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Adm. Winnefeld's Remarks at the Reagan Defense Forum (as delivered)


By Admiral James A. "Sandy" Winnefeld, Jr.
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. —

ADMIRAL WINNEFELD:  So in the backroom.  There we go.  I was going to say, did everybody notice that he got everybody quiet without even using a gavel.  It’s a testament to … you know …. Representative McKeon’s amazing stature.

Let me tell you, it’s a real pleasure for me today to be able to stand in today for Chairman Dempsey, who’s visiting our troops in Iraq, I think most of you may have seen that on your iPads and iPhones and BlackBerrys already.  And it’s really an honor to do so in such a breathtaking setting.  And I really am honored to be with you here on this stage today. 

It’s also a little bit of a reunion for me today.  As Chairman McKeon referred, my formative years as a naval aviator occurred while Ronald Reagan was serving as president of the United States, and I spent a lot of time during those days flying around in a Tomcat just like the one that’s out the back door of the building.

Now today, also gives me the opportunity to add my own personal thanks that of many, many people in this room.  To Chairman Buck McKeon for his tremendous leadership of the House Armed Services Committee over a period in our history when we really needed to benefit from his steady and collegial hand on the tiller.  So I want to thank you very much Sir, heartfelt thanks from all of us in uniform for your exceptional patriotism, your selfless service, and above all, your uncompromising leadership.  Thank you.

[applause]

Kind of turned the tables there on you didn’t I Sir?  That kind of leadership is something we’re really going to need in this rare, fleeting and important moment in the rhythm of United States security policy.  It’s rare because we only have a post-election moment like this every couple of years.  It’s fleeting because our nation will soon plunge into another long and possibly divisive presidential campaign and it’s important because the trajectory of the security environment and the ongoing turbulence in defense funding have upset the strategic balance among the ends, ways, and means of our nation’s security and we need to reset it. 

As President Reagan once said, faithfully quoting John Adams, “facts are stubborn things.”  Well, that strategic balance is a very stubborn thing, there is no free lunch.  Except this lunch.  Oh sorry.  (Laughter)  Seriously, if we’re wise, we’ll drive that strategic balance back to an equilibrium before it’s too late.  If we’re not, well, then we’ll have to live together with the consequences.

So I’d like to spend my time today talking about that balance, beginning with the environment in which it is either driven by or it drives.

While we’ve been fully invested in two of the three longest wars in our nation’s history – all of which were overseas counterinsurgencies – the rest of the world didn’t stand idly by.  Major states like Russia and China, convinced that the unipolar moment was fading fast, and capitalizing on our distraction, began asserting themselves.  Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is, by far, not the only example.

In protecting our allies against potential mischief from these powers, we‘ve always counted on our overmatch in capability and capacity to offset the challenges of distance and initiative.  That overmatch is now in jeopardy.  

Both of these powers are investing in new capabilities, including precision guided weapons, stealth, unmanned platforms in traditional domains and new capabilities in the space and cyber domains.  And both are modernizing their nuclear forces.

Meanwhile, we contend every day with two insecure, authoritarian regimes in North Korea and Iran, who covet weapons of mass destruction as insurance policies.  At the same time, violent extremism and deep instability continue to feed off the deep social and religious divisions engulfing the great swath of North and East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia – too many to fault zones mention in detail today – but they’re drawing the lion’s share of our daily operational effort and continually challenging us to balance resources and risk against our national security interests in the region.

Other threats present different challenges – including the transnational criminal organizations that are deeply impacting our friends in Latin America and that affect many thousands of Americans each year, and pandemics such as the recent Ebola crisis in west Africa, and natural disasters and tensions exacerbated by droughts and food shortages.

Some say conditions today are spiraling out of control.  I’d sort of echo Richard Haass, who says it’s really more a perennial cyclic shift away from order and towards disorder.  And even if the number of Deputies Committee meetings I attend in Washington is indicative of how chaotic things are, we’ve seen some pretty chaotic times in the past.  Chaotic times that Ronald Reagan experienced.

Further, I’d join many in this audience who would argue strongly against any perception of America in decline – based on our strengths in geography, economics, energy and other resources, creativity, demographics, diversity, higher education, and of course, military power.  But our world remains a dynamic and very dangerous place.  And as Bob Gates was fond of saying about predicting the future, we have a 100% record . . . we always get it wrong.

So what about the other variable currently upsetting our strategic balance, namely means?

Means of course are the resources the citizens of the United States entrust to us, via the congress, to provide for the common defense using the capability, capacity and readiness of our military forces.

Today, a trifecta of challenges is undermining the means element of our strategic balance.  The first leg of the trifecta is perhaps the toughest.  Our people tell me, Bob Hale is in the audience, that total defense spending, including wartime supplementals, has fallen by 21% since its most recent peak.  The base budget alone has fallen by 15% since I assumed my job as Vice Chairman on the same day in 2011 that the Budget Control Act was enacted, all while we need at least 2% real growth to maintain our current capabilities.  This is having its inevitable effect. 

We aren’t modernizing as fast as we should in a highly competitive technical landscape and our capability overmatch is slipping.  Almost every element of our force structure is shrinking while potential threats expand, so we’ll have a harder time overmatching in capacity when we need to.  And we’re in a real struggle to recover the readiness we’ve lost over the last couple of years, particularly that lost during the FY 13 sequester period, because we’re running our force so hard.

Somehow, our amazing young men and women out there are managing all of this, but reduced readiness applied to a smaller force means fewer units ready to fight.  So we’re meeting our daily deployment demands, but it’s put a real dent in our ability to surge. 

I would not disagree that some of our budget reductions to this point are needed to help with the national security imperative of deficit reduction.  After all, no strong nation ever had a weak economy, but those reductions have pushed us hard against the bounds of manageable risk. 

The other two legs of the trifecta could push us across it.  The second leg comes in the form of what we call the “congressional no’s” of individual member interests.  Despite the very helpful efforts of some of our friends in congress, Chairman McKeon in particular, the most severe pending markups of our FY 2015 budget submission currently include $70 billion worth of those “no’s” across the next five years.  This includes $39 billion against our efforts to make sensible adjustments to compensation and $31 billion against our ability to clear out the underbrush of old force structure and better manage what we have left, as well as, a prohibition on unloading excess base infrastructure. 

Imagine a business being told it must retain old product lines that siphon away the resources that allow it to compete in a global marketplace. Or being forced by law to maintain 24% excess infrastructure.  They’d contend that it’s already hard enough to compete in the global marketplace, and those kinds of restrictions would put them out of business.  But we can’t afford to be out of business in our lethal market, and $70 billion is not a trivial amount, especially when you considers the additional resources we’ll need to buttress our nuclear enterprise and improve our space resiliency.

Uncertainty is the third leg of the means trifecta.  Our next big event occurs when the current continuing resolution runs out next month, followed sometime next year by a debt ceiling showdown.  Somewhere in there we hope to get our authorization and appropriations bills.  It’s been five years since the congress enacted the former on time and six years since it will have enacted the latter on time. 

Twice we’ve received funding six months late.  If any of us were that consistently late paying our taxes, we’d be in jail right now.  And when we have gotten a budget recently, it’s only addressed our problems one or two years at a time, which, while helping us recover readiness, is devastating to modernization programs.

But, there’s more.  We’re still facing possible sequester level cuts of $500 billion in 2016 FYDP. 

Sequester is a bet that went terribly wrong and its salami-slice method is the most destructive way possible to reduce a budget.  I don’t have to tell this savvy audience that our strategic balance truly becomes untenable under sequester sized cuts. 

So, back to the strategic balance.  If the security environment continues on its current track, and assuming for the moment that we can’t fix our means problems, then all we have left to tinker with is ends and ways.  Ways are about putting the right money in the right places, doing the right things with it, and doing those things the right way.  Improving our ways is hard work because it means change and there are a lot of institutional and external factors in our world aligned against any kind of change, especially those which would make us more efficient. 

And if you’re heavily invested in a particular warfighting theology, or platform, or technology, the last thing you want to hear is that it’s just not as relevant as it used to be.  But risk aversion and complacency are how companies have failed in the past.  Just ask Polaroid.  Richard Pascale characterized it using the catch-phrase: “equilibrium is the precursor to death.”  Fortunately, we have a number of things going on in the ways world. 

I’m very supportive of having an empowered Defense Business Board.  Frank Kendall’s Better Buying Power 3.0 initiative will soon gather momentum, and my partner Deputy Secretary Bob Work is beginning to really dig into the details of what’s going on in the back offices of the various chunks of our enterprise.  We need to do more of this, and quickly, and it needs to be hard-nosed.

That’s why I was so delighted to see there was a panel on this topic earlier today.  I have a lot of friends on that panel – and I’m really looking forward to reading the transcript.  Improving our ways also involves embarking on more and better work on innovation, which I’m happy to see, is also one of your panels this afternoon.  I’d like to see that one, as well.

Secretary Hagel will have a few things to say about this later today, and I don’t want to steal his thunder.    

Among other things, we’re looking for the next technological offset – something we can do that nobody else can, at least for a while.  This is going to require linking more innovation in strategic and operational concepts with more innovation in technology – they both have to  feed off of each other.

I believe the next offset will be more about payloads than platforms.  It will involve every warfighting domain, and will almost certainly be the combination of diverse technologies.  Thus it will require bright, broadly educated people coming together to forge previously unimagined synergies.  That’s why I was out rooting around in Silicon Valley yesterday and this morning, vacuuming up ideas. We really need to deliver on this.

But it’s not going to be easy, partly because so much of it requires leveraging commercial technologies and practices, and our potential adversaries may be quicker than we are due to all of our red tape.  And some of those opportunities may be found in less advantaged service communities, which means it could be hard to find committed champions.  So, as we do this, we have to avoid Liddell Hart’s maxim: “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is getting an old one out.”

There’s much more to the ways piece.  I don’t have enough time to cover it all, but it’s probably the most interesting part of my job. Unfortunately, though, as much promise as there is in this area, we can’t count on our advancements in ways to completely offset the trifecta of means reductions, especially if we end up under a sequester. 

Thus, we’re left with ends as the final variable.

I would submit that our most fundamental ends are the national security interests we all seek to protect.  An abstract, enduring set of these individual interests could be the subject of their very own speech.  As my colleagues would tell you, it’s a discussion that I love to have.

Such a list, especially when it’s prioritized, enables a more meaningful conversation about strategy, because it’s a powerful way to support decisions regarding the use of force, regarding allocation of scarce resources, and about assessing risk. 

Henry Kissinger once said “No country can act wisely simultaneously in every part of the globe at every moment in time.”

So, when means are decreasing, and when we’ve done everything we can with ways, we may have to make tough choices on where to accept more risk to our interests – presumably the lower ranking interests.  But I don’t know many Americans who really want to do that.

Not only would we never compromise on protecting our homeland, we Americans think we can solve any problem around the globe and we‘re determined to preserve American leadership.  It’s who we are.  It’s in our DNA.  That’s why it’s our ambition to have a strategy completely driven by ends, and totally unconstrained by means. 

But that brings me back to where I started.  

Oliver Wendell Holmes said “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the far side of complexity.” 

People in our business often fall into the trap of confusing the ends of strategy with strategy itself, which is to reach for simplicity on the near side of complexity.  But there’s much more to it, whether we like it or not, strategy has to be the whole enchilada. 

We need to get to the far side of the whole ends, ways, and means discussion if we’re to get ourselves back in balance. 

Like most of you, I’d rather restore equilibrium by preserving the ends of our national security interests as best we can while maintaining manageable risk.  And if we’re going to do that, we’re going to have to work harder on ways and means.

There are several things we need to do.

• First, throughout our Department we need to reach even harder for efficiencies.  We’re determined to do better.  The congress should not only demand this, they should support it as well by removing some of the barriers we have to becoming more efficient.

• Second, we need to embrace new operational plans, concepts, and technologies that could change the complexion of our force, while avoiding what former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano said about companies under financial stress:  “You spend more time arguing amongst yourselves over a shrinking pie than looking to the future, so you miss the big turn.”  Well, we need to keep reaching for that big turn, in this very precious moment we have and we will.

• Third, we need to continue building a partnership with industry that raises the bar further on agility and speed on the one hand, and cost and performance on the other, while doing so in a network-secure way so we don’t do our competitors’ R&D for them.  That’s a tall order, but we have to do this and we will.  In the process, while we’re conjuring up new disruptive payloads, we have a few platforms we need to get through what I call the V-22 window in which a system struggles for a while, gets a bad reputation, but we finally get it on line and then before we know it, we can’t get enough of them, because they are so good.

• Fourth, we need to continue to weigh both our investments and our commitments across the globe against a spectrum of prioritized national security interest ends.  We really can do a lot as a nation, but we can’t do everything . . . and we need to make sure we hold enough in reserve to do the most important things.

• And finally, we need a congress that, in executing their very important oversight role, gets the means trifecta under control by providing adequate and predictable funding, as well as more flexibility in a number of areas to us.  There is still time to conference out many of the congressional “no’s” in this year’s pending legislation.

And it goes without saying that we need an alternative to sequestration. 

Achieving this will require calm, mature and collegial statesmen in the grandest traditions of American politics.  Like the man to whom this building is dedicated. Like the man we honored a moment ago.

I couldn’t help reflecting a week ago, as I visited a bunch of amazing, bright eyed, and proud Marines and Sailors at Camp Lejeune and aboard USS Kearsarge – young people with the courage to sacrifice everything they have for our nation – people who will always rise to the occasion and do the right thing for us, just as Medal of Honor recipient Sal Giunta, who I think is in the room today, did.

We owe these sons and daughters of America the very best we have both during and after their time in service to our country.  We need to strap on the same kind of courage they have and get the ways and means of our balance right or we will have let them down.

One of tonight’s Peace Through Strength honorees, Senator John McCain, told the brigade of midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in 2012:  “We will only fail if we give up, and become the first American generation to accept our destiny rather than make it.”

Well, my son became one of those midshipmen this past summer.  His little brother wants to be a Marine.  I’m proud of them both.  I’ll soon hand the torch off to them. 

We have an obligation to ensure they, and many others like them, have what they need to keep that torch burning brightly as they take their turn in making our destiny.  We’re from the United States of America.  We can do this.

Thanks for inviting me here today, and for your interest and your support and in many cases your service in the great cause of keeping our nation strong and safe.

And may God shower His blessings on the men and women across the globe who are doing exactly that as we are here today!

Thank you.