Defense at a Time of Strategic Transition

Defense at a Time of Strategic Transition

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.

So I want to speak tonight about the changes underway to respond today’s challenges—focusing particularly on the military campaign to accelerate the lasting defeat of ISIL, our Strong and Balanced Strategy on Russia, and our rebalance to the vital and dynamic Asia-Pacific. And I’ll also describe the actions underway—and innovations we’re making—to ensure that the defense department has the technology, the operational plans, the organization, and the people to continue to defend our country and make a better world for decades to come.

Campaign to Deliver ISIL a Lasting Defeat

Let me start with ISIL. We’ve reached a critical milestone in our counter-ISIL campaign.

As we meet [in January 2017], American forces are engaged, with our coalition and local partners, in an intense effort to collapse ISIL’s control over Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, bringing the great weight and our entire range of capabilities to bear in the enabling of capable and motivated local forces. The seizure of these two cities is necessary to ensure the destruction of ISIL’s parent tumor—the primary objective of our military campaign in Iraq and Syria and to destroy both the fact and the idea that there can be an Islamic state based upon this ideology—put ISIL on an irreversible path to a lasting defeat.

Reaching this milestone is a direct result of deliberate actions taken since 2015. First, and going back to summer 2015, I’ve consolidated the efforts for Iraq and Syria under a single, unified command—streamlining our command-and-control for the fight against ISIL, which we had not had. Then, in October 2015, President Obama approved the first in a series of recommendations that I and our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford made to accelerate the campaign against ISIL—introducing every single tool of our military into this fight. And I should tell you, by the way, that since then President Obama has approved every recommendation that the Chairman and I have taken to him for additional forces and capabilities, as we’ve seen and sought to seize opportunities to accelerate the campaign.

We then revised our overall Coalition Military Campaign Plan, setting out three objectives:

First, as I said, to destroy the ISIL cancer’s parent tumor in Iraq and Syria. Now that’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. So the second objective is to combat ISIL’s metastases everywhere they emerge around world: in Afghanistan, in Libya, and elsewhere. And the third objective is to work with our intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement partners to help protect our homeland and our people from attack—ultimately DoD’s most important mission.

The strategic approach of our military campaign in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere is to leverage all the tools at DoD’s disposal to enable capable, motivated local forces to deal a lasting defeat to ISIL. This strategic approach is necessary because the only way to ensure that, once defeated, ISIL stays defeated, is to enable local forces to seize and hold territory rather than attempt to substitute for them.

And consistent with this approach, we’ve employed some of the U.S. military’s most extraordinary capabilities, and some of our most specialized personnel—from air power and special operations forces, to train, advise, assist capabilities on the ground, to intelligence, cyber tools, logistics. These assets and our personnel have been able not only to help directly enable local forces on the ground; they also bring to bear the full weight of American and coalition military might.

By combining our capabilities with those of our local partners, we’ve been squeezing ISIL by applying simultaneous pressure from all sides and across all domains, through a series of deliberate actions to continue to build momentum. For example, when our special operators conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders, it creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, more targets, more raids, more air strikes, and more opportunities we can seize to gain even more momentum.

As a result of all of this, for over a year now—play-by-play, accelerant after accelerant, town after town—the campaign has delivered the results we laid out and planned.

In Iraq, we’ve been helping the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga to systematically dislodge ISIL from city after city—Ramadi, Hit, Rutbah, Fallujah, Makhmur, and Qayyarah, just to name a few. And our coalition is now [in January 2017] doing the same in Mosul—having isolated the city, the Iraqis with our help are on the verge of clearing eastern Mosul, and will then move west to clear the remaining portion of the city, right back at the Tigris. This is a complex mission that’s going to take some time to accomplish, but ISIL’s defenses are beginning to weaken and I am confident that ISIL’s days in Mosul are numbered.

In Syria, we and our local partners put an end to ISIL’s expansion and then began to systematically roll it back towards Raqqa, an important objective since it is the so-called capital of the so-called caliphate, and a hub for plotters of external attacks. After helping capable and motivated local Syrian partners defend Kobani, we and the coalition enabled them and other local forces to take Shaddadi, Tishrin Dam, Manbij, Jarabulus, Dabiq. And now [in January 2017] converging on Raqqa. As they successfully complete the isolation phase in the weeks ahead, we’re helping them generate the additional local forces that will be necessary to seize and hold that city in the weeks to follow.

In addition to taking back territory, our campaign is yielding results in denying ISIL the finances, the supplies, the freedom of movement, and the command and control it needs to survive. We’ve systematically targeted ISIL-controlled oil wells, revenue depositories, trucks for smuggling and transporting—indeed, just last month [in December 2016], in one of the largest air strikes of this particular kind to date, we destroyed 168 trucks in one strike one evening.

We’ve also deliberately focused on severing the territory ISIL controls in Syria from the territory it controls in Iraq. Leaders of the terrorist group can no longer travel now between Raqqa and Mosul without the risk of being either hunted down by our Expeditionary Targeting Force or struck from the air. And since we began accelerating our campaign, we’ve killed the majority of ISIL’s original cadre of senior leaders.

While these results in Iraq and Syria are encouraging, we must stay focused on the continued execution of this plan. The inevitable collapse of ISIL’s control over Mosul and Raqqa will certainly put ISIL on a path to a lasting defeat. But there will still be much more to do after that to make sure that, once defeated, ISIL stays defeated. The fight against ISIL will continue in Iraq and Syria. In addition, the United States and the coalition will need to continue to counter foreign fighters trying to escape and ISIL’s attempts to relocate or reinvent itself, if they survive alive from Mosul or Raqqa.

And, of course, ISIL’s lasting defeat will require the international community and the United States to stay engaged. In Iraq, we need to carry on our work to train, equip, and enable Iraqi Security Forces, including the Iraqi Army, police, border guards, counterterrorism forces, and other forces under the control of the Iraqi government, to liberate the remainder of Iraq, secure it and hold the areas cleared from ISIL even as we continue to support an inclusive and multi-sectarian, de-centralized Iraq.

And because, beyond security, there will still be towns to rebuild, services to reestablish, and communities to restore, the international community’s stabilization and governance efforts cannot be allowed to lag too far behind the military campaign. This at my judgement at this point in the campaign is my biggest concern.

As I said earlier, success in Iraq and Syria is necessary, but it’s not sufficient for dealing ISIL a lasting defeat. And that’s why we’re also focused on the other two critical objectives of our campaign, which are combatting ISIL’s metastases around the world, and helping to protect the homeland.

When it comes to combatting the metastases, we’ve taken correspondingly strong actions in support of capable and motivated forces in Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere. For example, alongside our Afghan partners, we recently commenced the third offensive against ISIL in Eastern Afghanistan. In previous two operations, we and our Afghan partners killed ISIL’s top leader in the country and we also significantly degraded its capabilities and its ability to try to take root there.

Of course, destroying the ISIL cancer’s parent tumor in Iraq and Syria and defeating its metastases must also help us meet our campaign’s third objective, which is to protect the homeland. On that third objective, DoD is also working, as I said with our intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement partners both at home and abroad. For example, we’ve worked with the FBI to systematically eliminate members of an ISIL cell in Iraq and Syria that was inspiring attacks against our country, including against our armed forces. And we are continuing to prioritize ISIL’s external operations.

The campaign against ISIL and its results are another example of our military’s continued excellence and America’s continued leadership in the Middle East and in the world.

No other nation could have brought to bear the combination of resources we have, or assembled the coalition we’ve built, and led the execution of a comprehensive campaign as the United States has done. No other nation could’ve done that. We did so in pursuit of our nation’s interests—which in this case are aligned with many allies and partners who are also resolved to destroy ISIL; and we did so despite major, simultaneous, and growing military commitments in Europe and Asia, at the same time. And let me turn to them next.

Standing up to Russian Aggression, Standing with NATO Allies

First, I want to discuss Europe, where the Transatlantic Community is standing up to Russia’s provocations and aggression.

That’s a big change for many of us—Sam, me, and many other former Cold Warriors—who worked productively with Russia in the post-Cold War era. In the 1990s our two nations worked together—through the Nunn-Lugar program, and again on Kosovo, and I remember these and participated in both of them personally—with common, rather than cross, purposes.

Today, unfortunately, Russia’s aggression and provocation appears to be driven by misguided ambitions and misplaced resentment.

We see that in Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Georgia, in its counter-productive role in the ongoing tragedy in Syria, its attacks in cyberspace, its hybrid warfare, its violation of arms-control treaties and other international agreements, and its nuclear saber-rattling.

These actions are not what the world expects of a responsible state in the twenty-first century; rather, each threatens to undermine global security and erode the principled international order that has been so good not only to America, but also to Russia and the rest of the world.

Let me be clear, the United States does not, should not, seek a cold, let alone a hot war with Russia. We don’t seek an enemy in Russia. But we are also defending our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords all of us. And we’ll counter attempts to undermine our collective security.

To do so, the United States is following a Strong and Balanced Strategy. In it, we’re addressing Russia’s actions and deterring its aggression while pursuing and preserving bilateral cooperation where U.S. and Russian objectives can be aligned. This strategy does not simply recycle the twentieth-century playbook used to deter Soviet aggression during the Cold War, because that playbook would not meet the Russian challenge or match the Russian challenge of today.

We haven’t had to prioritize deterrence on the Transatlantic Community’s eastern flank for over 20 years. And unfortunately, as I said, now we do. That’s why the United States is strengthening our military posture and presence in Europe to be more agile and quicker in responding to the threats that Russia might pose.

Our last defense budget request included significantly more funding for our European Reassurance Initiative, now renamed the European Deterrence Initiative—more than quadruple what we allocated the year before.

That’s intended to allow us—in addition to the two brigades we already have stationed in Europe—to rotate an Armored Brigade Combat Team into Europe on a persistent basis starting later this month. In fact, over the past few days, the equipment we’re deploying to support that Brigade Combat team has arrived in Germany and is on the rails as we speak [in January 2017]. ERI in 2017 will also enable us to pre-position a brigade’s worth of equipment and warfighting gear to be used by American forces flown into Europe, these among many other steps.

We’re also increasing military exercises with allies and partners to demonstrate resolve and build their resilience, while enhancing inter-operability with them.

We’re updating and refining our contingency and operational plans, including ways to overcome emerging threats such as hybrid warfare and anti-access, area-denial systems. We’re investing in the technologies most relevant to countering Russia. And we’re also recapitalizing our nuclear deterrent, because nuclear deterrence is not only the bedrock of our security, but also critical to sustain in light of Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling.

The United States is not alone in any of this, of course. For more than 67 years, NATO has been the quintessential example of nations coming together to respond to collective security challenges. And as it did during the Cold War, NATO will be critical to preserving collective defense in the face of new and renewed threats.

To ensure it does so, NATO, too, is adapting to use a new playbook—one that prepares to counter cyber threats and hybrid warfare, to better integrate our conventional and nuclear deterrence, and much, much more.

That’s why NATO created a Very-High-Readiness Joint Task Force that can deploy allied forces on 48 [hours’] notices to any crisis on allied territory. That’s why NATO is also deploying four battalions to its eastern flank—one each in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—the latter, by the way, is where the United States will lead a battalion starting in April this year. And it’s why NATO is providing support to partner countries like Ukraine and Georgia to help strengthen and reform their national defense institutions and to improve their ability to work with NATO.

Everything the United States is doing, both on its own and with NATO, will ensure that we continue to stand up to Russian aggression, and that we’re ready for longer-term competition. But it’s also necessary to keep the door open to working with Russia, when and where our interests align, or can be made to align. And as I said, there was a time, in the years after the Cold War, when Russia cooperated with the United States and other nations, contributing to the principled international order rather than undermining it. I remember that personally—and so do many of you. And perhaps someday, we’ll see that spirit rekindled.

Catalyzing a Principled & Inclusive Security Network in the Asia-Pacific

Next, I want to discuss what the defense department has to do to carry out the security aspect of President Obama’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. The rebalance has ensured that DoD will continue to help provide the security necessary for that consequential region—home to nearly half the global population and nearly half the global economy—and allow it to remain a place where everyone can rise and prosper.

That’s been American policy and practice since the end of World War II. Regardless of what else was going on at home or in other parts of the world—during Democratic and Republican administrations, in times of surplus and deficit, war and peace—the United States has remained economically, politically, and militarily engaged in the Asia-Pacific.

Now, unlike elsewhere in the world, peace and stability there has never been managed by a region-wide, formal structure like NATO in Europe. That’s made sense because of the Asia-Pacific’s unique history, geography, and politics.

Instead, the United States has long taken a principled and inclusive approach, and collaborated with a network of regional allies and partners to enable security and uphold important principles like resolving disputes peacefully; ensuring countries can make choices free from external coercion and intimidation; and preserving the freedom of overflight and navigation guaranteed by international law.

Because we did so, out of the rubble of World War II, economic miracle after miracle occurred. Think about it . . . first Japan, then Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia, and now, today, China, India, and others rose and prospered.

That progress has produced incredible changes in the region: populations are growing, education has improved, freedom and self-determination have spread, economies have grown more interconnected, and military spending and cooperation are both increasing.

Amid all this remarkable change and progress, America’s interests and objectives in the Asia-Pacific have endured: we still want peace, stability, and progress there for all, including ourselves. But as the region has changed, our approach to how we advance our interests and uphold those enduring principles has had to change along with it.

Today, as the Defense Department has been operationalizing one phase after another of the military part of the rebalance, we’re not only ensuring we remain the strongest military and primary provider of regional security; we’re also connecting—and further networking—our allies and partners in a burgeoning Principled and Inclusive Security Network that will allow all of us to see more, share more, and do more to maintain security in the region.

In the rebalance’s first phase, DoD sent tens of thousands of additional American personnel to the region, committed to homeporting 60 percent of our naval and overseas air assets to the Asia-Pacific, and began to modernize our regional posture around Guam as a strategic hub.

In the second phase, which we launched almost two years ago, we committed to sending some of our best people and our most advanced capabilities to the region—our newest submarines, aircraft, and surface warfare vessels, for example—even as we developed new and innovative strategies and operational concepts for the principal contingencies that could occur there.

We also significantly strengthened our bilateral alliances and partnerships. Nurtured over decades, tested in crisis, and built on shared interests, values, and sacrifice, we’ve now strengthened these relationships so they better reflect twenty-first-century security needs. There are many examples to point to in the region—whether it’s our long-time alliances with Japan, the Republic of Korea and Australia, or our newer growing partnerships with India, Singapore, Vietnam and others.

Now, in the third phase, it will be necessary to cement the progress we’ve made in the first and second, and more importantly, build upon it.

It will be necessary for the United States to continue to sharpen our military edge so we remain the most powerful military in the region, and the security partner of choice, by increasing and targeting investments in capabilities suited to the region to ensure we stay the best there.

We’ll also continue to make “leap-ahead” technological investments—including some surprising ones—that will help us keep the lead in the Asia-Pacific, and elsewhere.

And we’ll further catalyze the Asia-Pacific’s growing Principled and Inclusive Security Network. Although it’s not a formal alliance like NATO, this burgeoning network—built on trilateral and multilateral as well as bilateral relationships—is grounded in those principles I mentioned earlier. It’s inclusive, since any nation and any military can contribute—that’s the American approach.

That’s all to the good for the region and the United States, but it’s important to remember, the rebalance and this Asia-Pacific security network are not aimed at any particular country. The network’s not closed and excludes no one. Although we have disagreements with China, including over its destabilizing behavior in the South China Sea—and its behavior is in fact driving many more to work more closely with us—we’re committed to working with China where possible, to introducing measures to reduce risk, and to encouraging China to avoid self-isolation.

The Strategic Transition & Innovation

All this is happening today. But even as we confront the challenges of this time of strategic transition, it will also be necessary for DoD to lead and compete well into the future.

Today ours is the finest fighting force the world has ever known. There’s no military that’s stronger, more capable, more experienced, or more innovative. But that’s not a birthright, it’s not guaranteed. We can’t take it for granted. We need to earn it again and again.

To do so, we have to invest and innovate for the uncertain future we face, as well as deal with the problems of today. And that’s why I’ve been consistently pushing the Pentagon to think, as I put it, outside of our five-sided box to ensure that our technology, our plans, our organization, and above all, our people stay the best for decades to come. We’ve made the decisions and investments to ensure DoD maintains our dominance in every domain, not just sea and air and land, but also in space, and cyberspace.

We’re pushing the envelope with research and development despite the budget woes to stay ahead of our competitors and at technology’s frontier, by putting for example nearly $72 billion dollars into R&D alone this next year. To give you a little context, that’s more than double what Apple, Intel, and Google spent on R&D combined in 2015.

Beyond that, we’ve been building and rebuilding bridges between the Pentagon and America’s technology community.

One way we’re doing that is through our Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, or DIUx—which I created to help connect with startups and other commercial tech firms in Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, and everywhere in between. Those outposts are already producing results: DIUx has interacted with companies in over 30 states to help us adopt technologies more quickly that can help our warfighters accomplish their missions. We always will continue to need our excellent existing and traditional defense partners that help us build our amazing defense systems, but DIUx will also help better connect the Pentagon as a whole to the entire world of American innovation. That’s an investment worth making. Because when I started my life in science and technology and national security most technology of consequence came from the United States, and most of that from government sponsorship. We’re still an influential force, but it’s not just the Defense Department anymore. To stay the best, we need to interact with the rest of the technological ecosystem.

We’re also innovating operationally in our operations plans. Our core contingency plans are constantly being changed to apply innovation to our operational approaches—including ways to overcome emerging threats, such as anti-satellite weapons or hybrid warfare. We’re building in modularity, planning in new ways for overlapping contingencies, and injecting agility and flexibility into our war plans.

Meanwhile we’re making reforms across the DoD enterprise—streamlining our headquarters operations, lowering our health care costs, continuing to improve our acquisition process, and more. We’re also continuing to support and seek improvements in the spirit of Goldwater-Nichols—which Sam Nunn had so much to do with—among other changes, to clarify the role and authority of the Chairman, and the Joint Chiefs, and the Joint Staff, and to help our Combatant Commanders be more efficient and agile and support me and the President, especially in the face of transregional and transfunctional challenges.

And we’re ensuring DoD’s a place where thinking boldly and differently is fostered. One way we’re doing so is with the Defense Innovation Board I established last year, chaired by Google-Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt. Its members are already making a mark. For example, on their recommendation, we have now a Chief Innovation Officer, which many companies have, by the way, to act as a senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense.

And lastly, and importantly Sam alluded to this, we’re building what I call the Force of the Future . . . to ensure that amid generational, technological, and labor market changes, we continue to attract and retain and develop the most talented people America has to offer, for what is after all an all-volunteer force.

In total, the Force of the Future initiatives span the career of a uniformed service member or DoD civilian—from recruiting men and women to join, to caring for, retaining, and developing them, and then to helping successfully transition those who want to move on.

And these initiatives include reinvigorating and expanding the geographic reach of our Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, which by the way just had its 100th birthday last year; making common-sense improvements to military talent management and officer promotion; giving components the authority to directly hire civilians on college campuses—this is a big deal if you remember your mind-set in college; recognizing survey data indicating the importance of family life to retention—bearing in mind that our force is largely a married force—by expanding maternity and paternity leave and extending on-base childcare hours, and other steps of this kind.

And also, ensuring that DoD must be able to draw from 100 percent of the American population . . . and to compete for the best we must select the best based solely upon their qualifications to meet our high standards—not race, not gender, identity, sexual orientation—but rather, focusing on whether someone can meet our standards as the best person for the job.


In conclusion, because we’re doing all this, because DoD’s changing, and adapting, and innovating, because of our nation’s enduring strengths, I’m confident that its future is bright and that there are many opportunities for our country to seize.

But I can never forget—and we can never forget—and I’m even more mindful as my days as Secretary of Defense grow short, about who makes it all happen: it’s DoD’s people.

Each of our servicemembers and DoD civilians makes me proud, incredibly proud. There are almost 3 million of them serving across this country and around the clock, in every time zone on earth, in every domain—in the air, ashore, afloat, and even in cyberspace—all in service of this great nation.

All of them are defending not only the United States and its people; they’re also defending the values and the principles that define us, while they provide the security that will enable our children to live a better life.

Because they do so, we can gather here in safety and celebrate Sam Nunn. We can go to work tomorrow or study at one of America’s world-class universities. We can live our lives and dream our dreams and enjoy the freedoms upon which this country was built, and for which so many generations of Americans have fought.

They make all that possible. And at a time when not as many serve, I want them all to know—I ask you to take a moment to reflect yourselves—that we don’t take them for granted. Stephanie my wife and I begin every day thinking with them.

As all of you know, our mission is demanding and constantly changing. But I couldn’t be prouder of them for what they do every day and what they’ve done for us. Their excellence is unparalleled. Their service is invaluable. And their sacrifices will never be forgotten. So, on that note let me just say, may God bless them, God bless our great country.

Carter was the United States Secretary of Defense from 2015-2017. This is an abridged version of his remarks from January 11, 2017 upon receiving the CSIS Sam Nunn National Security Leadership Prize and Lecture.

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