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Gen. Dempsey's Remarks and Q&A at the Reserve Officers Association's National Security Symposium

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey, Washington, D.C.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: You know, I’m tempted — after that introduction — to ask, “What are your questions?” It’s great to be here with you, and it’s an honor to be here but to also kind of, maybe in some way, to pull some things together here. I know I’m the last speaker therefore the only one standing between you and happy hour — that’s a dangerous place to be. But it is. I’m genuinely pleased to have the chance to chat with you. And I’m going to leave most of our time – which is somewhat limited; I’ve got to go over to Capitol Hill and testify on something easy like cyber. But – and that’s important too. So I got to – I got to get that done. So we’ll leave most of our time here together to answer your questions, if you want to be formulating them over about the next 10 minutes.

So look, this is Thurgood Marshall Hall; today’s the first day of Black History Month. That’s not lost on me. I really do like to find ways – I tell people not only to try to think about and understand things, but feel it. And that’s something I think we can all feel: Thurgood Marshall Hall, Black History Month, the history there.

You might know that 150 years ago today, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was published. And of course, Civil War 150 years ago, we started that war – well, who knows? How many men under arms did the North have at the start of the Civil War? Take a guess. Twenty-five thousand. By the time we were done, 2.1 million. I mean, and that’s just the North. And I recognize I probably got some from the other side of the conflict in this room. But the point is, we have always, as a military, had to be able to expand and contract the force. That is a matter of history. It is nothing new.

You know, I tell people, if you’re – if you’re a O-4 or O-5 – O-4, mostly, and E-6, in any service, all you’ve known is a military that has always been growing – always had all of the resources that it could possibly need, and in many cases even more than they – than we need. Well, that’s – you know, that’s going to change here. You know, we’ve got a new economic reality. And – but we’ll figure it out. I promise you, we’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out if we can maintain our sense of trust with each other.

Put up – I have one image to share with you that kind of paints that picture. It’s a picture of a parajumper – many of you, I think, know what a parajumper is. I hope we can get it up. This particular young man is a – there it is. This isn’t exactly him, but this is parajumpers in Afghanistan slinging off – on a wire cable – off of the helicopter, in this case to conduct a mission.

But this young man I met in Alaska – Master Sergeant Roger Sparks, Alaska National Guard – and I should say Air Guard Alaska – and he had just come back and had been recognized for heroism, which I – and I think the award will actually be upgraded in time, or at least if it comes across my desk it will be – because what he did was, he rescued 12 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division off the side of a mountain in the Hindu Kush in northeastern Afghanistan – lowered himself 12 times to pull 12 people up – 8 of them survived; 4 of them died in his arms. And each time he lowered himself, he was met by a hail of gunfire from the Taliban.

Twelve times he lowered – I mean, the cable on which he was suspended was struck twice by gunfire; amazing story. And you know, he’s a big, tall, skinny – I mean, you know, if you saw this guy you’d say, “Really? Did you even need to use the cable? You could have just reached out of – (laughter) – the damn helicopter.” But – and I said to him, you know, how – what were you thinking about when you lowered yourself time after time after time? You know, how’d you do that? And he said, “You know what? He said, truthfully, I didn’t have time to think about it. I just knew they really needed me.”

You know, it doesn’t get any better than that. You got to say to yourself, where do we get these young men and women in America who are willing to lower themselves on a wire cable in a hail of gunfire because 12 soldiers beneath are in trouble? That’s who we are. And that’s who we will still be. And maybe that’s one thing I want you to remember.

As we go through changes in strategy, changes in resourcing, changes in structure – you know, missioning, re-missioning, expansion, contraction – as long as we never lose that, we’ll be fine. And that’s – and that’s our task. That’s really not his task; that’s our task – that is to say, those of us who call ourselves senior leaders, in whatever uniform we wear and in whatever component we happen to serve. OK, you can turn that off. But I’d like you to remember it.

Let me say a couple of things about my job. I’ve got really three principal tasks that I’ve got to accomplish for the country. I call them transition – three different kinds of transition. One is, I will be the chairman as we – as we allow the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – in fact, the one in Iraq is pretty much where we’re going to have it, and Afghanistan – to reach some kind of sustainable presence. In other words, you know, the surge – us in the lead, conducting counterinsurgency – that will all be transitioned over into the – to the responsibility of the Afghans. They want it; we want it; it’s the way these things end, and we’ve got to get there, and we will on my watch.

That transition means that our military, which has largely existed for 10 years to constantly deploy, will still be deploying at some level, but it’ll be a much reduced level. And even at that level, it’ll be often deployment into training exercises, not exclusively into combat. And so the mindset of our youngsters, notably, will have to adapt to that. They’ve got to understand what it means to be in a military that trains to fight as hard as it has fought. And we’ve got to – that’s a – we can’t underestimate how challenging that transition will be for a generation – you know, the young guy that’s just won the Roosevelt Award – you know, you haven’t lived in that Army, in your case Army. So that’s a big transition. We’ve got to help manage it.

The second thing is, I will be the chairman through a series of budget submissions where we go from bigger budgets to smaller budgets. And notice I haven’t said how much bigger or how much smaller. But I mean, the trend line is clear. Anybody – in fact I should ask you, does anybody in the room disagree with that – that I will be the chairman, with the service chiefs, with the chiefs of the Guard and Reserve, who have to figure out, what does it mean to have less resources than we did before? I mean, that’s a fact. And we got to figure that – it’s a pretty significant transition. But one, as I mentioned earlier, that it’s not the first time we’ve done this. So don’t – you know, don’t let anybody go – get out there.

General Fred Franks had a great phrase, I don’t know if you know who he was. He retired as a four-star in the Army. He lead 7th Corps in Desert Storm. If you remember Schwarzkopf talking about the Hail Mary or the – you know, the envelopment to the – to the western flank of Kuwait, he – that’s the guy that did that. And that was his leadership.

But he was an amputee from Vietnam, actually, a lower extremity amputee. And he had a great phrase. He would say: You know, you can’t – it’s literally impossible to wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. And that’s a pretty good image, actually. So what we need to do is wring – is not wring our hands, we need to roll up our sleeves, and we will.

And the third transition – and this affects all of us – is we will transition soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, notably soldiers and Marines, who have been serving, either in the active component or the – potentially Guard and Reserve – into civilian life, because we’re going to get smaller. And the numbers are not announced yet, but they’re among the worst-kept secrets in Washington, D.C., and by the way there’s a big pile of badly kept secrets in Washington, D.C.

But you know that the transition is going to be significant, and it will affect – I’m sure we will be transitioning some [Active Component] into you. I would hope that as we transition and get smaller, we would also take it on our shoulders as leaders to make sure we keep the right people – the best people, the people with the most potential.

Others – some – even some high-potential folks are going to migrate into the civilian sector, which means we’ve got to partner really closely – even more closely with the Veterans Administration. I mean, look, the bottom line here – I don’t have to paint the whole picture for you, just expose you to it. But the picture here is that right now we’re focused on what is our force structure going to be, rightly so; what’s the budget going to mean?

But very quickly we will have to become equally focused on how do we do it? How do we make sure that we do what’s right for the nation, do what’s right for our institution and do what’s right for individuals? And that’s going to be everybody’s job. So that’s the big – the big three transitions that I wanted to mention to you.

The other thing – the other thing we’ve – I want to make sure is that it’s clear, the budget changes we’re making and the shifts, the emphasis changes we’re making, the remissioning, if you will, is always being done in the complete awareness that we got to finish the fight in our – in Afghanistan, you know?

So just be careful we don’t – you know, actually I’m probably talking to myself right now – be careful we don’t leap – you know, leap ahead too quick here. We got some unfinished business, we got soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen in harm’s way; we got families to take care of. And that – and the budget takes care of that, by the way. The budget does not in any way put us at risk for being able to finish what we’ve started in Afghanistan.

Second thing is, as we look to this – the changes related to this budget, some of you have heard me say – if you haven’t, you’ll hear it today, and I say it every chance I get – that we can’t do this budget by budget. You know, we can’t say, OK, for this budget we’re going to make these changes and then next year we’re going to look at that budget and make more changes.

You know, that’s kind of death by a thousand cuts or, you know, you’ll hear people talk about the boiling frog syndrome. You know, put a frog in a thing of cold water – or a thing of boiling water, it’ll jump out. Put a frog in cold water and just turn the heat up until it boils, no more frog. (Laughter.)

So we don’t want to be guilty of either of those things, and therefore we’ve decided, collectively – the joint chiefs, the combatant commanders, the leadership of the department – we’re going to look to 2020, take our best shot at what we think the force should be at 2020 – Joint Force 2020, all components – and then we’re going to build toward that over four budget submissions – ’13-’17, ’14-’18, ’15-’19, ’16-’20. So we’ve really got to keep our eyes on not what’s happening this year, but where we need to be in 2020.

And that kind of gets at some of the – of, I’m sure, your anxieties about force structure changes, what we’re calling remissioning – you know, so one day you’re an A-10 Squadron and the next one – the next – four years later you might be ISR. But the point is, we’ve got to provide for the nation the capabilities it needs in the right balance.

And by the way, when I say balance it’s the balance of capabilities, but it’s also balancing our budget to make sure that we address manpower, modernization, equipment, maintenance and training. And so there’s the balance issue. And all of this is being done looking out to 2020. And we owe you, and in fact you owe us, a lot of thinking over the next few years about what that means and how do we deliver it.

The third thing is our profession. I said that we’re going to get through this challenging period if we maintain trust in each other. There’s another way to say that. You know, we are members of a profession. And, by the way, I believe that’s true whether you are active, Guard or Reserve; I believe that whether you’re a commissioned officer, a noncommissioned office, a warrant officer or a civilian who works as part of the profession.

We’re each and every one of us part of a profession. We each have different responsibilities within the profession, but the point is if we agree with that – you know, that we’re a profession with a calling to do something for the nation and to have a particular set of values to back that up and a particular set of standards, special skills and expertise, a commitment to continuing development and education – then I think it’ll help us understand this issue called balance. It’ll be built on that foundation of trust.

And I think that these young men and women who have done nothing but fight for 10 years, and who now say, who the heck are we? You know, we’re not going to Iraq and – why – you know, what’s my raison d'etre? And for the South Carolinians in the room, that means what – who the hell am I? (Laughter.) So I just think that it’s – there you are – I just think that it’s – we got to focus on ourselves as a profession, understand what that means, understand the special obligation that it brings and then, you know, that should inform our ability to do the things we got to do.

And the last thing on my piece of paper here is, you know, you’ve heard us talk a great deal about keeping faith with those who have served and continue to serve. And we will. I promise you that. But I found, in a very fascinating way, that sometimes people will say, well, how can you say you’re keeping faith? Because now you’re going to change compensation, or now you’re going to maybe change TRICARE or now you’re maybe going to change retirement. By the way, we’re not looking at that yet. We’re going to study it.

But the point is, keeping faith is not just about money. It’s not just about putting money in your pocket or my pocket. We keep faith with the men and women who serve if we ensure they’re disciplined, if we make sure they’re well-trained, if we make sure they’re well-equipped. That’s part of keeping faith, too.

It’s become kind of a mantra in some circles – you know, it’s been tied to how much money are you going to give. It’s part of that, of course. They have to know that we are caring for their well-being and that of their family’s monetarily. But never forget that when somebody says to you: You got to keep faith with soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines – that’s also keeping faith with them to make sure they’re the best trained, best equipped, best led force on the face of the planet. And sometimes, that’s being a little rough with them, to tell you the truth.

OK, that’s where we are. None of this is easy. It briefs a heck of a lot easier than it – than it works out. There will be some – you know, we’re going to – we’re going to see parts of this and we’re going to say, that wasn’t too darn – you know, we got through that pretty good. We’re going to see other parts of it where we’re going to say, that was harder than I thought it was going to be. But this is all about – this isn’t about what’s best for the 18th chairman or the 38th chief or anybody else. This is about what’s best for the country.

One last little anecdote to tie it all together. We talked about Master Sergeant Roger Sparks. I talked about the Thurgood Marshall Room. I talked about the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and how we had to expand and how we always expand and contract. The other thing I want to tell you about is Antietam. If you haven’t been to Antietam, you’ve got to go to Antietam. I mean, you go to a lot of Civil War battlefields, some of them are more commercial than others. Some of them are grander than others. Some of them are more famous than others. Antietam is just up the road; 23,000 – September is the battlefield – in fact, it’s the 150th anniversary, this September – 23,000 service men casualties, single day, eight-hour day, 23,000 casualties; fought on a – on a patch of ground not a heck of a lot bigger than the zoo next door or four football fields – 23,000 casualties.

About 10,000 are buried right there at the – in the cemetery there, the national cemetery. There’s a huge statue just about where that extension is back there in back, overlooking these graves. And the – and it’s one of the only memorials to an enlisted soldier. You know, normally they put generals up on statues; you know, stick them on a horse, put them on a pedestal, maybe he won’t bother us for the rest of time. But this is – this is an enlisted soldier, and the locals nicknamed him Old Simon. And Old Simon is huge. He’s probably 20 or 30 feet tall, I’d say. And the inscription on the statue is this, not – looking out over these 10,000 souls: Not for themselves, but for their country.

That’s what it’s got to be about. What we’re going to have to go through now, which thank God is not a Civil War, but we’re going to go through some pretty challenging times. And just remember: When the times get as tough as they can possibly be, that we do what we do not for ourselves but for our country.

OK, what are your question? (Applause.)

Oh, they teed them up.

MR. : Well, we’ve been handling this, General. It’s questions from the audience, so if you have a question, pass it to the center. We’re on kind of a tight time frame.

One of the things you haven’t touched on was BRAC.


MR. : And that’s of concern obviously to the hometowns of America, let alone the Congress of the United States. What’s in the cards with compliance for that?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, as you heard the secretary say – and we’ve all reiterated – that as we adjust the size of the force, as we remission it into different capabilities, we think that we should ask the Congress of the United States to consider another round of BRAC.

Now, why would we do that? I don’t have the exact numbers committed to memory, but when we talk about balancing the force and our investment into maintaining balance, there’s manpower costs obviously, there’s modernization equipment costs, there’s training and maintenance cost. And then there’s this thing called infrastructure – military construction and just the cost of turning the lights on and off.

The – having been a service chief, albeit for only 149 days – but I did build the [2013-2017] budget on my watch – having done that and seen how constrained or limited are your options, if we don’t equally – not equally, but if we don’t affect those bins – let’s consider them bins – equally or somewhat equally, we will then have to harvest most of the reductions we’re looking for, disproportionally out of one of the other bins.

So for those that would say, we don’t want you to tinker with infrastructure, I would say, OK, where do you want me to take it? Do you want me to take it with manpower costs? Well, hell; you just told me not to screw around with paid compensation, health care and retirement. All right, well, you can’t touch that.

What about force structure? Well, you know, that’s a little – that’s hard, man. You can’t take that brigade out of Fort X, because, you know the – you know the deal. What am I telling you for? You know the deal better than anybody. Or modernization – are you going to underequip it?

And by the way, I didn’t pass the congressional budget act. I didn’t pass the Budget Control Act. I didn’t say, hey; how about hitting me with a bill for $500 trillion or whatever that bill is – 500 billion (dollars).

So this is about taking the task, which is based on the Budget Control Act, find $487 billion and applying it as proportionally as we can. And part of that is, we’re going to need to get our infrastructure under control. We’re – look: At some level we have to run the Army from a business perspective. And that’s why manpower costs have to be on the table just like infrastructure.

Now by the way, we may get told, sorry; you can’t do it. But we’ve got to make it clear: If you withhold my ability to balance this thing, you actually could create some problems that you don’t want to face downstream.

MR. : Thank you, sir. I’ve shared the anecdote that back in the late ’70s as a young company commander newly back from WESTPAC [Western Pacific], because there were no training dollars, we were running through the woods in Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, yelling bang, bang and using paper plates as mines.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, right.

MR. : What assurances can you give us and the Reserve component we’ll have the resources going forward to train and equip for the coming missions for the Reserve component?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah. Well, first of all, I mean, in the grandest sense, I think – I think all of our senior leaders – that’s active Guard and Reserve – who have lived in that world and who have seen what we’ve done over the last 10 years to overcome that, I think we’re all completely committed not to getting back to that point.

Now, that said, the – each service has a rotational – some kind of rotational readiness paradigm. Army calls it ARFORGEN. The Navy’s got its Global Force Management System, you know, for sorting carriers in and out. And I think what you’ll find is that that – and the Army, by the way, is new to that game. Actually, the Navy had – Navy and Marines had the first forward presence global rotational model. The Army went – the Air Force went to it early on in this decade, and the Army kind of came to it later when we realized that to maintain a one-to-one, which was not nearly adequate, but just to get a one-to-one, we had to get into some kind of rotational training model I actually think that will illuminate for us in a way that we didn’t know – have back in the ’70s – I think it will illuminate for us which part of the force has to be ready when.

So if we take – I’ll take Army ARFORGEN. There will be readiness – there will be a readiness model that is applicable to the – to the active component of the Guard and Reserve. Because I’ve got to tell you: The – you know, when people say to me, are you going to abandon the Reserve, the answer to that is, even if I wanted to, I can’t abandon the Reserve. We – you know that Creighton Abrams in the Army deliberately put capabilities into the Guard and Reserve that are not extant or not adequate in the active component to make sure that when this nation goes to war, it goes with America. And you represent a part of America that the active component doesn’t represent.

I don’t think – I don’t think there’s any question that we will be committed to ensuring the readiness of all components, but I – but I’m not going to tell you, because I can’t yet, that it’s going to be the entire active component, the entire Guard and the entire Reserve. I suspect it will be in some kind of rotation model.

MR. : All right. I think we’re up against your hard departure time.

GEN. DEMPSEY: I’ll take one more – that always makes my staff happy.

MR. : One more, OK. One of the words that the policymakers threw out in our discussions yesterday was the word “reversibility.”


MR. : What the heck does that mean?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I got to go now. (Laughter.) Yeah, I’m not sure where that came from. Sometimes, you know, words get loose on you. There’s two things that happen that I’ve noticed. One is that sometimes you’ll overburden words, you know? And so they lose their meaning over time. And then there’s other things where words get shot out without any meaning and they build – they build their own life.

I mean, look. We’ve got a phrase and doctrine called mobilization. We’ve got other ways of describing our ability to use the total force. I think that when this all started, the idea of reversibility was more expressed by way of a concern. What if we don’t get it right? You know, what if – what if we build a force at a certain size, at a certain readiness level and then three, four, five years from now we find out that it – we’ve got it wrong? The question was, can you reverse that? So I don’t think reversibility is a new piece of doctrine, because I think we do know how to reverse it. And I think you’ll find, for example, it gets at how much of the Guard and Reserve maintains its readiness – and by the way, the answer to how do we ensure that the nation’s risk is low enough is oftentimes answered with the capabilities extant in the Guard and Reserve.

The other thing we’ve got to do: I personally – I think we’ve got to change our paradigm about how we keep leaders in the force. And I tell people, you – this is no offense to my infantry brothers here, but you can build a pretty competent infantryman in about 20 weeks, to tell you the truth; you know, 10 weeks of – generally speaking, it’s 10 weeks of basic combat training and another 10 weeks of functional training in some of the other specialty things. And that young man or woman is pretty capable, actually, in our society.

But you can’t build a squad leader, you can’t build a company commander, you can’t build a battalion commander or sergeant major in 10 or 20 weeks. So I think that what we’ve got to do in all components actually is, in my view – but this – a service equity – not the chairman’s – but we’re encouraging a conversation about what is the demographic of the force look like in terms of leadership so that if we do get it wrong, we can literally expand the force – which we did, by the way, between 2001 and 2005 – but because we didn’t have that different paradigm of demographics, in some cases we – frankly we inflated promotions and things. That was not healthy for the profession. You can’t promote – you shouldn’t promote 98 percent of majors to lieutenant colonel. But we had to do that, because we needed to expand the force. So we got to think through what does it mean so we don’t use the term reversibility, necessarily. What – what if we get it wrong? Where – how do we mitigate that? And that’s really what we’re talking about.

OK. Look, I do have to leave. Much as I’d rather – I told you where I’m going and I don’t want to make a comparison with where I’d rather be right now. (Laughter.) But that’s important work as well. My compliments to you all. I’m especially happy to hear that you’ve resurrected the Roosevelt Award. I think that’s terrific. I hope you remember a couple things – you know – the significance of this meeting, the history of the moment. You know, part your – you know – party of your obligation is to keep, you know, in our case the caissons rolling along. There’s history. There’s a whole bunch of peoples in Arlington, in section six, who are counting on us, and we’re not going to let them down. Thanks.