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Deputy Secretary of Defense Speech

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National Security Leadership for the 21st Century

As Prepared for Delivery by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, Friday, November 22, 2013

Midshipman First Class Andon, thank you for that introduction.  I did a little research on you as well, and understand you’re going to find out very soon whether you’ve been selected for Naval Aviation.  I can’t comment on that decision, though I’m confident you’ll do just fine.  I will say that upon reading your bio, my Senior Military Assistant, Marine BG Eric Smith, told me “Sir, this man was born to be a Marine.”  So I’m going to have to put you in touch with Eric for a little professional development.  You can thank me later. 

Captain Vahsen, thank you for inviting me here today.

Midshipmen, good morning.  It’s a pleasure to be here.  As someone trained as a physicist, it’s a particular honor to be addressing you in Hyman Rickover Hall, named for one of my personal heroes, a man who invited me to discuss my own career with him when I was not much older than you – a meeting much too colorful to recall in polite company. 

 I hope all of you are getting class credit for listening to me this morning.  If not, let me know – but soon.  Unfortunately, I can only grant you an excused absence until 4 December, when I leave office!   

 After nearly five years of serving President Obama and Secretaries Hagel, Panetta, and Gates, first as the Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, and for the past two years as the Deputy Secretary, a week from Wednesday I’m returning to private life.  

After saluting Secretary Hagel one last time, and handing off my duties to my successor, I’m going to board a plane with my wife Stephanie and take a long-awaited vacation in New Zealand.   That means that to watch the Army-Navy game I’m going to have to find a bar in Auckland open at 9 o’clock in the morning…although Secretary Mabus and Admiral Greenert tell me I don’t need to watch, because they already know who’s going to win. 

 On a more serious note, I’m counting down the days to my departure because serving as Deputy Secretary of Defense has been the greatest honor and privilege in my life.  There is no higher calling, and no job on the planet more satisfying, than serving our Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, DoD civilians, and contractors that together make up our total force, as well as our veterans and military families.  I first came to the Pentagon in 1979, and have returned in various  capacities under 11 Secretaries of Defense, because of this sense of purpose that I know you, too, feel. 

We may be at different points in our careers, but I believe you already know what I’m describing.  Each of you chose to come to Annapolis, and stick it out through “I-Day,” Plebe Year, and the signing of your “two for seven.”  You did that for a reason.  Maybe for several reasons.  Maybe because you wanted to receive a superior education, because you wanted to play a sport, or because you wanted to surround yourself with high-caliber instructors and shipmates.  Those are all great reasons.  But you also came, and stayed, because you wanted to be a part of something larger than yourselves, because you wanted to protect this nation and make a better world, and because you wanted to lead sailors and Marines.

It was 50 years ago today that another personal hero of mine and so many other Americans, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated.  Two years before his tragic death, President Kennedy spoke here at the Naval Academy.  And in a speech to the midshipmen of his time, he told them, “The answer to those who challenge us so severely in so many parts of the globe lies in our willingness to freely commit ourselves to the maintenance of our country and the things for which it stands.”

That call to action—and your response—is why I wanted to come talk to you today.  To give you, the Navy and Marine Corps’ future leaders, my perspective on why what you’ve chosen to do matters, a sense of the security challenges and opportunities ahead for the world, and of what will be asked of you in the years to come.  

 Where we are today

Let me start with the world you’ll enter when you earn your commission.

When the Firsties in this room arrived here in the fall of 2010, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership was still intact and Osama bin Laden was alive. 

We still had roughly 50,000 service members on the ground in Iraq, and had only recently completed the surge of forces in Afghanistan necessary to degrade the Taliban and develop the Afghan National Security Forces.  NATO casualties were at their highest levels since the toppling of the Taliban government, and progress was uncertain. 

The so-called Arab Spring had yet to unfold, Syria was quiet, and the Administration had not yet announced what would come to be known as the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.  

While on the domestic front, the “gusher” of defense spending, as former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates famously called it, had not yet been turned off.

Today, less than four years later, the world is very different.  You in the class of 2014 will report to your first ship, or take your first platoon, in some of the most rapidly changing, momentous, and challenging times in recent history – times comparable only to the emergence of the bipolar system following World War II, or to the collapse of that system at the end of the Cold War. 

Since 9/11, and thus for most of your lives, the Department of Defense has of necessity been preoccupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now, the war in Iraq is over, and in a little over a year, NATO’s ISAF mission will conclude and the Afghan government will formally assume full security responsibilities within its borders.  At that point, the United States’ combat role in Afghanistan will cease, and the “post-9/11 era” as we’ve known it for the past 12 years will also come to an end.

But make no mistake, as long as our men and women continue to serve in Afghanistan, it will remain the Department’s highest priority – and has been my highest priority – to provide them with all the support we can possibly give them.  Through the hard work and sacrifices made by American and Coalition service members, the Afghan National Security Forces have truly stood up.  This summer, they took the fight to the enemy, and in so doing they sent the Taliban the unmistakable message that the ANSF are there to stay. 

Because our Afghan partners have been in the lead, they have taken larger casualties, and U.S. and coalition casualties declined.  But U.S. service members still serve in danger.   Though thankfully in much lower numbers, American service men and women continue to be killed and wounded.  I’m personally reminded of this somber fact when I greet families at Dover Air Force Base, and when my wife and I visit Walter Reed.  So even as we draw down, our troops in the field continue to need protection from IEDs, they need the best ISR, and they need the best logistics support.  

And as the war winds down, we must ensure that those that have borne the brunt of battle continue to receive the best medical care.  Their families—particularly those that have sacrificed everything—deserve all that we can provide.  While combat operations are ending, for tens of thousands—including some who may have been your classmates just a few years ago—the effects of war will endure, and for those the real tests are only beginning. 

The challenges and opportunities ahead

Now, even as we remain laser-focused on the essential tasks at hand, we must, of necessity, turn a strategic corner to the challenges and opportunities that will define America’s future security. 

As we make this transition, we’re mindful of the drivers that will shape the strategic landscape. 

Chief among these are the world’s shifting geopolitical centers of gravity, as countries such as China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia reshape the global economy, and regional powers like Turkey assert greater influence. 

At the same time, the quickening pace of technological change has increasingly “flattened” the world, connecting all of us in ways that can increase common understanding and drive social change, but that can also be misappropriated by rogue states, violent extremists, and sophisticated criminal syndicates to wreak havoc on society. 

Climate change promises to reshape the map in places like the Artic, while at the same time making it increasingly likely that we’ll experience natural disasters like Katrina, Sandy, and the recent Philippine typhoon on a more frequent basis. 

Demographic change will mean aging populations in the United States and Europe—and, even more so, in China and Russia—will strain social safety nets.  At the same time, the so-called “youth bulge” in much of the developing world will challenge governments and economies to keep pace with young peoples’ increased demands for education, jobs, and a voice in how they are governed.   

Finally, changes in energy demand and production will continue to have extensive geopolitical ramifications.  Advances in oil and gas extraction hold the potential for the United States to achieve a much lower dependence on foreign imports.  Meanwhile, increased energy requirements, particularly from China and other countries in Asia, hold the potential to spark new competition for resources.     

Cognizant of these trends, we already know what many of the future challenges before us will be: continued turmoil in the Middle East; the persistent threat of terrorism; enduring threats like weapons of mass destruction; and threats in new domains, such as space and cyber.   

But, at the same time, we also see great opportunities.

Among them, to shift the great physical and intellectual weight of the Department of Defense that has been devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Asia-Pacific region, where America can and must continue to play its seven-decade-old pivotal stabilizing role into the future.

To develop innovative new capabilities from a vibrant defense technology effort, as we have done for decades with technologies like stealth, GPS, and the internet itself.

To capitalize on all of the lessons we have learned at great difficulty during war over the last decade about how to use forces innovatively, like networking and near real-time fusion of intelligence and operations.

To manage our presence in new ways and in new regions, from the Asia-Pacific to Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

To leverage the Reserve and Guard components that have performed so superbly over the past decade.

And to build the capacity of partners and allies so they can shoulder more of the burden.

As we make this strategic transition, we’ll need to contend with another significant change in the status quo – the need to absorb reductions in defense spending in the interest of the nation’s overall fiscal health.

Now, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about change.  All too often recently, we’ve felt the effects of trying to bring about change the wrong way.  The government shutdown, sequestration, and the lack of a budget for this fiscal year have each taken a significant toll on our people and operations.  Sequestration has already meant that fighter squadrons have been grounded, soldiers and Marines have been forced to forgo unit-level training, ships haven’t gotten underway, and maintenance on our weapons systems has been delayed. 

What's tragic in all of this is that the risk to readiness and national security is not a result of an economic emergency, or a recession.  It's not because defense cuts are the answer to the nation’s overall fiscal challenge.  It's not in reaction to a revolutionary breakthrough in military technology.  It’s certainly not the result of a sudden transformation to a more peaceful world.  Sequester is purely an artificial, self-inflicted wound. 

And by the way, sequestration and the government shutdown have meant that our civilian workers—many of whom themselves are military veterans—have multiple times this year been told to stay home from work. 

Having worked with dedicated career civil servants from across the government, and having seen them working alongside men and women in uniform in some of the most dangerous locations on earth, it’s troubling to witness the Department being forced to treat our civilians this way. 

This goes for the Department of Defense’s civilian workforce, but it also goes for our diplomats and development experts, for the Department of Energy physicists working to ensure the viability of our nuclear deterrent, and for the teachers working to educate the next generation.  I know the Naval Academy hasn’t been immune to these impacts, and that many of you had classes canceled because your civilian instructors were among those furloughed. 

The bottom line is that we need a government that functions in order to be a strong nation.  And the cumulative effect of sequestration and our lack of an operating budget mean that the Department’s leaders must plan for the future under a dark cloud of uncertainty.  Just as it would be irresponsible to pilot a ship without appropriate maps and weather data, it’s irresponsible to pilot the Department of Defense without knowing the basics of our budget.  Uncertainty makes it extraordinary difficult to effectively plan and implement a national defense strategy.  It limits flexibility, and it forces us to make decisions that are neither strategically nor managerially sound.

So we’re hoping that Congress acts quickly to remove this cloud of uncertainty, and provides the Department with the time and flexibility to implement spending reductions more strategically. 

In the meantime, we’re doing all we can to cut costs the right way.  In terms of our responsibility to the American taxpayer, we need to make every dollar count.  This means making important changes to control costs in our contracting, an issue I’ve focused on extensively over the last five years. 

It means reducing our overhead and focusing on institutional reform, in line with Secretary Hagel’s announcement this summer that the Department would implement a 20 percent reduction in headquarters budgets, starting with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. 

It means reigning in the increasing costs of military health care.  And it means making tough choices in terms of our personnel numbers and compensation policy.  This is a difficult issue, but the bottom line is this:  healthcare and compensation consume roughly half of the Department’s budget, and this percentage, if left unchecked, will only increase.  This will crowd out everything else, from the money required to research new ship designs to the funds necessary to sail and repair the ships we already have. 

Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, Admiral Greenert, General Amos and the Department’s other senior leaders’ top priority is to ensure that our military continues to attract and retain quality people like you, and the men and women you’ll lead, who make up the All-Volunteer Force—the strongest, most capable, and most respected fighting force in the history of the world. 

That means providing you with the compensation you deserve.  But it also means ensuring the Department also has the funds needed to train and equip you.  To send excellent people into battle in too few number, or with less training on modern equipment than they need to be safe and successful, would also be unconscionable. 

I’ll add that to recruit and retain the All-Volunteer Force we need, we must maintain an environment of mutual respect and trust.  This means, among other things, an environment in which sexual assault simply isn’t tolerated.  Each of us is responsible for establishing a culture and climate that prevents sexual assault before it occurs, that holds perpetrators appropriately accountable, and that instills confidence in victims that it’s okay to come forward.  That’s the essence of what Honor, Courage, and Commitment are all about.  Each of you, as leaders, must live this credo every day. 

Key Tasks Going Forward

I’m confident that ultimately the country will make the right budget choices, and that the Department will make, and will be allowed by Congress to make, the right managerial choices.  Nevertheless, you’ll enter active duty at a strategic crossroads, and here you and your generation will need to make the right strategic choices.  And you’re entering service at a time in which our elected leaders, and ultimately the American people they represent, must decide the United States’ role in the world and the type of military we want. 

My hope is that we will choose the path of responsibility and engagement – one that manages the downturn in defense spending responsibly and wisely, but above all rises to the challenge of history, as America has always done.  Because history has also recorded the consequences of disengagement and reduced readiness.  And that’s not a path we can afford to choose.

Regardless of the circumstances, there are strategic tasks before us that are crystal clear. Let me describe four of them.  

First, because now more than ever, maintaining a technological edge over our competitors is the surest way to deter conflict, we must continue to invest in those technologies that will be essential to 21st century defense.  That’s why President Obama and Secretary Hagel have wisely insisted that we go out of our way to protect critical investments, even in this time of budget austerity.        

So we are increasing our investments in the cyber domain, in recognition of the growing threat that cyber poses to our national security and critical infrastructure. 

In the space domain, we are rebalancing our portfolio to improve our capabilities to defend against threats, degrade enemy space capabilities, and operate in a contested environment.   We’re requesting funds for additional sensors to increase space situational awareness, and investing in jam-resistant technologies and new operating concepts that will enhance the survivability of U.S. satellites.

And we’re also making important investments in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance assets and unmanned assets, including platforms that launch from both land and sea, and can operate both well above the earth’s surface and deep into the undersea depths.

Second, in tandem with our civilian counterparts from across the U.S. government, we must fully implement the President’s strategy to rebalance resources and attention to the Asia- Pacific region.  Asia is home to 60 percent of the world’s population, and the countries that border the Pacific account for well over half of the global economy.  The United States has been a Pacific nation for much of our history and will remain a Pacific power far into the future. 

The logic of our rebalance is simple. The Asia-Pacific theater has enjoyed relative peace and stability for over 60 years. This has been true despite the fact that there's been no formal overarching security structure there, no NATO, to make sure that historical wounds are healed.

And during those 60 years, first, Japan rose and prospered. And then South Korea rose and prospered. And then many countries of Southeast Asia rose and prospered. And today, India and China rise and prosper.  The United States continues to welcome all of this.

But none of it was a foregone conclusion when you consider where the Asia-Pacific region was at the end of World War II. While the Asian political and economic miracle was realized first and foremost by the hard work and talent of Asian people, it was enabled by two critical American contributions.

First are the enduring principles that the U.S. has stood for in the region. These include a commitment to free and open commerce, a just international order that emphasizes rights and responsibilities of nations and fidelity to the rule of law, open access by all to the shared domains of sea, air, space, and now cyberspace, and the principle of resolving conflict without the use of force.

And, second, and importantly, the Asian miracle was also enabled by the pivotal role of U.S. military power and presence in the region – the presence that a long line of Annapolis grads have provided over the years. Your strong security presence in the Asia-Pacific has provided a critical foundation for the principles we believe in to take root. The United States intends to continue to provide this foundation for decades to come, and each of you will play a role in making sure that we do. 

The third task facing us in the Department of Defense is continuing to build upon a priority of this Administration -- strengthening the web of international alliances that have underwritten global security since World War II, and deepening new partnerships that will advance American interests and a just international order in the years to come. 

Working with allies and partners takes constant attention and hard work.  As with any relationship, sometimes differences of opinion emerge, and those differences must be worked through.  But remember this:  the United States is the security partner of choice for the vast majority of nations around the world.  This is a state of affairs that our adversaries and competitors don’t enjoy, and that gives us and our partners a tremendous advantage -- one worthy of our continued investment. 

Maintaining this advantage means continuing to invest in NATO—and urging our closest European allies to do the same, so that as NATO winds down operations in Afghanistan, it stands ready to address 21st century threats ranging from ballistic missiles to piracy to cybersecurity. 

It means reinvigorating crucial alliances in Northeast Asia, such as those we enjoy with Korea and Japan. 

It means breaking down bureaucratic barriers to increase security cooperation and defense trade with new powers, such as India – an effort I’ve dedicated a significant amount of my personal attention to in the last several years. 

It means growing our participation and support for new multilateral forums like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to increase regional trust, transparency and cooperation.

And it demands that each and every one of you take personal ownership for strengthening our partnerships by being uniformed ambassadors for the United States everywhere you serve.

Fourth and last, even as we rightfully focus on and invest in the future, we must take care not to lose the lessons gained through the last decade of war.   These include the tremendous competencies developed and honed by our special operations forces, as well as the capabilities brought to bear by innovations in ISR and intel-ops fusion I mentioned earlier. 

We must also institutionalize what we’ve learned about quickly responding to urgent warfighter needs—for example, our rapid fielding of MRAPs and other IED countermeasures—and ensure that in the future the Department’s acquisition processes stay as focused on today’s fight as tomorrow’s. 

One thing we can be certain of is that our adversaries are always adapting, and so as a Department we must maintain a focus on agility.  This means constant, personal attention from senior leaders on enabling rapid acquisition of new technology; it means maintaining flexible funds that can move emerging capabilities quickly from the laboratory to the field; it means identifying disruptive threats as early as possible; and it means rapid validation and assessment of solutions. 

This focus on agility has already paid dividends.  We’ve begun to use processes originally designed for Iraq and Afghanistan to upgrade munitions and targeting systems for operations over water, in order to respond to the potential use of speedboats by Iran to swarm U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. 

We’ve developed and made prototypes for improvements to a penetrating bomb that would allow it to target hardened, deeply buried facilities. 

And last year, we decided to build the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, a transportable system that can destroy chemical weapons stockpiles wherever they are found. This system was developed months before the United States knew it would be discussing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. It is now ready for deployment whenever required—a capability that enabled our government to include this possibility in its recent negotiations with Damascus.

Call to Public Service

As future front-line leaders, you in this room will soon be responsible for carrying out each of these key tasks.  Now, I still like to think that my own career has just begun, but I have picked up a few lessons along the way, so allow me to offer a few words of advice as you set out. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson is that you can’t know where your life – professional or otherwise – is going to lead.  When I was around your age, I couldn’t think of anything better than visiting dusty archives to read the Latin of 12th century Flemish monks.  A few years later, when I was in grad school, I spent an unfathomable number of hours largely alone, working through mathematical proofs of quantum chromodynamics, the theory then postulated to explain the behavior of nuclear reactions.     

My ambitions at that time were purely academic, in the best sense of the word, and in no case did I one day expect to become Deputy Secretary of Defense.  But in coming to this point, I’ve tried to live by two maxims throughout my career, and perhaps they can be of use to you. 

The first is to know, and to hone, what you contribute to a team or organization.  For me—and I know this is true of Midshipman (Rob) Andon and others in this room—that skill was a particular technical background.  For others, it may be deep historical knowledge, or language skills, or superior writing.  In the course of your military careers you will be asked to do many things well, and I expect that you will do so.  But along the way, take the time to identify and master at least one thing that you do exceptionally well, so that you always are able to make a unique contribution. 

The second piece of advice I’d offer is simply that you can’t out plot your career in tidy steps, so don’t be afraid to go with your nose.  It’s indubitable that when you’re doing something you like doing, you’ll be better at it than if you’re doing something you hate.  There will be ups and downs along the way of course, but you should strive to wake up each morning ready to do something that motivates you, comfortable in the knowledge that if you do so, the right doors are likely to open.  My experience is that this approach leads to better career results than any detailed 20-year plan. 

Now, when I was your age, I had the advantage of setting out into a Cold War era of less diversified, if not less dangerous, security challenges.  You won’t have that luxury.  What you will have instead is the opportunity to serve this nation in a time in which the pace of change—geopolitical, technological, economic, and social—has never been greater.  An incredibly complex and fascinating time.  But also a time in which, now more than ever, and despite political gridlock and budget uncertainty, the United States remains the world’s preeminent economic, diplomatic, and military power. 

The world still needs, and expects, American leadership.  I meet with world leaders on a routine basis, and I hear this sentiment regularly.  At some point in your career, be it from those you visit in foreign ports, or those disaster victims to whom you bring aid, you’ll have the opportunity to hear it too. 

Secretary Hagel has said that “no other nation has the will, the power, the capacity, the capability, and the network of alliances to lead the international community” in addressing the challenges of the 21st century.  Those are wise words.  Five years of working with the Department of Defense’s senior leadership team and interacting with service members around the world have convinced me that the United States will maintain the strengths that have allowed us to assume the mantle of leadership. 

But the security and prosperity we enjoy is not a birthright.  Security and prosperity are earned in large measure through hard work and sacrifice. 

At relatively young ages, each of you decided to begin your professional lives in public service. Moreover, you entered this Academy ready to serve a Nation at war.  Some of you may have already served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Others have watched as family and friends have served.  

Public service is a great calling, and one I hope you stick with for the remainder of your careers.  For some of you, this may mean a career of active duty service or time spent in the Reserves or National Guard.  For others, it may mean a career like mine, where you come in and out of government from time to time.  For yet others, it may mean a career as a civil servant or working at a defense firm, performing the vital services of supporting our warfighters and  making the weapons and equipment they use.  And for yet others, it may mean running for office, whether that office is the president of a school PTA or President of the United States.  All of these career paths are noble, and all are essential to a functioning democracy and a strong military. 

Keep this in mind as you embark on your careers.  One legacy of the U.S. Naval Academy is reflected in the caliber of the graduates with whom I’ve had the privilege to work over my career:  people like Senator John McCain, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jon Greenert, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mark Ferguson, former ISAF Commander General John Allen, and Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Vice Admiral Michelle Howard, just to name a few. 

But graduating future Senators, Chairmen, and CNOs isn’t this institution’s sole legacy, or even its main legacy.  That honor resides with the Academy’s role in producing leaders of all stripes, who share in a common period of service in one capacity—as combat leaders—followed by a lifetime of service in many others. 

You’ve chosen an exceptional time to become ensigns and second lieutenants in the greatest maritime force the world has ever known.  But the road ahead will not be an easy one. 

Everything I’ve described today depends on your leadership.  Full stop.  At the transition of 12 years of constant war, the demands of leadership have not diminished one iota.  Having personally been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan for the last five years, I've never seen greater demands placed on the shoulders of our junior officers.  Those demands will continue to require your full measure of moral, mental, and physical leadership.  At times, you will be asked to lead our Sailors and Marines with more limited resources than your predecessors enjoyed, and you will encounter situations in which you receive minimal guidance, and for which there is a very small margin for error. 

Yet the very fact that you’re sitting here today tells me that the easy path isn’t what motivates you.

The challenges of tomorrow will require all of your talent and determination, and I’m confident that you’re up to the task.  This is what our Sailors and Marines have the right to demand.

So I’ll close as President Kennedy opened on this very campus 52 years ago:   “I am proud, as a citizen of the United States, to come to this institution and this room where there is concentrated so many…who have committed themselves to the defense of the United States.”


I too am incredibly proud, as the Deputy Secretary and as a citizen, to be at this institution with you today. 


Live your lives and conduct yourselves in the manner the keeps faith with the sacrifices of those who've gone before you from Worden Field to the battlefield.  Live your lives to deserve the greatest privilege that can be bestowed upon an American:  a commission as an officer in the United States military. 


It’s been an honor and privilege to serve as your Deputy Secretary. 


My thanks to each of you and your families for your service. 


And while as Deputy Secretary, I can't technically pick sides in the Army-Navy game, as a soon-to-be former Deputy Secretary…Go Navy, Beat Army!

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