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Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the Reagan Library Defense Forum

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey
The Reagan Library, Simi Valley, Calif. —

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: I thought he was running away with the water, but he tells me there’s another one here. (Laughter.) There’s actually a lot of them here, if anybody’s thirsty right now. (Laughter.)

You’ll be excused if you allow yourself to be distracted by the view over my shoulders, which is quite remarkable, as is this facility. And my compliments to those of you who have given of your lives to make sure we remember that period in our history.

But you won’t be forgiven if I find you glancing longingly over your shoulders at that Irish pub in the back corner. (Laughter.) I’ve got my eye on Jim Amos in particular in that regard. (Laughter.) It is great to see so many folks here with whom we’d share time, Deanie and I, over the years, on the very important matter of national security. And I took to heart the theme of this conference, which is looking out into the future and answering the question about how we make sure that we can continue to provide peace through strength.

So a couple of thoughts – I hope to provoke additional discussion throughout the conference. I want to tell you about my nephew, Collin McNally. Collin McNally is a young man, lives in Northern Virginia, and he’s an artist, and he’s an artist who works for a nonprofit on finding missing children. And his particular skill is – as an artist is, he does age progression. So he takes a picture of a young man or woman who’s missing – young child who’s missing, and then he helps law enforcement by progressing their image into the future where they should be now to help law enforcement potentially locate them.

So about two weeks ago, I was having dinner with him, and he had just been featured on the show “20/20” for his work, because he’s a very capable artist. But I said to him, Colin, you know, why do you even have a job? Because isn’t it true that computer imaging and computer technology is such now that, can’t a computer do what you do?

And he said, well, you know, Uncle Marty, he said, it can do part of it. It can take the face as it exists and it can make it older, but he said, there’s art in this. And he said the art involves finding relatives, identifying mannerisms, understanding the family so that you understand that it’s not just the child who’s progressing, but the characteristics that might come from outside of his immediate family.

And what I got from that conversation – it was such a – he was such a humble man, actually, through this conversation, and it occurred to me that he had a great respect for the past, and he had a humility about the future in his responsibility to try to age progress these missing children. So one of the thoughts I’d like to leave with you today is, it occurred to me that I probably ought to be at least as respectful of the past and as humble about trying to predict the future as Colin McNally. We all should be.

To quote Bob Dylan, the times, they are a-changing. Rising and re-emerging powers, new relationships across the globe among the governed and the governing, internal religious differences surfacing after centuries of being suppressed. And do I have to remind us about a roller coaster fiscal environment?

Now, to reflect on the theme of this conference, on the margins of all this change is a healthy debate about how to define strength. But that debate will remain healthy so long as it doesn’t become perpetual debate. I’ve learned that we can ask the men and women of the United States Armed Forces to accept change. They actually will embrace change. But we do them considerable disservice when we ask them to accept seemingly endless unpredictability.

In the discussion about war and its future, there are some words that are beginning to concern me a bit. Words like “discretionary,” words like “limited,” words like “de-escalation,” words like “control.” Now, I’ve walked battlefields – the battlefields of our own Civil War. How many of us remember, by the way, that the Civil War began with President Lincoln calling up a hundred thousand volunteers? That’s how it began; that’s not how it ended.

I’ve walked the battlefields of Little Big Horn, where General Custer grossly underestimated the enemy he was seeking to run down. To Islandwana in South Africa, where the British, after sending an expeditionary force to suppress a Zulu uprising, were roundly defeated. And in fact, on that battlefield is a monument that haunts me. The words of it read like this: “Tell those in England, you who pass us by, that here, faithful to our duty, her soldiers lie.”

To Korea, where this year, of course, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the armistice – a war, by the way, that no one thought would happen – and more on that in a moment. And finally, to Vietnam. Some of you may remember, on the 10th of November, 1964, Robert McNamara declared the following: The U.S. will never send combat troops to Vietnam. There is hubris in the belief that war can be controlled. War punishes hubris. That’s actually worth remembering.

Now, we do have peace through strength today. The question for me and for you is, will we have it tomorrow? It’s not clear that we will. We are currently accruing risk, and we’re consuming readiness. I’ll explain. There’s four reasons we’re accruing greater risk. One is what’s sometimes called the security paradox, the paradox being that the risk of state-on-state conflict or existential threats or large conflict is actually at historic lows, but the proliferation of technologies and the ability to wage conflict, to injure, to destroy, in the hands of more and more troops – more and more individuals has never been greater.

Think of cyber if you’d like to share in my personal nightmare, and of course, we are all wondering how the domain of space will evolve over time. Second – the second reason we’re accruing risk – a drive for immediacy. Immediacy is part of our lives now. Everything has to be fixed immediately. Everything has to be somehow controlled. You all carry an iPhone; you have instant access – or at least some of you do, I suppose – you all have immediate access to information which, by the way, when you’re in the business of governance, leads to the idea that we should have an immediate solution. And immediacy can be a real problem when one thinks about strategy and the application of resources.

Now, neither of those really have anything to do with this thing called sequestration, but our unpreparedness does somewhat. We knew – those of us that have fought the last 10 years of conflict knew that after this form of warfare – this thing called counterinsurgency – we would have to rekindle lost skills – skills of maneuver, skills of integration, of suppressing enemy air defenses, skills of combined warfare, on the move and moving architecture – logistic architecture, communications architecture, intelligence architecture. And we have not had time, frankly, to rekindle those skills, and it is this thing called sequestration and its impact on readiness that I’ll mention in a moment that’s actually exacerbating what was already going to be high-risk.

And finally, if we do go all the way to this thing called the Budget Control Act levels and sequestration, we’ll lack depth – the fight-tonight force will remain ready. America’s sons and daughters are not going to say no when something happens. The fight-tonight’s forces will remain ready, but we’ll have less depth. Think of a basketball metaphor if you don’t want to take my word for it, this lack of depth. You’d really like to have 12 fully capable and fully-prepared basketball players to enter a tournament. We’d probably end up, if we go to full sequestration, with six or seven, in my estimation.

We’re also consuming readiness for a single reason, and that is, we’re out of balance. Supply and demand – how much should we have forward, how much rotational, how much in the homeland? We’re simply out of balance after 10 years of war, and second, we can’t move money around at the pace and with the flexibility we need to move it around among our accounts. We can’t move it from manpower to infrastructure to training and modernization, and that’s beginning to create a significant problem.

If this Budget Control Act level goes the full 10 years, the first half of it will be characterized by a lack of readiness, and the back half will be characterized by a lack of depth, and that’s where we’re headed.

Now, there is good news. The good news is that meeting or reversing these conditions is entirely within our control – that is to say, the people of the United States. I’m going to tell you that there are some things we must do in the next few years – some things we should do, and some things we absolutely should not do. The things we must do: We have to control manpower costs, and we’re going to need help to do that. And I don’t want to do it every year.

If anybody here thinks I want to be the chairman that goes down in history for having carved up pay and compensation and health care, I assure you I do not. I don’t want to be that chairman. The problem is, there’s going to be a chairman that has to do it. There’s going to be a commandant that has to do it. There’s going to be a SOCOM commander that has to do it. So my view is, we should get on with it, but we should do it once, not every year.

Second, we do have to retrain to tasks that we’ve recently ignored. That would be true, again, whether we’re dealing with sequestration or not. And finally, we have to recapitalize and modernize equipment that we’ve used over the past 20 years – not 10 at levels that we never estimated they would be used.

Now, those are the things we must do. What are the things we should do? We should really grip – we should take advantage of a crisis. Never waste a crisis. In other words, the crisis – we should grip this crisis to do institutional reform. We should drive ourselves to bring the joint interdependence, and we should seek greater integration with capable and willing allies. Now, here’s the point. Whether we do these things is entirely in our control. Unlike other powers, we’re not hostage to others for our fortunes or our future.

If we have the will, we can come to 2025 maintaining peace through strength with a military that is dominant, decisive and agile. The question for all of us is, will we? And if you think we won’t, are we prepared to accept a lesser U.S. leadership role globally with all that entails? Now, recalling my suggestion that we should be humble about our predictions of the future, I want to note that at this point – I want to note at this point that we as a military are resilient to uncertainty and danger because of the character of the men and women who serve.

I’ll tell you a little bit about the battle of Chattanooga, which occurred on the 25th of November of 1863 – 150 years ago this month. At that battle – at that battle of Missionary Ridge, Grant the commander at that battle, had given pretty explicit orders to his Union troops to push to the base of the mountain of Missionary Ridge and seize the trenchline of Confederate forces there. As he watched from afar – and he had no reserve – one of the reasons he was being cautious and deliberate is, he had no reserve – no depth, and so the men attacked. They seized the first line of trenches; they realized they were still being shot at from a – from the next line of trenches up the hill, and one further up the hill from that, and they pressed on. And eventually, they washed over Missionary Ridge and prevailed in the battle, despite, by the way, the orders of Ulysses S. Grant.

Here’s what Melville actually says in his – Herman Melville wrote a poem about it, and here’s what he says. “A kindling impulse seized the host inspired by the elastic air. Their hearts outran their general’s plan. Though Grant commanded there – Grant, who, without reserve, can dare, and said, well, go and do your will, and measured the mountain then. So master-riders fling the rein, but you must know your men.” You know must know your men.

We know the men and women who serve, and we know – when some people ask me, why isn’t sequestration harder? It’s because of those who serve. They are not going to slow down just because their general said they don’t have any depth. We should remember that they trust their country and they trust us. We are the most formidable force in the world today because we are the best-trained, and because we develop leaders. We equip men, not simply man equipment.

As you consider the definition of strength in your discussions, remember that it starts with the nation’s commitment to those who volunteer to serve. Now, a few parting thoughts. I told you I’d mentioned some things we absolutely must not do. First and foremost, we must never accept a fair fight. If we convince ourselves we can carve this force up and we can satisfy prevailing in a conflict – let’s call it a football game, 7-3, shame on us. We should be seeking to prevail 50 to nothing. That’s what we owe the men and women who serve. Never accept a fair fight. Second, we can’t lose our global network of friends and allies. And third, we simply can’t believe too strongly in our ability to control conflict. We can do less, but we can’t do less well.

Now, I mentioned that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended combat operations in the Korean conflict. There is a brilliant history of that conflict written by T.R. Fehrenbach. If you haven’t read it, you should. It describes – at the beginning of the book, it describes the disbelief, the overconfidence and the unpreparedness that characterized the beginning of the Korean War, a war fought just three or four years after we had established ourselves as the most formidable fighting force on the planet. The very last two sentences of Fehrenbach’s book are as follows: “He reminds us, it is while men talk blithely of the lessons of history that they ignore them. The lesson of Korea is that it happened.” Thank you for your attention today. (Applause.)

MR. : Now, we will begin the question and answer session with Chairman Dempsey moderated by Reagan National Defense Forum Executive Committee Member Mr. Roger Zakheim.

ROGER ZAKHEIM: Thank you, General Dempsey. We’re going to engage in a Q-and-A here for about 10, 15 minutes. There’s microphones on this side of the room, so for those of you who would like to ask General Dempsey a question, please come up to the mic and we’ll recognize you. Let’s warm things up here and I’ll engage in a question.

General Dempsey, you talked about how we cannot control conflict, and that’s one of the lessons. At the same time, we’ve made decisions and strategy – the 2012 defense strategy explicitly states that we’re not going to engage in prolonged land conflicts. So I’m curious how you can take the theme of your speech today and kind of square it to the 2012 defense strategy, which seems to write off the possibility that we may well engage in a long land conflict.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, look, I’m all for short, brief, precise, limited, controlled conflict. And in fact, when we enter a conflict, I think ought to be an outcome that we aspire to. But we should certainly have the depth available in the active guard and Reserve in order to account for the very good possibility that we won’t be able to control it.

And so, understanding or aspiring to never again enter into a prolonged conflict – who cannot be for that? But if we ever build the force and organize it and train it such that it only has the capability for some discreet amount of time, that if we don’t have the mobilization instrument behind it, we will set it up for a very large disappointment for the mission.

MR. ZAKHEIM: Thank you. We would like people to come to the microphone as I am talking. I’m thinking of the next question I should ask until we have somebody at the mic. So I’ll follow up with you, General Dempsey. One of the very provocative remarks you made in your comments is that we are going down essentially a sequester, and we stay at sequester levels from 12 on the bench or a 12 on the team down to seven.

Just recently, amidst the conflict in Afghanistan, managing the situation in the Middle East and in Asia – we had the typhoon in the Philippines. And once again, we had to resource that effort with the humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operation. Do you ever worry that the President’s going to call you, or the secretary of defense is going to call you up and say, we need you to do something else, and you’re going to look at that bench, and actually, all seven are engaged in operations?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, first, my compliments to the Navy-Marine Corps team for what they did in the Philippines. And by the way, much like the Chattanooga, they were moving long before anybody in Washington, D.C., told them to move. And as a result, they were largely positioned where they needed to be when they were needed. And we chased it with decisions and we chased it with resources shortly thereafter.

Yeah, sure, this is why this is such an important question for this group and this conference with this theme. It probably is not going to happen on my watch because we’ve got – you know, we’re sitting at levels of manpower where – reaping the benefits of resources that have been provided over the past 10 years. But you – it’s somewhat invisible to you, the effect this is having on those forces that are sitting behind those deployed.

And, you know, I can understand why it’s somewhat invisible. You know, if you were sitting in the outside of Fort Hood, Texas, as long as Fort Hood, Texas, remains open for business, as long as the soldiers and their families who live at Fort Hood are going into Killeen and using the grocery stores and restaurants, there is no – there is no impact on the local economy. And that’s normally where I think America begins to take the greatest interest. But the problem is that only a fraction of those stationed at Fort Hood are training.

Here’s the other problem we’ve got. And this, by the way, me predicting the future, humbly – today’s readiness problem will be tomorrow’s retention problem. If you came to the military to be on a tank crew or fly an F-16 or conduct training on amphibious assault or steam from Norfolk into the – into the central region, and you’re not, it won’t take too long for you to lose your interest in doing so. So I’m telling you, today’s readiness problem is going to be tomorrow’s retention problem.

MR. ZAKHEIM: Thank you. Gentleman over here. Please identify yourself by your name and your organization.

Q: (Off mic.)

MR. ZAKHEIM: Would you mind getting close to the mic? We can’t hear over here.

Q: For sure. Sorry about that. (Inaudible) – Clairmont McKenna College. Just have that question about you mentioned your kind of nightmare scenario being a cyberattack, cyber warfare. Could you elaborate a little more on that, and then if not, how we can control, at least how we can better manage that threat scenario?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Sounds like a question I might get sitting in front of Chairman McKeon in the House Armed Services Committee. (Laughter.)

Well, look, we’ve come a long way to, frankly, the organization of CYBERCOM, building teams that are prepared to defend the network. But I have to be clear, the authorities that I have to defend the network are limited to – and I’m not asking for more work here, by the way, but we defend the dot-mil domain, we defend the military network. But that doesn’t do us much good, frankly, because the dot-mil domain is tied in to this wonderful thing called the Internet into every other enterprise. And to the extent that they continue to remain vulnerable, we remain vulnerable. And there is still a great deal of work to do in order to establish the kind of shared information protocols and authorities, lower the vulnerability and the liability of the private sector in order to make ourselves less vulnerable inside. And I’m afraid it’s going to take an attack to point that out to us.

Q: Thank you.

MR. ZAKHEIM: (Inaudible) – identify yourself and your organization.

Q: Dennis Anderson. Cold War veteran, military father, Iraq war – (inaudible). I read the Army Times, and the number that I saw – (inaudible) – there are people in Congress is talking about taking the Army down to 380,000. And that would be my question would be, do you have a number where you join the chairman in saying no?

GEN. DEMPSEY: You’re not really expecting me to answer that. (Laughter.)

Q: I don’t expect you to answer it.

GEN. DEMPSEY: No, I’m only kidding. I do – look, here’s – I’ve said this is as testimony to the chairman will attest I think that the $500 billion over 10 years, which is Budget Control Act number, takes us too far. Doesn’t mean there can’t be something between where we are today and there, and I think the analysis that Secretary Hagel has allowed us to conduct the analysis, the Quadrennial Defense Review scenarios will allow us to articulate – look, our job is not to lobby for additional resources. That’s not appropriate for the military. The chairman would probably be less kind to me in his introduction if I were over there lobbying for resources.

My job, however, is very much to articulate how we accomplish a strategy given the resourced available and at what risk. So I do think sequestration as a mechanism, and the second Budget Control Act number of 500 million (dollars) goes too far. I’ve said that. You know, the decision about how – where – between where we are today and that is a conversation we haven’t had yet with the Congress or the president. So I’m afraid I can’t have it with you today. (Laughter.) But we’re prepared to do that.

Q: And then the robust Guard and Reserve component. Does that have any a coefficient that goes along with that?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I’m sorry, I missed the last part?

MR. ZAKHEIM: I believe the question was, the Guard and Reserve component –

Q: You mentioned the need for that robust Guard and Reserve commitment. And if you’re confident you’re going to be able to carry that discussion?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, sure. I mean, look, one of – you heard me say we’re out of balance. That balance has a lot of – there’s a lot of meaning the word balance. Some of it is forward, rotational and back. Some of it is active, Guard and Reserve, balance across the globe. I’ve actually – in the two years I’ve been the chairman I’ve been trying to – you know, to find a better way to articulate what strategy really is.

Strategy’s another one of those words if I asked a table if you to tell me what strategy means I’ll get five different answers. That’s actually not helpful. My answer today for you is how do you provide as many options for the nation as possible given the resources available, and what risks do we accrue if we – if our options are too limited?

Q: Thank you. Thank you, General.

MR. ZAKHEIM: Name and organization.

Q: My name is Mike Braden. I’m just a citizen interested in defense.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Me too. (Laughter.)

Q: You mentioned getting better cooperation out of our allies. And I was wondering what your thoughts are, if you can share with us, on how do we get countries like Europe and Japan and South Korea, with – where in combination they have economies that are equal to and greater than ours to spend more of their resources on building tanks and planes and having a standing army and contributing to the efforts that we’re doing around the world?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Kind of two different – and when you – when you combine what we’re doing with NATO – our traditional NATO ally and the Far East, if you will, it’s actually a different answer. NATO – although NATO is spending far less than we think they should in the common defense, when you add up their defense budgets together, the 26 countries, it’s about $300 billion. So it’s not inconsequential.

The real question in terms of NATO is can we find a way to integrate our resources so that we complement each other rather than create redundancies which leave gaps. And you know, I mean, we’re not doing as well as I’d like or as well as they would like, but we’re – it’s a constant effort. And they are our most important – our most important relationship.

And in the Pacific the nations are actually beginning to spend money on things that matter to us – air defense, for example, ISR, integrated – I mean – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Not as quickly as we think they should, given the fact that they have benefited – their economies have benefited from 50 years of stability provided by the United States. But they are beginning to make investments that we think are both appropriate and maybe less timey than we’d like, but they are appropriate. If I sound as though I’m content with our current effort, I’m not, any more than I’m content about our effort internal to our own government to procure the things we need properly. But we can see where we need to be, we just need to keep at it.

Q: Just as a quick follow-up for example, I read stories about the U.K. is building an aircraft carrier that they don’t have airplanes to put on it, and we have to scale down, or we’re going to scale down one way or the other. So as we reduce maybe a carrier force or two, where’s that going to get filled in from when they say they’re spending $300 billion, I don’t see where it’s going.

GEN. DEMPSEY: We’re in conversation with them with that exact issue in particular and I have a certain amount of confidence that it’ll come out the way it’s beneficial to both of us.


MR. ZAKHEIM: Question over here.

Q: Yes, I’m Bill Gertz, I write for the Washington Times and the Washington Free Beacon. My question is about Asia-Pacific. The Congressional report is coming out next week and a draft says that a combination of Chinese military buildup along with sequestration is undermining stability and deterrence at one of the areas where you have concerns about contingency and readiness.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Sure. I mean—but first of all, I was one of those who believed strongly that the strategy to rebalance to the Pacific was actually the right strategy for the nation. I also was careful to say right from the start that this was not something that would happen overnight. We have interests in other regions of the world, and look—we’re in a pretty unsettled position in terms of managing our budget to provide options globally.

I don’t know how many of you realize, the Chairman [McKeon] does and Chairman Levin does, but I haven’t had a budget since I became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And that’s not a big deal to me because I don’t need a budget personally, I don’t have the authority to distribute it, but the service chiefs certainly do. And so in that uncertainty, we—all of our strategies have to be adaptive and some of them are moving more slowly than they should, and I think that’s one of them.

But the one thing we will not do, and I mentioned Korea a moment ago, we will not put our forces on the peninsula at any risk because of the uncertainty, but that said, for those of you in the room who can do something about this, if we had certainty on a number, if we had time, and that means we can backload a bit of it, and if we had flexibility to fight as the ability to actually take out unnecessary infrastructure to change our manpower costs and to retire systems that we no longer need, we can figure this out. But right now, right now, you can ask Jim Amos, I don’t mean to put you on the spot, or Ray Odierno or Mark Welsh or Jon Greenert, there is not a single variable in their lives that is fixed. How would you like to be running a business where there is not a fixed variable? But that’s what we’re doing.