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Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the National Press Club

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey, National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
THERESA WERNER: Good afternoon, and welcome to the National Press Club. My name is Theresa Werner, and I am the 105th president of the National Press Club. We are the world’s leading professional organization for journalists committed to our profession’s future through our programming and events such as these while fostering a free press worldwide.

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On behalf of our members worldwide, I’d like to welcome our speaker and those of you attending today’s event. Our head table includes guests of our speaker as well as working journalists who are club members. And if you hear applause in our audience, we’d note that members of the general public are attending, so it is not necessarily evidence of a lack of journalistic objectivity. I’d also like to welcome our C-SPAN and our public radio audiences. Our lunches are also featured on our member-produced weekly podcast from the National Press Club, available on iTunes. You can also follow the action on Twitter using #npclunch. After our guest’s speech concludes, we’ll have a Q-and-A, and I will ask as many questions as time permits.

Now it’s time to introduce our head table guests, and I’d ask each of you here to stand up briefly as your name is announced. From your right, Ben Dooley, Kyodo News Service. Jody Beck, director, Semester in Washington program, Scripps Howard Foundation. John Fales, aka “Sergeant Shaft” and vice commander of the National Press Club American Legion Post number 20. Lieutenant Commander Mike Wisecup, aide to the national – aide to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ann Roosevelt, assistant managing director, Defense Daily. Colonel Troy Thomas, special assistant to the chairman, director of Chairman’s Action Group. Alison Fitzgerald, freelance journalist and Speakers’ Committee chair – and I’m going to skip our speaker for just a moment. Andrea Stone, senior national correspondent for the Huffington Post and Speakers’ Committee member who organized the luncheon.

Colonel Dave Lapan, special assistant for public affairs, office of the chairman. Marilyn Thompson, Thomson Reuters bureau chief. Carlo Munoz, defense and national security reporter for The Hill; Jen Judson, Inside the Army. Thank you all for joining us here today.


General Martin Dempsey is the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. armed forces and the principal military adviser to the President, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council. Prior to becoming chairman, he served briefly as the Army’s 37th chief of staff. General Dempsey is a bit of an unexpected appointment. He had just been sworn in as the Army chief of staff a couple of months prior, but when the nomination process for another candidate stalled, General Dempsey was called to serve a grateful nation, and he has done so with distinction.

Since taking the chairman’s job a year ago, the 37-year Army veteran has made headlines by dealing with the infamous Quran burning pastor by calling him up and asking him to withdraw his support for the anti-Muslim video that sparked protests across the Middle East. He expressed disappointment over the Navy SEAL who published an unauthorized account of the killing of Osama bin Laden. He said an Israeli attack on Iran would clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran’s nuclear program. He has stressed the need to retool the military for a postwar world with smaller Pentagon budgets, and most recently, he has spoken about the need to turn up the volume on ways to help war veterans reintegrate back into civilian world.

And amid all that, the general’s plane was damaged by Taliban militants who fired rockets at it while parked at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Dempsey was unarmed and away from his plane at the time. General Dempsey is a 1974 graduate of West Point. He and his wife, Deanie, who were high school sweethearts, have three children who have all served in the United States Army, and seven grandchildren. The chairman is also a self-described Sinatra, Irish pub kind of guy – (laughter) – who loves to sing at official functions. Among his hits – all available on YouTube – are “A Christmas in Killarney,” the “Sesame Street” theme, and despite being from New Jersey, “New York, New York.” It is my pleasure to welcome General Martin Dempsey, the melodious chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thank you. Well, I did hear you get a little roughed up when you come to these events, although I will say, the last time I was in this room, I was actually surrounded by the Muppets. So – (laughter) – thanks, Theresa. There is a tradition in the cavalry corps – I am a cavalryman by background, and cavalryman at heart – that we call the “spur ride.” In the early days, a new cavalryman was put on a horse without a saddle – no bridle, just he and the horse, and then an experienced cavalryman would whack it on the behind and the new soldier would go speeding off across the plain hanging on for dear life. If he completed the ride, he would earn his silver spurs, the proof of his worthiness to be a cavalryman. So standing here, I feel a little bit like my horse has just been slapped. (Laughter.) So I’ll be looking for some spurs at the end of this engagement.

Before we get started, I’d like to recognize the passing of Arthur Sulzberger. As most of you know, he advanced journalistic excellence not just for The New York Times, but for your entire profession. Yours is a profession I respect, just as I know you respect my profession, the profession of arms. I’m sure you would agree that our professions are both built on trust – trust that has to be earned over time through the forging of relationships.

I want to talk to you a little bit about some of the relationships I’ve been working on; that is, I want to talk to you about the relationships I’ve been trying to build most prominently with partners around the world. I did just pass the one-year mark of my chairmanship, and so it seems to me to be a good time to take stock. Over the last year, I’ve met with 57 of my counterparts. I’ve traveled to 22 foreign countries, I’ve placed a lot of wreaths and I’ve hosted a lot of dinners. I’ve delivered toasts in a dozen different languages, and as far as I know, I’ve only screwed a couple of them up. (Laughter.) Why do I invest all this time in relationships, especially with my foreign counterparts? Simply stated, we need them to make our strategy work. We need relationships borne of trust and underpinned by interest and common interests. We need partners who can bring to bear capability and credibility.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: Relationships are often hard, and they are. On occasion, some partnerships may seem more trouble than they’re worth. On the other hand, when we get together in large groups, I think we risk the – we take the risk of talking past each other. Kind of reminds me – when I served in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 – and now – you know that today’s young men and women, wherever they’re deployed – aboard ship, in airbases in the middle of the desert in Kuwait and Afghanistan – they’re connected constantly with their family members. They Skype, they text, they call. It wasn’t like that in 1991. In fact – and some of you will remember – in ’91, when I was sitting in the desert to the south of the Wadi al-Batin, we really didn’t have any access to – any way to connect to home. My wife had remained in Germany with the 3rd Armored Division.

So we were exchanging letters, and those letters would kind of pass in the night. So I’d send a letter and she’d get it 10 days, 14 days, sometimes 30 days later. There’d be a letter coming my way, and we just kept talking past each other. And in one of the letters, she said to me, you know, I miss you so much, it’s almost like you were right here with me. (Laughter.) Now I made the assumption – because, you know, again, you can’t pick up the phone and say, seriously? Did you really – you know – I made the assumption that it was just a very badly-phrased sentence, sent her a note back and got some assurances a month later. But it does talk at – a little bit about the difficulty of managing relationships over long distances, at least as they’ve been managed in the past.

Sometimes our relationship with our partners seem a little bit like that, but mostly, they’re worthwhile. Let me give you a few examples. Every trip that I’ve taken to Afghanistan, I’ve learned more than the last time I was there. I’ve been there six times in the first year of my chairmanship, and it’s been well worth the trip. I sit down with Afghan leaders and I sit down with our NATO command team to discuss strategy and the linkage to campaign plans and the linkage further down into tactics. More importantly, I can get a feel for how the young men and women who are out there on the leading edge feel about the mission and whether they retain their confidence in our ability to achieve our objectives. I listen to their insights, and I thank them for their service on the front line.

The Taliban gets it, gets what we’re doing. They know that the bond between the Afghan security forces and our forces will ultimately be what causes them to be defeated. And so they target it. And I’m sure you’ll be interested in speaking about the insider threat we face. In my most recent visit to theater, I spoke with leaders at every level about the insider threat, and they all agree we can’t let that threat discourage or dissuade us from our objectives. But we must keep our eye on that threat. It is a very serious threat. But our commitment to the relationship and to the objectives remains strong.

ISAF was built – is being built, and the ANSF that we’re building, on 63 years of NATO experience. And NATO has proven itself. It transcends a transactional relationship; it exists on the basis of shared values. My fellow chiefs of defense in NATO and I have gathered four times over the past year, and I’ve met with many of them one-on-one. I can tell you, while there are challenges ahead for both of us, our bonds are as strong as ever.

I should also make mention of the fact that today in Brussels, the secretary of defense announced that General John Allen will – once confirmed, will leave his posting as commander of ISAF and move to be the supreme commander of Europe, the NATO – our chief NATO military leader; and that General Joe Dunford, who’s currently the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, will leave his billet, once confirmed, and move and take the commander of ISAF position – both very, very talented, capable, courageous, thinking officers who will put us in great shape to continue both our relationship with NATO writ large and also our campaign in Afghanistan.

We see the kinds of relationships I’m talking about closer to home as well. This year I traveled to Latin America, and I reaffirmed our long-standing relationship with Colombia. I spent a little time in the jungle and explored options for expanding our timed – our ties with Brazil. And I learned more about our common interests in South America, which are obvious, I think, and include border security, maritime domain awareness and counternarcotics.

While on the topic of Latin America, you should know that 17 different nations joined us for the PANAMAX exercise this year. This exercise focuses on the safe passage through the Panama Canal. Now, I mention this because on this date in history, in 1913, President Wilson detonated explosives at the Gamboa Dike, opening the Panama Canal and connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. It redefined geography and time.

While we’ve always been a Pacific power, the Panama Canal created new opportunities for East and West. Today we’re still looking for new opportunities to engage in the Asia-Pacific. In my first year I’ve been to the region three times and met with 15 different leaders. Back in June I took part in the Shangri-La Dialogue, where I had the opportunity to reinforce the basics of our rebalance, which are more attention, more engagement and more quality.

But the rebalance doesn’t mean that we’re pulling up stakes from the Mideast. I’m not sure we could, even if we wanted to do so. I’ve taken five trips to the Mideast and held discussions with 14 leaders in the region. Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Iraq – I’ve been to all those countries, most of them more than once. My aim has been to make sure that we’re all prepared with options for the challenges ahead, both the near-term issues in Iran and in Syria and longer-term issues resulting from the Arab Spring.

There are some countries I haven’t visited yet, but I plan to. China and India are high on my list, and so is Russia. Even though I’ve not yet visited Moscow, I have had several productive meetings with my Russian counterpart, Nikolay Makarov, here in Washington, D.C., in Europe and by video teleconference several times. I could go on. As you can tell, I’m working hard on my friends list. (Scattered laughter.)

One final thought: During all of these travels, our servicemen and -women are always foremost in my thoughts. They and their families have been through a lot. They are an inspirational bunch. I saw this when I was honored to go to London as the head of the United States delegation to the Paralympics. Our athletes, especially the wounded warriors – 20 of the 200 were wounded warriors – defined resilience. One of them in particular I’ll tell you about. Lieutenant Brad Snyder, United States Naval Academy, lost his vision a year ago from an IED blast in Afghanistan. And one year after he was wounded on the battlefield, he won two golds and a silver in London at the Paralympics.

I just saw him this past weekend at the Army-Air Force [sic Navy-Air Force] football game, where he was accompanied by his brother Russell, who is his care provider. The – it was – there was a touching moment when Navy kicked a field goal and began their comeback against Air Force. My condolences to some of you in the audience who may have been on the wrong end of that. (Laughter.) But Brad was standing there, and he can’t see anything, of course. But his brother said, Navy just kicked a field goal. And all Brad said was, “Nice!” (Laughter.) So I just want you to know that those young men and women are out there – young men and women who, one year after having their life completely altered, had redefined themselves. That’s what we’re all about.

With that, I’m ready for your questions and what I imagine will be the most challenging part of my National Press Conference – Press Club engagement and the opportunity to win my spurs. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

MS. WERNER: Are we still on track for pulling our troops out of Afghanistan in 2014? What additional steps are being taken to protect our troops from insider attacks? Kind of got two questions.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah. Yeah, the – well, the pulling-out question implies that we know what our enduring presence will be. And we’re working on that right now, both internal to our government but also with our NATO allies. So we’re trying to determine, based on the agreements made in Lisbon and then reinforced in Chicago, about what this long-term commitment will be. And it’s scoped against several missions, one of which is counterterror, another of which is continuing to train and advise at some level. Another is to enable other agencies of government to do their job in Afghanistan.

And so as we determine how to – what we’ll need to leave there to accomplish those missions, based on the growth of the Afghan security forces, sometime in early 2013 we’ll come up with a number that will define our enduring presence. And then we’ll take what we have there now, which is 68,000 U.S. and about 34,000 coalition partners. And we’ll establish a glide slope to get from where we are to where we’re going to be. And the important point is that – in that question is – I want to reinforce that our objectives remain both sound and achievable.

As for the insider threat, as I mentioned in my prepared remarks, the insider threat is a – is a very serious threat because it is clear that the Taliban understands that if they can separate the Afghan security forces from those of us who advise and assist them, that they will retard the development of the Afghan security forces and cause our will to be – to be under pressure. But what I – what I’m telling you from my visits over there is everyone understands it on our side and, importantly, on the Afghan side.

I visited Afghan corps commanders who had gone out to visit battalion-level and company-level organizations, taking their religious and cultural leaders with them to – you know, to explain to them that insider attacks are both a threat to us and to them. As you well know, they suffer as many – or more, actually – insider attacks than we do. So we’re all seized with it on both sides. It is a threat, one we can’t take our eyes off. But at this point I can report to you with some confidence that it is not jeopardizing our objectives. It’s just making it a little tougher. And if anybody thought, though, that we’d get from here to the end of ’14 in a straight line, come and talk to me. (Scattered laughter.)

MS. WERNER: On a scale from one to 10, how serious do you perceive the danger posed to America by the black swan cyberthreats?

GEN. DEMPSEY: By the what?

MS. WERNER: Black swan cyberthreats.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, let me – let me not talk about that one in particular, because there’s a whole – there’s a whole pantheon of cyberthreats that I could – we could discuss. I assume that 10 is really bad and one is not so bad?


GEN. DEMPSEY: Ten. No, we’ve got – look, cyber – I’ve said this – I’ve said this since I became the chairman and have learned even more while I’ve been the chairman: Cyber is both our greatest opportunity – it’s great – it’s our greatest opportunity in our – in making changes in our military capabilities; it’s also our greatest vulnerability. And we’ve – we are – we’re working really hard to – my job, of course, is to make sure we can protect our military networks and the cyberdomain that supports us. That’s been my focus in the first year, as well as trying to contribute to a broader dialogue about critical infrastructure and other threats to the nation. And we need to keep after that until we do the best we can to protect ourselves.

MS. WERNER: To what extent do you think that the recently released Capstone Concept for Joint Operations – Joint Operations: Joint Force of 2020 will affect what each service is now doing, and does it change what they were doing under the previous CCJO?

GEN. DEMPSEY: The – yeah, I hope it changes – I hope it changes a little bit of what was published in the previous CCJO. I mean, one of the things that I’ve tried to champion is that we’re a learning organization, and so, you know, you can think about that broadly, which is to say, what have we learned over the last 10 years? What capabilities, for example, didn’t even exist 10 years ago or certainly didn’t exist as they exist today? And I’ll name three. One is ISR, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance. Some of you know, you know, the kind of – the element that’s most visible in that regard are unmanned aerial platforms, but that’s not all. I mean, there’s aerostat balloons flying all over Afghanistan. There’s all kinds of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors out there now that are informing us about the battlefield in ways that were really unimaginable about 10 years ago. So that’s one big change.

The second is the way that SOF [special operations forces] has grown, special operating forces have grown both in size and capability – so in 2001, 33,000 across the services; by 2017, 70,000 across the services. But it’s not just about the quantity, it’s about the quality of the work they do. So a big change in the special operating forces.

And the third one is cyber, you know, to roll back on a previous question. If you’d of – if you’d of tried to engage me in a conversation about cyber in 2001, we’d have been – well, first of all, you and I – I mean, not all of you are my age, but it would have been hard to have that conversation because there were probably a handful of people who, you know, were out there exploring the potential of cyber, but now it’s proliferated. And so as you – as we look at the new CCJO, what I’m trying to do is guide the force in its development toward 2020. What I’ve realized is 80 percent of Joint Force 2020 exists today. It does. It exists because of existing organizational design, leader development paradigms are in place, and programs of record in the acquisition community are humming along, or not humming along. But the point, 80 percent of the joint force we’ll have in 2020 exists right now, or you can see it coming. It’s that 20 percent that I’m trying to negotiate with the services, find ways to integrate these existing and emerging capabilities, to make us a better force as we also learn to live in a different fiscal environment.

MS. WERNER: The Capstone Concept foreword says the world is trending towards greater stability, yet it says the world is potentially more dangerous than ever. How will the stability overcome the threat?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, you know, when people ask me about Afghanistan, the first thing I normally tell them is, it’s possible for violence and progress to co-exist in places like Afghanistan. I’d say the same thing about the paradox of stability and threat. They co-exist. So I’ve talked about a security paradox, which is violence is at an evolutionary low – and it is – except that the capabilities to impart violence are in the hands of people who heretofore wouldn’t have had access to it. So you have a paradox of feeling as though the world is – this is kind of the – this is kind of the Tom Friedman, the world is flat and connected and therefore is less likely to fight each other. Maybe. But there’s also the other school of thought that says, it’s in the unconnected parts of our globe where violence will be both more prevalent but also more violent, because the instruments of violence are more available now than they’ve ever been.

I won’t speak about it because it would take too long, but go back and look at what 10 LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba] terrorists did in Mumbai in 2008, the havoc they wreaked over a period of time in a major city, and it will – it’s an eye-opener – and how they did it and how they leveraged commercial off-the-shelf technology to empower it.

MS. WERNER: With the largest discretionary funding of any U.S. department, DOD is a ripe target for budget cuts. Sequestration looks likely since we’re seeing little action from Congress. What problem is that going to present for supporting soldiers, sailors and air personnel?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, one of the jobs that we all have as JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] – and I’ll put back on my chief of Army hat for a moment – is the job of taking the resources that are provided and keeping the force in balance. So a service chief has about five levers they can pull to keep the budget in balance – manpower costs on one side, infrastructure on the other, operations, maintenance, training and modernization. I mean, there’s probably another lever there or so that I’ve forgotten about.

But you know, it does come down to mechanics at some point. How much money will you invest in each of those to have each of those levers stay in balance? And the challenge that you describe in managing the budget, and especially as it regards sequestration, is that it takes away the ability of service chief to apply the budget as he or she at some point would like to apply it. And it’s – it has a mechanism in place that fundamentally causes it to be reduced by 10 percent across the board. That makes it almost impossible to keep the force in balance. That’s the issue of sequestration.

MS. WERNER: What is the Department of Defense’s role in this administration’s foreign policy?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I’m sorry, the role of what?

MS. WERNER: In foreign policy.

GEN. DEMPSEY: What is the Department of Defense’s role in foreign policy? Well, you know, this is – I’m sure that the question is in response to the conversation we sometimes have about the militarization of foreign policy. Is the department too prominent across the world, and is the Department of Defense the face of the United Sates and not the Department of State and other agencies of government?

I’m sure there’s places and parts in the world where that’s true because of the way we’re organized. You know, we’ve got six geographic combatant commands and four functionals, and so we are very prominent. We are very – we have great access because we build relationships, and we’re just a lot bigger.

But I will say, I find that as I travel, the partnership internal to the government – so you know, ambassadors and combatant commanders who are chiefs of defense cooperation agencies – is actually quite remarkable. I have the opposite fear, in some ways, meaning I think that the notion that the military is too prominent in foreign affairs right now is probably mostly focused on the Mideast. The rest of the world, you know, I think that it’s a pretty – it’s a pretty careful and pretty thoughtful balance. What I worry about a bit is, again, back to the sizing of the Defense Department, there will be some relationship issues that have to change as we, you know, kind of pull our wings in a bit in face of budget challenges. And you have to be careful that doesn’t create a vacuum.

I also worry a bit about the fact that the – we are so well-partnered. I tell people that I was probably a colonel before I met anyone in the Department of State. You know, so I was a 42-year-old guy in uniform before I met my first diplomat. I would venture to say today, because of the shared experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s not a captain in the military that hasn’t closely partnered with somebody from State, USAID, all the other agencies of government, nongovernmental organizations. As Iraq and Afghanistan wane, that – maintaining that relationship will be a challenge, but we’ve got to do it.

MS. WERNER: Does the harsh rhetoric of a political campaign hurt our relationships, or do your counterparts around the world understand it’s often just talk? (Laughter.)

GEN. DEMPSEY: What harsh rhetoric? (Laughter.) You know, every – let me – let me – let me use a bank shot approach here. That’s a basketball terminology. There – you know, there’s been some things said about, you know, me and Israel, for example. And in every case when that occurs, I will pick up the phone and call my Israeli counterpart, [LtGen] Benny Gantz, and we discuss any number of things, but we discuss things to ensure that he knows that I’m not going to communicate with and through the media. I’ll communicate what I really need to say him person to person. So there is a recognition, I think, on both sides of the ocean with all of our partners that, you know, political campaigns often, you know, create conditions where things are said that we just need to be patient with. I mean, we applaud and we support and we promote democracy around the world. And with that comes some – you know, some pretty zesty moments of discourse and debate and freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and we embrace it. And – but the important thing is if we ever have a question, that we have that relationship. That’s why I talked about that as my principal focus in my first year, that we have that relationship that either he can pick up the phone and call me and say, what are you talking about, or I can pick up the phone and call him.

MS. WERNER: What is your take on the perceived suppression of military absentee voting initiatives? There seems to be so many obstacles in accommodating the military vote these days, and it’s a growing concern to the military members.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, first of all, you say – you know, 38 years in the Army, swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. One of the things the Constitution calls for is freedom of the press. Among our freedoms in this great country is the freedom to vote, and I – every chance I get, either in writing or – just did a public service announcement yesterday for internal consumption encouraging our young men and women in uniform to vote. Nobody, in my view, has earned the right – I mean, we’ve all, we all have the right, but nobody has earned it like those who have served their country and put themselves in harm’s way.

You know, the obstacles you – (applause) – thanks. As you know, the MOVE [Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment] Act required us, as a department, to establish certain procedures to make sure that our servicemen and women have the opportunity to vote. We’ve been – I’ve been in support of the Department of Defense’s efforts to make sure that we live up to that – the requirement of the MOVE Act.

If there are obstacles, I think, as you described them, it’s mostly that states all – not every state has a different system, but there’s enough differences out there that sometimes it’s hard to navigate. And that’s why we put the MOVE Act in place, to help us facilitate that. But we’re committed to making sure that if a young man or woman in uniform wants to vote, they can. And in fact, more than that, we encourage them to vote.

MS. WERNER: How can you prevent attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan from local police or service members if the goal is to train them?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, first of all, I would never stand here and say we can prevent it. There will be – again, this is an enemy tactic: infiltration, radicalization, influence. It – you know, this is a society that has suffered under conflict for 30-plus years, where young men have often settled their grievances with a gun as opposed to a conversation. And so I can’t prevent it. I mean, I just – we’ve got to be honest about that.

But what we can do is we can – we can continue to work to mitigate that risk. And it’s a complex issue. It gets at how do they come into the service? We call it vetting, and then it’s while they’re in the service, how do we – how do we partner with them to establish that level of trust that – by the way, I mean, I think it’s important to note – and the Australians came to the same conclusion. It’s often – one of the ways you can mitigate the risk is actually by becoming closer to them, not by walking away from them. You can’t commute – I mean, this is – this is just a fact, and I’ve done this in Iraq when I commanded MNSTC-I [Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq], and I worked with it in Afghanistan. You can’t commute to work to train and advise someone you’re trying to develop. You can’t be there for three or four hours a day, and gone. You can’t commute. You’ve just got to be part of their lives. It does, in some level, put you at greater risk initially, but as the relationship builds, it actually lowers the risk.

So we’re looking at everything from how did they come into the service, how do we partner with them, we have counterintelligence resources we’ve applied, we’ve turned our incredible intelligence apparatus in this country toward this problem. We’re reaching out to their leaders, encouraging them to be as concerned about it as we are. I mean, it’s a – it’s a very comprehensive issue. But we cannot prevent it. We can lower the risk, we can dramatically lower the numbers, but we can’t prevent it.

MS. WERNER: In light of the differences between the U.S. on one side and Russia and China on the other over Syria and Iran, are we in danger of a greater conflict between these major powers?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I think Syria’s probably the most complex issue – and by the way, now think about that. With all the other things we’ve just talked about, and we haven’t mentioned four or five other parts of the world that are complicated, Syria’s the most complex of all, because it is in many ways – it’s in many ways a crucible for all of the other factors and influences related to the Arab Spring, the conflict among different sects of Islam, ethnic issues, major power interventions, nonstate actors. I mean, you know, we could – honestly, I could – there’s a catalog of complexity that we could – that we could share on Syria in particular. And as you said, I mean, there are major powers with interests and their own concerns about the outcome. What’s on the other side that are – that are dominating their view?

So, well, I can tell you that what we’re doing is – what we’re doing, that’s those of us that dress like I do, is we continue to plan for a number of contingencies. We’re prepared to provide options if those options are required. And that’s not just options internal to the United States. As you know, Syria is bordered on the north by Turkey, a very close NATO partner, and so we’re working through NATO as well to understand, to try to clarify and to try to collaborate on planning that ultimately might be useful. But the military instrument of power at this point is not the prominent instrument of power that should be applied in Syria.

MS. WERNER: Can you provide details on new measures, options on the table to curb insider attacks that will be or are being discussed at NATO Summit in Brussels this week?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I mean, I kind of catalog the multiple threads we’re trying to tie together to lower the risk of insider attacks. In answer to that question, I will tell you that [Gen.] John Allen is in Brussels right now with the NATO defense ministers. And a very important part of his conversation with them is on this issue, because they – you know, they’ve been victimized by many of the same challenges that we have. And importantly, as I mentioned, I want to mention it again – so, too, have the Afghans themselves. So I can’t – I can’t say much more by way of emphasis than to say that among the 28 ministers of NATO, this issue is prominent as well.

MS. WERNER: During an interview on “Charlie Rose” last week, Sergei Lavrov stated that he feared that an “Arab Autumn” might be followed by a “Nuclear Winter.” As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, how can we avoid escalation of the world’s hot spots, be it Syria or Iran or the South China Sea?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, with their help, hopefully. (Laughs.) I mean, you know, I hope that wasn’t his intent to volleyball the challenge to us, because this is something we have to work together on across the region. It’s of course, you know, the proliferation of nuclear technology, but also of ballistic missile technology, that should have us all concerned, in particular, about Iran, and also, notably, about North Korea, because they have demonstrated both the intent – the will and the intent to proliferate technologies, in particular into the parts of the world that we wouldn’t want them to proliferate.

But I do think – there are, by the way, places where Russia and we are collaborating mightily. The Northern Distribution Network out of Afghanistan is possible only with their help. We’re working counterpiracy, counternarcotics, border security, counterterror – there’s more places that we are working with our partners than not. But it is, as Secretary Lavrov said, an issue that could proliferate, in particular, I think, if Iran achieves nuclear weapon status.

MS. WERNER: Why was there no security for our diplomats in Libya?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, there’s a – first of all, I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t agree that there was no security for our diplomats in Libya. But more importantly, as you know, there’s a commission that’s been formed with Thomas Pickering and my predecessor, [Adm.] Mike Mullen, to take a look at not only the event itself, but what led up to it. And I have great confidence in both of those men to answer that question.

MS. WERNER: Going forward, how will the Navy be changed? Do we still need 11 carriers, and what would you replace them with? (Scattered laughter.)

GEN. DEMPSEY: Wow. You know, I did get a Navy cupcake, I’m not sure if that was – (laughter) – I don’t know if that was intentional or happenstance.

The – (chuckles) – yeah. You know, in the, in the defense strategy that we revised in the fall, both because we wanted to after 10 [years of war] – again, you know, we’ve got to learn. If we’re not looking at every opportunity to change and embrace it, we’re missing – we’re missing what is a very dynamic future. So we looked at that strategy for two reasons. One was the fact that it was time to look at our strategy, and then the second was the Budget Control Act, because, you know, strategy that’s not sensitive to resources is nothing more than rhetoric. I mean, come on, you get – you know, there’s always this balance between ends, ways and means. So the means changed. We had to take a look at the ends and the ways.

So in that strategy, though, as you know, we’ve articulated that it is in our long-term interest to begin to shift or rebalance ourselves to the Pacific, and that, of course, is based on trends that – that are – that you’re all very familiar with. Not going to happen overnight. Not a light switch. We’ve never left there. But the issue is how do you kind of rebalance your intellectual capital, if nothing else, and first, how do you rebalance your intellectual bandwidth to the Pacific? So we’ve been doing that.

And as you do that, you know, the Pacific is a maritime – largely a maritime domain. Many of you have traveled there, and you – (chuckles) – you know, I mean, you’ve got to go a long way before you find anything with dirt on it. And – (laughter) – you know, so what happens is that you begin to look at the Navy and its capability. They’ve done a remarkable – I tell you, the Navy has done a – just a remarkable job of allowing us to meet our needs in the Gulf. Right now we need two carriers in the Gulf, and we’ve got them there. And we’ve got other carriers around, and they’re also balancing that with the defense industrial base and how they move carriers into and out of maintenance.

You know, nuclear platforms require a certain level of maintenance that you just can’t defer. You’ve got to do it when you have to do it, and the defense industrial base, which we shrunk in the ’80s and ’90s, intentionally shrunk, is now somewhat limited. And so you’ve got to meet your maintenance schedule.

Now, that – I say that because at this point in time, I believe we’ve got what we need, and based on the Navy’s good works, we are meeting – we are meeting the needs for carrier presence around the world. I don’t know what – I haven’t had a conversation with [Chief of Naval Operations Adm.] Jon Greenert. You ought to have him here.

MS. WERNER: He’s coming.

GEN. DEMPSEY: And he’s coming. And ask him that question. You know, what’s next, because there is always what’s next. Is it something smaller, is it something – you know, is it something submersible because we have such an asymmetric advantage under the sea? And I’m sure he’ll have – he’ll have some thoughts about that to share with you.

For the period I’m talking about, which is out through 2020, as I mentioned, I think we’ve got the carrier fleet sized correctly, and we’ll continue to take a look at it as the – as our strategy evolves and matures. But for now, I think we’re in pretty good shape.

MS. WERNER: What is the changing nature of land warfare? I wanted to get both sides.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, yeah, this one I can actually answer. (Laughter.) Well, for one thing, you know, I am in the camp – this won’t surprise you, but it’s just not parochialism – I’m not in the camp that says, you know, you’ll never fight another significantly big land conflict, because, I mean, one of the things we should really acknowledge is that you don’t always get a vote. I mean, you always get a vote, but so does the enemy. And so the idea that we don’t need land forces is not a good idea.

And as the commander – or not the commander, but as the chairman of the joint force, I really do believe we are far better when we see each other as the sum of our parts, not as individual services. That said, I really like having four different service chiefs around a table when I’m in the Tank with them, because that diversity of thinking generally pulls us in a direction that creates better options for the nation.

So the – but land – so there is a significant change, though. I’ll actually – now, having said that I think we’ve got to be cautious about sizing the land component, Army and Marines, to an aspiration, I will say the nature of land conflict is changing. And let me describe it this way. As I grew up during the Cold War, we built the force as – thinking about the big organizations first, corps and divisions, you know, 16,000-man increments. And then we said to ourselves, if we need something less than that, we’ll disaggregate it, you know, we’ll find a way to make it – to decentralize it, but we’re going to build it with the big organization in mind.

I think that this – the era we’re entering now requires us to think exactly the opposite. That is to say, we need to think about empowering the squad, the 10-man group of individuals, with everything we can empower them with, and then figure out how to grow it from the bottom up. That’s going to take us in a different direction, I think, in the way we design the force, the way we equip it, the way we train it, the way we encourage leadership within it. So there is – there are some significant changes coming, I think, in the way we think about building our land component. And I would suggest to you it’s not from the top down but rather from the bottom up.

MS. WERNER: What is the next step to reducing suicides among active duty service members?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, I – you know, “step” implies there’s something sequential here, and it’s not. It’s – this is really another one that, you know, we just – we really need to continue to learn about what’s happening.

Now, look, some of it is societal, you know. The young men – suicide is a national problem. It also happens to be a dire, important, serious military problem. But something out there is changing in the resilience of young men and women today, and so one of the things we’re looking at is what do we got to do as we recruit these young men and women off the streets of America? How do we – you know, how do we build resilience into the force from birth, and how do you sustain it through a career where there are pressures, whether it’s a deployment or whether it’s combat or whether it’s even life – whether it’s life-altering incidents, divorce, you know, financial challenges? It’s really an issue of building resilience over time.

Secondly, there is – you know, there is a correlation – there’s a medical component of that, I think, that we’ve got to address, and there’s also – you know, the trust of the force is really what I think ultimately provides us the best chance to get a grip on this. And here’s what I mean by that. If I show up in a unit and I can’t do enough pushups to pass the PT test, you know that some sergeant’s going to be out there and say, come here, young man. I want you to partner with her. She maxes her PT [physical training] test every time she takes it. And so for the next three months, you’re going to do physical training with her. And by the end of that time, you’re going to pass the PT test.

There’s really nothing exactly like that for, you know, states of depression. And that’s what we’ve got to figure out, is how do you get the entire force, not just the leaders – the leaders understand it. The – that’s not true. The leaders understand the significance of it. I’m not sure we really understand the depth and breadth of the issue. But the leaders get it. We got to drive it to the lowest level.

It’s not preventable. You know, back to the same – you know, you asked me, can I stop insider threats? No, but we’re trying to do as much as we can. Can you stop suicide? No, but we’re trying to do as much as we can, and we got to keep at it.

MS. WERNER: The military, particularly the Army, used to be a place where young people who had some trouble in their lives could enlist, serve their country and grow up. It wasn’t the Army’s mission, but it served a purpose for quite a few people. Is that era over, and who does the Army and other services want to enlist?

GEN. DEMPSEY: No, we get in plenty of trouble. Haven’t you been reading the news? (Laughter.) No, fair question. You – it’s probably related to the reality, which we shouldn’t be proud of as Americans, that only 1-in-4 young men or women in America can get into the military. That’s a fact. It’s either because of physical or health or education or, you know, moral issues in their youth – and by the way, YouTube is going to come – and Facebook, you know, are going to be a problem for us in recruiting in the future.

So what I’m – what I’m suggesting is that the – you know, we’re getting a very high-quality young man or woman, and I don’t think – I don’t think anyone here would want to change that. That said, there still is the opportunity, once you meet those minimum standards, to do the kind of growing that you describe.

But I think if you want an all-volunteer professional force that those standards have to be the same. If the nation decides at some point that we should reconsider a conscript army, then it becomes a different issue. But for now, I’m very content that we are getting that part of American society that you, the American taxpayer, would want us to have.

MS. WERNER: Do you support a draft?

GEN. DEMSPEY: You know, if – do I support a draft? I think there’s universal service, there’s selective service, and then there’s the all-volunteer force. If I thought that we could adopt as a nation some form of universal service, I’d sign up for it in a second. Selective service really doesn’t become something that generally produces either the force you want – because it becomes so restricted. The issue of being selective mostly means that there’s plenty of people who opt out, and those that opt out, generally speaking, then cause a part of the society to bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility.

I should mention, by the way, that, you know, our all-volunteer force is really representative of America. There’s – you know, there’s kind of a – there’s some mythology and street lore out there that it is not, but it is. I mean, I can’t speak for all the services, but I’m pretty confident in my data. In the Army I’m very confident in the data. And that is that we get a good – not a perfect representation of America but a very, very good representation of America. And you want your military to represent the society it serves. I’m not sure that we would have – I’d just – if I – like I said, I’d have to see the mechanism before I agreed to the path, because it’s the mechanism that’ll make all the difference.

MS. WERNER: The economy plays a significant role in recruitment and retention. Will the economy, coupled with talks to change military retirement pay and health care, have a negative impact on retaining a professional all-volunteer force?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I don’t know. But you know, when I – as I travel around and visit with young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines – and I also visit the Coast Guard from time to time – and I ask them, why’d you come in, the answers are really varied. Some of them are – come in because they want to defend their nation and they know the nation’s at war. And then some come in, as you noted, for economic reasons. What I will tell you is it doesn’t matter why they come in, because once you get them and you build into them this sense of purpose and sense of belonging – another attribute, by the way, that tends to be missing in American youth as they try to figure out who and what they are – by the way, I’m not – I’m not trying to recruit you.

But I will tell you that – I’m happy to have your kids, but – (laughter) – I will tell you that one of the things we do for the young men and women who agree to be part of our profession is we give them a sense of purpose. We give them a sense of belonging. We give them a sense of team, and we give them the opportunity to grow and develop. And I think as long as that’s the case, there will always be enough young men and women who choose to serve.

MS. WERNER: Does the armed services have a role in helping service members translate the skills they learned in the service to the civilian market so that they can get jobs?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Absolutely. One of the things we are working hard on is the issue of transition. So I’ll just, again, use my own career as an example. When I commanded at the lieutenant colonel and colonel level, the – this was in the ’90s – early ’90s and then late ’90s – we realized that we needed a – as we started to downsize. We went from – Army went from 781,000 in 1991 to 484,000 by about the middle of the decade. As we did, we realized we really hadn’t prepared mostly young men in those days, but young men and women – we hadn’t really prepared them for that transition. And so we developed transition programs.

But the transition programs were implemented kind of at the very end of a career. Some of you might remember this. Like, the last six weeks you’re in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, here you go: March over there to the learning center, you know, fill out all these forms, sit behind a computer, build your résumé and have a nice day. Well, I think – not I think – what we’ve learned is that that’s a little late, because if you do want to figure out how to migrate or transport your skill set from the military into the civilian, you can’t wait till the last six weeks to figure that out.

So what we’re doing now is we’re starting to transition when you enter the service. And we’re very closely partnering with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the former chief of the Army, General Ric Shinseki. He and Secretary Panetta meet quarterly, and I’m there. And there’s interim meetings to get ready for the meetings, naturally. But the issue is we are – we are seeing transition as a career-long activity. And that – what that illuminates is that you can credential people. So if you’re a welder in the military, you might be able to get a welding certificate that’s portable across the United States – truck drivers, you know, electricians, communications specialists. You know, the tougher ones are infantrymen, artillerymen and tankers. But we’re working with all of them in order to allow them to transition over time and not just at the very end of their career.

MS. WERNER: Attending today we have a veteran student who attended Georgetown and the University of Oxford, saying that costs for Oxford are one-tenth of Georgetown. Would you ask American private universities to provide vets affordable education in comparison to overseas education?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well – (chuckles) – first of all, you got to be a pretty smart son of a bitch, huh? (Laughter, applause.) I don’t know where you are out there, but well done. I think that, you know, first of all, the benefits – the educational benefits that have come online in – oh, there’s the five-minute warning; I didn’t notice that before. (Laughter.) The educational benefits are really very “generous” at this point – is the right word. And by the way, they should be, you know, with what we’re asking these young men and women to do. But the new G.I. Bill, you know, does provide a great educational safety net. And as many of you know, it allows you to pass it to your spouse or to your children if you don’t have the need to use it yourself.

I’m not sure we can do much better than that. I will tell you, I’m always engaging with business, industry and academia to find ways to help veterans. In the case of education, it’s not so much with the cost, because that’s generally – I say, generally manageable – but it’s about the dropout rate, you know? Again, back to transition, I’m not sure we’ve – you know – they go to school because it sounds like a good idea, and they’ve got the money, but they’re not really ready for it, and so our dropout rate among veterans is too high – and on the other end, you know, trying to help them make those kind of decisions early enough so we can help get them ready. So I’m not sure that I would go down the path of trying to lower the cost of education at Georgetown. There’s a whole table of Georgetown people right over there. Why don’t you ask them? (Laughter.)

MS. WERNER: How can we as taxpayers and voters facilitate your work and make military life easier?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, thanks for that one. (Laughter.) That’s the first softball of the day. I don’t know if I want it to be easier, you know, to tell you the truth. You know, there is a certain – there’s a certain satisfaction for serving in a profession that’s – you know, that’s uncommon, maybe, and that’s harder than – you know – that allows you to recognize that your contribution is made in a different and – that you kind of set aside some of your personal goals, not all of them – you know, I’m all for ambition, but, you know, when you’re part of that team, sometimes your own personal ambitions have to be set aside.

So I don’t know if I want to make it easier, I mean – certainly not while you’re serving. When you get out as a veteran, I actually think – you know, there is this – there’s this emerging image of the veteran of this campaign as somehow a victim. And I – frankly, I just don’t see it. Now, there’s people that need help. There’s PTSD, traumatic brain injury, wounded warriors. I got it. And we need to – we need to help them.

But, you know, believe it or not, the vast majority of the force, when it completes service, is stronger for the experience. And they make great employees. They make great students. They’re disciplined, they’re courageous, they have this sense of belonging, they have this sense of purpose, and it’s actually trying to reconnect them to society that’s the hardest thing. But they’re really valuable to the nation. And that’s the image, not the service man or woman as victim. There are victims, and we need to identify them and help them. But the majority of the force is something that the nation should be very proud of. (Applause.)

MS. WERNER: We are almost out of time, but before asking the last question, want to remind of our upcoming luncheon speakers on October 31st, Rodney Erickson, president of Penn State University; November 12th, Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who; and on November 16th, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations – you can come back for that one.

GEN. DEMPSEY: I’m more interested in The Who. (Laughter.)

MS. WERNER: Second, I would like you to present with our traditional National Press Club coffee mug –

GEN. DEMPSEY: Thank you.

MS. WERNER: – and the National Press Club version of a challenge coin, so don’t I – do something like that with that?

GEN.DEMPSEY: What about the spurs? What about the spurs? (Laughter.)

MS. WERNER: So the last question, I’ve had many requests if you would reprise one of your Irish or your Sesame Street themes. (Scattered laughter.)

GEN. DEMPSEY: OK, here we go. (Singing.) When – If you know it, sing along, by the way – When Irish eyes are smiling, sure ‘tis like a morn in spring, in the lilt of Irish laughter, you can hear the angel sing. When Irish hearts are happy, all the world seems bright and gay – come on, finish it up – and when Irish eyes are smiling, sure they’ll steal your heart –

AUDIENCE: (Off mic.)

GEN.DEMPSEY: Well done. (Applause.) There you go.

MS. WERNER: Thank you all for coming today. I’d also like to thank the National Press Club staff, including our Journalism Institute and Broadcast Center, for organizing today’s event.

Thank you.