Defense at a Time of Strategic Transition

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter leads the Strategic Command change of command ceremony. DVIDSHUB/Public domain

America’s defense posture at the moment of the Obama-Trump handoff.

Abridged remarks by then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on receiving the CSIS Sam Nunn National Security Leadership Prize last month.

Thanks for that kind introduction, John [Hamre], and for the first-ever Nunn Prize. This is a particular honor for me because I have such respect for both CSIS and for Sam Nunn.

Few people over the past 50 years have made more lasting and forward-looking contributions to America’s security than Sam Nunn. As a Senator, Sam was a serious and studious steward of our national defense in the last decades of the Cold War and thereafter. As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam was a leader in strengthening and reforming the Pentagon. And in the years since, he has been a true statesman, helping guide America’s relationship with the world, particularly on nuclear weapons.

Through it all, Sam has demonstrated that he understands that America’s defense is so vital that we, to whom it is entrusted, must ensure its continuity and excellence across the years, across the domains of armed conflict not just air and land and sea, but space, and cyberspace, across parties, from presidential administration to presidential administration—and in that connection, I’m committed to helping President-elect Trump and his team hit the ground running—and also across our government, and from strategic era to strategic era.

That last one is important and is the theme, I think, of what this recognition of Sam Nunn means. Sam and I worked closely together—a quarter century ago and with his friend and colleague Dick Lugar—to confront the unique challenges of another transition between strategic eras at the end of the Cold War.

Now, early in that transition, Sam and Dick—almost alone in the country and the world—foresaw a few important developments.

First, the Soviet Union’s was the first-ever disintegration of a nuclear power. Second, while people had considered accidental nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis, few appreciated that nuclear command-and-control would not, could not, be immune from the disintegration of a society in which such controls were embedded. And in that new situation, Sam and Dick knew that deterrence alone would not protect us against destruction. And third, they also appreciated that to prevent that new danger from becoming a threat, the United States would need to work with, and not against, the custodians of the former Soviet arsenal. And after having spent half a century and billions upon billions of dollars bringing the Soviet Union to its knees, we would need to help them, even fund them, to secure the vast nuclear legacy of the USSR.

That last idea, as many of us remember, and—as Sam later called it—was a little “wacky.” It was counter-intuitive, it was innovative, it was controversial at the time. But it was right.

More importantly, the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program that was based on that idea worked: it helped the United States denuclearize Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, safeguard fissile materials, and destroy dangerous nuclear weapons systems.

It did so because Sam and Dick knew that at a time of strategic transition, we needed to be willing to take bold steps, consider things that seemed to be counterintuitive—some might even think wacky ideas—and develop new ways of thinking, operating, and investing to continue to keep the nation safe.

Strategic Transition

That’s an important lesson to remember today, at a time of great change—economic, and political, and military, and social, and technological change—and of greater and fiercer competition even than marked those early post-Cold War years—competition for the lead in technology and human talent, competition for power, and competition of ideas about how the world should be ordered.

In this time of time of strategic transition, and against this competitive background, the Department of Defense is making a corresponding transition, from an era dominated by over a decade of skillful but all-absorbing counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns, to one where we must contend with a wider range of strategic problems.

Across this range, DoD is confronting today no fewer than five immediate, but distinct, and each evolving challenges. We’re countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe—something we haven’t had to worry about for the last 25 years, but now we do. We’re also managing historic change in the Asia-Pacific—the single most consequential region for America’s future. We’re strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile provocations. We’re checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf, and helping defend our friends and allies in the Middle East. We’re countering terrorism and accelerating the certain and lasting defeat of ISIL. And, all the while, the Defense Department is also preparing to contend with an uncertain future—ensuring that our military is ready for challenges we may not anticipate today.

And the question I’ll address in this acknowledgment of Sam tonight is the same as it’s been to me for all the time I’ve been Secretary of Defense: which is how do we successfully confront these challenges and prepare for that uncertain future?

And the answer, fundamentally, is the same as it was 25 years ago: it has been necessary—it will be necessary—for DoD to change, to adapt, to innovate . . . not only to meet today’s challenges, but ensure our defense’s continued excellence well into that uncertain future.