there to defend the international rules-based order. And we want. We need to deter Iran from its malign behavior.
You mentioned Iran, the multiple reports out there about additional forces heading to the Middle East to counter Iran. Is that happening?
No, those are false reports. I don’t know where they came from. We’ve deployed 14,000 troops since May of this year. But right now, I’m not looking at any major deployments coming up in the region. That said, on a day to day basis, we monitor what’s happening in the Middle East, on the Korean Peninsula, in the European theater, all over the world. And we make adjustments, tuning our forces up or down based on what the needs of the commander are. And that happens again, routinely. That’s just what we do.
Is the president open to that?
Has the 14,000 been affected?
Well, the 14,000 since May. Not this mysterious other 14,000. Yes. I think the degree if you go back in time to June or July, when we had the shoot down of the drone. We had the Iranians seizing or trying to disable ships in the Strait. We we took some actions. I eventually deployed some additional forces a month or so later. And since that time, in terms of overt actions directed to us or our allies, and that was following the wake of the Aramco incident. We haven’t seen that level of activity. So that’s a good thing. But again, what I need to do is to continually assess the situation and make sure we have the right degree of forces in position to deter Iranian bad behavior and if necessary, to respond and respond forcefully in a way that they understand that we’re serious about defending our friends, reassuring our allies and preventing them from misbehaving.
Knowing what you know, do you expect Iran to launch another attack?
I don’t necessarily expect them, but I have to plan and prepare for it. And again, that’s something we try and watch very carefully and adjust our forces and our readiness posture to do something. And by the way, part of our strategy out there is to, and I mentioned in my remarks, is the multilateralize us. And I’ve had phone conversations with many of our NATO allies about providing additional forces into the Saudi, the Arabian Peninsula, air defense assets in particular. Now, we all recognize the challenge presented by Iran. Again, whether it’s their direct operations or more likely, most likely through proxies, either from the south or from proxies in Iraq that could threaten us or our interests.
Is it your estimation that Iran, the threat from Iran is increasing?
I think you could make that assessment, given the effectiveness of the maximum pressure campaign, given what’s happening in the streets of Iran these days, you see a regime under stress. It’s a good thing that the Iranian people are also seeking the prosperity, the liberty, the freedoms that we enjoy in this country. That’s something that we believe is, as I talked about promoting American values abroad. That’s what we do. So you see a regime increasingly under stress. I think we need to be prepared for any contingency.
Are you seeing evidence of missiles going into Iraq from Iran that could threaten U.S. troops in Iraq?
Well, I’m not going to comment on anything like that in terms of intelligence. But, you know, there have been reports in the public space about rockets being fired at American forces on bases in Iraq. So we’ve seen a little bit of an uptick there. And that’s, again, another indicator for us of Iran reaching out. I mean, you’d look right now in the Arabian Peninsula, you see some type of rapprochement between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. That’s a good thing, right, because the Iranians have been trying to, One way by which they’ve been creating turmoil in the theater is through Yemen and through its proxies in Yemen. So those things are all challenging their strategy right now. And we watch it carefully.
The resignation of the Iraqi prime minister, how do you see that?
Well, you know, I was in Iraq in the Middle East about four weeks ago. I met with him. I met with the defense minister. We discussed that at the time. I, of course, assured him that we respect Iraq’s sovereignty, that we’re there to assist Iraq, to help them in terms of the train, advise, assist, mission, to deter Iran and to deter Shia militia groups in that country. So what you see, what’s happening in the streets now, are people coming out across Iraq protesting any number of issues, whether it’s a job opportunity, economic pressures, but also saying we want Iran out of our country. So that’s a telltale sign, particularly among two Shia nations. And so it’s not good to see the destabilization in the government, but they’re trying to work a way forward. What we don’t want is that country to collapse. They’ve been good partners of ours, and we need to continue to support them in the way we do currently.
Gonna bounce around the world here. Are you concerned about this Christmas gift? North Korea says it will deliver if no deal is reached.
Well, look, we keep a close eye on North Korea all the time. My job is twofold. One is to ensure we’re ready to fight and win tonight if called upon. And I’m confident that we are. I was just in Korea a few weeks ago and meeting with our commanders on the ground, reviewing our operations together. Number two is my job is to enable our diplomats to make sure that they have the support of the Defense Department as a move forward. So our position remains the same. The best path forward with regard to North Korea is a diplomatic solution, a political agreement that gets us to a denuclearized peninsula. That’s all in everybody’s interests. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien was on my show Thursday.
He did pretty well, didn’t he?
[Bret] Did he? Okay. And he said that the administration is hopeful that a deal can come together. Where is that hope coming from? Because you look at what’s happening, you just don’t see it.
Well, look, you prepare for the worst, but you work for the best. And in this case, you know, we have a very capable state department team that’s out there engaging with the North Koreans. And the best path forward is through a political agreement. And that is our hope. If you don’t have hope and then what, you fall back into a war footing. I will tell you that when I came into office in the fall of 2017 and Secretary Mattis was there, we were on a war footing. We were getting ready to possibly go to war against the DPRK. And it was the president’s intervention, his outreach, his leadership that began the dialogue with Kim Jong-un directly that got us off that path. In two years now, we haven’t had nuclear tests and we haven’t had ICBM launches. Those are good things. And again, what we’ve got to continue to do is push and talk to the North Koreans about getting back to the diplomatic table and try and find a way forward.
[Bret] How concerned are you about North Korea’s solid fuel rockets? Does it change the equation?
Well, solid fuel boosters do provide you a degree of efficiency and mobility and gives you less warning than do a liquid fueled rockets. but that they’ve been moving in this direction for years. Again, it’s another thing that we watch, because it reduces our warnings, if you will. But we have very good intelligence on North Korea. We work closely with our partners. The South Koreans, we’re very capable allies as well. And these are all things that it’s my responsibility as long with the intelligence community, keep a close eye on.
[Bret] Do you think that this is just a cycle that Kim Jong-un goes through the saber-rattling and it’s kind of what happens every Christmas?
Look, I’ve been watching North Korea since 1994, when I was a war planner for the Pacific on the Army staff. So I’ve seen these these these efforts, these plays, if you will, how North Korea acts, whether it was him or his father. So the important thing is to pay attention, don’t discount everything. But you also can’t react everything they say and do.
[Bret] Syria. What is the administration policy when it comes to Syria?
Policy is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS and for the troops position in Syria, that is our mission right now. We’re working very closely with our SDF partners to do just that.
[Blade] And that’s what you’re trying to achieve. ISIS solely.
Enduring defeat of ISIS.
[Bret] Nothing to do with Bashar al-Assad.
In what regard? In terms of the broader? We have a broader effort there in Syria that involves the UN. process by which several countries are underway to find a political resolution of that. Again, that’s the State Department has a lead on that and we support them in that manner.
[Bret] Has the administration put Turkey in a position that has disadvantage the U.S. military in any way?
I don’t think so. I think Turkey’s put itself in a position where it’s disadvantage itself. I mean, at the time of their incursion into northern Syria, we thought it was a mistake to do so. We thought it would lead to the release of ISIS prisoners, that would lead to greater instability in the region. We saw some of that. But it really once again puts in a contrast our concerns about Turkey’s direction that they may be spinning out of the NATO orbit. I’ve spoken publicly about this. On the other hand, NATO is. I’m sorry. Turkey is a longstanding NATO ally. They fought with us from Korea to Afghanistan. And I think it’s in all of our interest to make sure that we pull ’em in closer to NATO and we preserve what is now a, or will soon be a 30-nation alliance, a very long standing and capable alliance.
[Bret] A recent Pentagon IG report said President Trump’s partial withdrawal from Syria has allowed ISIS to, quote, reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad. Do you agree with that?
I have not seen evidence of that. I think given our operations together with the SDF, given the operations undertaken by Turkey, given the very successful operation we conducted to kill ISIS leader al-Baghdadi and his number two, I think we’ve set them back. Now, that said, that doesn’t mean that ISIS from Africa to Afghanistan and in Syria isn’t trying to reconstitute. Of course, they will. They have a very strong ideology. So it’s incumbent upon us to maintain that presence and stay on our toes so we can continue to tap those things down as they arise.
[Bret] So do you have enough troops in Syria?
I think we do. I think we have enough troops. And if we don’t, then that’s something we would deploy additional troops. That’s one of the things I keep in close contact with the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, and specifically my commander, General Mackenzie, to make sure that he has what he needs to accomplish his mission.
[Bret] Just to be clear on the first question about deployment. You’re saying it’s not true. You’re not considering it.
I’m not considering. Nor is there anything in the system that says we’re gonna put 14,000 additional troops in the Middle East before Christmas.
[Bret] How about seven?
It’s flat out wrong. We’re not considering putting 7000 additional troops. And I’m not going to walk down from there.
[Bret] How about five?
Sure, I’m gonna put five more soldiers. Sure, five. Just five. Look, at any day of the week, we are moving forces in and out of these regions. And it’s not just there. You could go to the Korean Peninsula. We’re rotating ABCTs Armor Brigade Combat Teams to Europe and Saudi Arabia and the Middle East all the time. This is the normal flow of forces. And if the commander needs additional resources, that will come up to the joint staff. We will considered and we will we will provide him what he needs as appropriate. And that could happen today, it could happen next week. It could happen a month or two or three from now. But right now, there’s no major deployment of additional forces to the region. It’s just a false report. And I wish I could figure out why people don’t try and confirm those things with with the DOD before they put those reports out.
[Bret] You’re saying it’s fake news.
[Bret] Ok. What are you telling the Kurds in regards to Syria who feel that they’ve been abandoned by the U.S. decision to pull back there? What are the conversations you have?
Well, look, I certainly understand that that feeling at the tactical level. I’ve been there, right. When you’re on the ground with with your friends and partners, brothers you shed blood with to defeat ISIS. But when you step back, you know, we went into this with mutual interest, mutual interests being the defeat of ISIS. Certainly ISIS had taken a lot of ground and territory, that was the SDF, the Kurds were owned. They inflicted great harm. We came in. It was a great marriage that led to the physical defeat of the caliphate. But at no point time do we say we’re here to help you establish an autonomous Turkish state. At no time did we say we’re gonna defend you against Turkey, a Kurdish state. At no time did we say we’re going to defend you against Turkey, a NATO ally of 70 years. And I’ve talked to the commanders. They have conveyed the same to me as well, our commanders. Where we are today is we’re on the ground working closely with them and we still retain that partnership. But I think we far better understand today the limits of that partnership and the scope of how far we’ll go.
[Bret] During the president’s trip to Afghanistan, Thanksgiving, he said that the U.S military has been able to substantially reduce the number of troops there. How many U.S. troops are there?
We’ve got about 13,000 or so. Between 12 and 13,000. And, the commander feels confident we can go down to a lower level without jeopardizing our ability to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorism. But the best path—
[Bret] So, even if a Taliban deal doesn’t come forward, if it doesn’t get negotiated, that reduction is still gonna happen?
I would like to do that, because what I want to do is reallocate forces to the Indo-PACOM on theater. That’s my priority theater. That’s what the NDS tells me is our priority theater. That’s why in my six months on the job now, my first two trips were extended trips to Asia to visit all of our allies and partners out there. So that’s my focus. And I’m not just looking at Afghanistan. I’m looking at CENTCOM. I’m looking at AFRICOM. I’m looking at SOUTHCOM. I’m looking at EUCOM. All these places where I can free up troops, where I can either bring them home, to allowed them to rest and refit and retrain or, and then reallocate them to the Indo-Pacific to compete with the Chinese, to reassure our allies, to conduct exercises and training.
[Bret] You often say that the Pentagon’s top priorities are China and Russia. But is there a point at which the continued deployment of forces to the Middle East prevents that pivot?
Well, sure. I mean, I face that. My predecessors have faced that. You know, we have a strategy. But you have to do what the world you live in, not the world you want. And the world we live in right now shows that Iran is a country increasingly under stress thanks to a successful strategy by the president. And as they experience more stress, I need be ensure that we have sufficient force on the ground, again, to reassure our allies, help defend them, defend the international order and deter Iranian bad behavior.
[Bret] What do you see from Pakistan? Are they still harboring the Taliban?
Well, look, that’s a tough border to control in first place. But, yes, you see reports of Taliban moving, taking some degree of sanctuary across that border. That’s something we deal with. But the bigger story coming out of Afghanistan is this, is that the Afghan security forces have really stepped up. We’ve seen a market improvement in their performance when it comes to actions against them. The Afghans are leading the way with our support and they’re doing a pretty good job. And it was reported just a week ago that we had a substantial impact on ISIS in Afghanistan, devastating with regard to their action. So the bigger story is Afghanistan, what’s happened with the Afghan security forces.
[Bret] China recently announced it was canceling port calls in Hong Kong for U.S. Navy warships, a practice Beijing actually began six months ago. So are relations between U.S. and China deteriorating?
I don’t think so. You know, we engaged them on a number of levels across a number of areas. I made it a priority of mine to reach out to my Chinese counterpart, Minister Wei, and engage with him. I’ve had a few phone calls with him. I met with him in Bangkok just a week or so ago, two weeks ago now, I guess, to make sure we have open lines of communication. we have a very professional relationship. We’re able to talk issues between us and to share thing. But I want to make sure I have somebody to call in a crisis that there’s no misunderstanding or no miscalculation. I think it’s vitally important that we always maintain open lines of communication.
[Bret] Russia. How concerned are you about Russia’s development of hypersonic missiles and other technology? Is the U.S. falling behind in that front?
You know, we took a pause on on this technology some years ago when we had a clear lead. And what we’re doing now is playing catch up. So the department is investing every dollar we can, every dollar that we can physically use to ensure that we have an advantage, that we gain and advance on hypersonics. With regard to Russia, what I’m concerned about, and this gets into other issues, is their pursuit and development of a variety of weapons, strategic weapons that are out there outside of the current START Treaty. Things that are unaccountable for that aren’t being verified. We’ve seen them over the years. The previous administration saw this. We saw it where they were cheating on the INF Treaty and now they have a capability that we don’t have, with regard to intermediate range weapons. So we watch very carefully what the Russians do, and we’re conscious of their behavior.
[Bret] When you hear criticisms about this administration in Russia, how do you pushback?
I think from my perch where I sit, I think we’ve been very aggressive with regard to Russia. I’ve called them out time after time and any number for it, just as I did today with regard to their bad behavior. Their invasion of Georgia, their seizure of Crimea, their actions in Ukraine. We’ve support our friends and allies.
[Bret] Is it different from the previous administration?
I think we’ve upped our game. If you look at Ukraine, the provision of lethal aid. If you look at the present success with regard to increased burden-sharing by our allies. By 2024, the increased annual spending by our NATO allies will be nearly $400 billion. That’s all going into capabilities. We developed what’s called the NATO readiness initiative, whereas of just Tuesday we now have 30 battalions, 30 squadrons, 30 capital ships ready within 30 days, all identified. That’s a big change for NATO. We now have NATO focused on China, something that hasn’t happened many years. So we had a very successful NATO meeting. But in NATO, it’s also reinvigorated by what Russia is doing. And again, we compete with them all over. We compete with them in Syria, if you will. And I think we’re pushing back pretty strongly against Russian bad behavior.
[Bret] Are you considering more aid to Ukraine?
We have another tranche coming up at this time. I think it’s around $250 million and the DOD supported it last time around. I imagine we’ll support it next time around. But there’s always checks we have to do. We always look for, you know, how is it being used and are they addressing corruption?
[Bret] Isn’t there $35 million that hasn’t been deployed yet.
I think it’s actually less than $10 million to this point. But most of the aid went out on time.
[Bret] Does this impeachment process affect you?
Well, look, my I stay out of politics. I want to keep DOD out of politics. There’s a reason why.
[Bret] Well, you have your people testify.
There’s there’s a reason why the Department of Defense and the military are held in the highest regard by the American people. And that’s because they know they can trust us. We’re competent and we stay out of politics.
[Bret] So it doesn’t affect you?
No, because I think we’re doing a pretty good job staying out of it. I’m not gonna let you drag me into it.
[Bret] Ok. Last summer, the administration withheld.
Here we go.
[Bret] The aid in order to get this investigation. Can you rule out taking similar actions in the future?
I actually don’t understand the question. Can you say it again?
[Bret] There was a hold on the on the money, right?
It was not a hold by DOD. DOD looked at the provision of lethal aid to Ukraine. We assessed it and I’ve said this publicly. We looked at three things. Is it important to Ukraine with regard to their ability to engage the Russians? Have the Ukrainians sufficiently addressed corruption? And number three, are our allies in the region also providing security assistance to the Ukrainians, the system? The answer at all three was yes, so we supported the provision of that aid.
[Bret] What keeps you up at night?
Nothing, because I know that we are well, we are well defended by the best military in the world.
[Bret] I want to use this end time to talk about your—
You got three minutes, Bret.
[Bret] Yeah, yeah. I see you looking at that clock, Mr. Secretary.
I’m surviving so far. I may have a job through Christmas.
[Bret] I am not the black widow of interviewers. I promise you.
I hope not.
All right. I want you to talk about capabilities, readiness, where the US is today as compared to where we were when the president took office.
Look, we’ve made significant strides with regard to readiness. The president has made funding our military a top priority. He has given me specific guidance with regard to making sure we have advanced weapons so we modernize our strategic deterrent. Are all of our efforts have been enabled by Congress, has been very supportive. Bipartisan support from the House and Senate in both the authorization committees and the appropriation committees. So I think we’re all focused on the right things. What holds us off, and I talked about it in my remarks and all the committee members, all the members of Congress here know this and appreciate it. The continuing resolutions are killers for us because you’re not able to conduct training. First of all, we’re operating at $19 billion less than what we would have. Right now, we currently cannot conduct near over nearly 200 new start programs, nearly 100 production increases with regard to items and munitions. I’m missing training seats we cannot fill, exercise that we cannot conduct. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. So as that CR continues, our readiness goes down and down and down. Our maintenance goes, We were unable to perform some maintenance, that goes down. And look, I just can’t surge at the end. So continuing resolutions are devastating and that’s why we need this appropriations bill passed. Otherwise, strategically, we’ve seen an uptick in readiness across all elements of the force. These major investments we’re making from robotics and hypersonics to AI and autonomous systems are gonna be a game changer. The challenge for us is to break old habits, to brush away bureaucracy, to give up legacy systems and low priority programs and move forward. The American people through the Congress will give us $738 billion dollars. That’s a lot of money. We’ve got to deliver more for what we’re getting.
[Bret] When you tell the American public about the threats ahead and you talk about Russia and China, and you talk about space, what is the message?
You know, the message is that the world is constantly becoming more dangerous and more complicated. You know, in my day as a young officer in 101st, I didn’t worry about cyber. What was cyber? Nobody knew, right. But now we fight and cyber on a daily basis, offensively, defensively. Space was never war-fighting domain, right? It was the place by which we play satellites to communicate with one another, but which we watched weather systems, by which we did other things. Now it’s become a war-fighting domain that we have to defend because not just does our military depend on it, but our economy depends on it. Our way of life depends on it. So you have these new threats and they’ll constantly change. Who knows what will be 10 years from now when my successor’s, successor, successor, is sitting in the seat answering your questions again. It’s an ever changing world. I will tell the American people this much. And I said it again in my remarks. Our most valuable resource is our people. The ability to fill our ranks. The ability to recruit young Americans, men and women alike to our service academies, to bring them into ROTC, to OCS. They are the critical element. And we’ve got to continue to remind them, as President Reagan reminded all of us, the importance of peace through strength, how much our country depends on a strong national defense, how vital it is that we reward our people. We forget that in his first year in office, I recall first two years, President Reagan increased the pay of our service members by 13%. By the time he was finished in eight years, it was over 38%. President Reagan recognized the importance of human capital, of how critical our people are. It was President Reagan’s vision that brought me into the service. I went to the military academy at 1982. You think back, I remember 1979. Many of us remember when Desert One failed in Iran. Remember that disastrous rate? Here we are 40 years later, we’re able to pull off a al-Baghdadi raid. We’re able to kill the head of ISIS with seeming ease because of how far our country has come since the days of Reagan. Now, through the air of President Trump, ensuring we had highly capable, highly lethal ready forces with cutting edge technology. That’s what we’re about.
[Bret] Mr. Secretary, very last question. What’s it like working for President Trump? I have a very good relationship with President Trump. We have a great national security team. You called out Robert O’Brien there. You know, my classmate, Secretary Pompei and I have a good relationship. It’s a good, strong team. The president is always open to good ideas. He lets you have your say, your word. We’re constantly kicking ideas around within the team. So it’s good and it’s. He’s just another one of many bosses I’ve had, you’ve had your time, that you’d learned to work with. And again, I think he really. What’s reassuring, he really believes in America’s military and our young service men and women. I mean, I’ve been out there when he’s regrettably welcomed young men and women home from Dover, right, in a great tail underneath the flag. And I’ve been with him when he’s with the troops talking to him. And he just has a great love of them and really believes in our military and understands what President Reagan understood, and that is peace through strength.
Mr. Secretary, I appreciate the time. And I think you’re gonna be fine for the rest of your. Thank you.
I hope you’re right.