SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER: Hey, everybody. Sit down, please.
Listen, it's a privilege for me to be with you today, and I want to say two things to you.
The first is that we don't take for granted what you do here and how dangerous this location is. If you think about it, the Middle East is in the headlines all the time, but the reason this place isn't in the headlines is because you're ready anytime to deter conflict on the peninsula.
This is the place where we ask our forces to be the most ready all the time. We know "fight tonight" is not just a slogan; it's the real deal. I just had the opportunity to visit with some of the air crews that make that possible along with you. And it says something about this entire region.
The -- and the reason why I wanted to come here as one of my very first trips as secretary of defense -- because this is the part of the world where, more than any other single part of the world, the future lies. Half of humanity lives here, half of the global economy lives in this region, and it's very important that the peace be kept here.
And one of the most dangerous places is right here on the peninsula. And you, everyday, by being as ready and as skilled and as formidable as you are, deter attack and keep the peace.
And I just want you to know that, you know, you're what I wake up for everyday, and we don't take it for granted.
It's also a place where we do what Americans do, which is work with allies. And that too is -- in addition to excellence and military prowess, it is the attractive nature of the United States as ally.
You think about that also, I mean, who else has allies all over the world? Nobody. The United States does.
And that's not just because we're strong. It's not just because we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known. It's also because people like working with us. They like our values, they like what we stand for, and they like what we stick up for with them. And no other country on Earth can say.
I just came from Japan, another good, longstanding ally of the United States, also a staunch ally. And we -- we work hard at that. I recognize you work hard at that everyday, because it's hard for two different and two different militaries to -- to work together, but fortunately, we've practiced for a long time here, as we have in Japan. And it represents an important capability of the United States.
There's a lot going on in this alliance, as there is going on in Japan. In Japan, we're just on the cusp of a visit by the prime minister to Washington, where he'll have the opportunity to meet with the president.
But not long thereafter, President Park from here will also go to the United States. And I think it's a reflection of the importance we attach to our alliances out here and the importance we attach to the Asia-Pacific region that we're welcoming them to Washington.
We talk about something we call the rebalance. It's a terrible word, and it's a very long word and so forth, but what it stands for is that we recognize that after so many years of such necessary but strong preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to make sure that we look up and look around and pay adequate attention to what's going on out here.
And that lies -- behind that lies the rebalance, the new capabilities. All the newest stuff is coming out here. All the most high-tech stuff, all the best stuff is coming out here. And this is where we have strong alliances that are just in an exceptionally strong position.
But -- and this is the second thing I want to say -- why is that so? It's not because of our equipment. What makes our military the best in the world is you, is the quality of the people that we have and the dedication of the people.
And I want you to know that we also don't take that for granted. You worked hard to get here.
Many of you have families who also sacrifice in order that you can do what you do here for us. I'd appreciate it if you'd pass on my thanks to them as well.
It just so happens April is also the Month of the Military child. So for those of you have children, that's a part of the picture as well.
You are the most important thing to me. That's my highest priority, is to make sure that we can continue to attract and retain and reward people as excellent as you for doing what you do. And there's just no -- there's no other military in the world that can claim the quality of people that we have. We've demonstrated that again and again and again, and just looking out here in this audience, I see it.
So please accept my thanks on behalf of our entire country for what you're doing out here.
I think it's not only the United States but the entire region that benefits from it. They recognize that. That's why they want to be our friends and allies.
And believe me, Americans recognize how great a military they have and how it protects them. Wouldn't possible without you.
The -- it -- it -- it is a sacrifice for -- for each and every one of you, and I -- you -- you may have heard that we had an incident in Afghanistan yesterday, which is just always a reminder that with military life comes risk. And so it's not just the day-to-day that you take by being away from home, if you're away from home or being away from family and separated family, but there's real risk associated with it also.
And so it's a -- it's a matter of sacrifice, but it is the most important thing in the world.
Just one more thought for you.
The -- there's a saying that you may have heard, which is that security is like oxygen. If you have it, you don't pay any attention. But if you don't have it, it's all you can think about.
And we're in the lucky position that our country, for the most part, and the world that we protect, for the most part, doesn't have to worry about their own security.
But if you look at places where there is ongoing conflict and you see the families that can't raise their children in peace, can't dream their dreams, can't live their lives in a normal, it's really a sad thing.
You permit that to happen here on the Korean Peninsula, and I don't think there's anything that you could be prouder of than being part of a mission that's that big and so much bigger than any one of us individually is.
So I'd like to -- I'm going to ask you to come on up and get a picture taken and a coin and so forth. But first, I want to give you a chance to either ask me a question or say what's on your mind. Either one. Anything's fair game. Have at it.
Just know that I wake up every morning thinking about our folks around the world and we're so proud of you and so grateful for what you do.
So who wants to be first? There we go.
Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. My question is about the rotational units here in Korea. Now that there's been an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of this program, how would you rate its success, and do you think that's it's something that could be expanded in the future here in Korea or possibly elsewhere in the PACOM [Pacific Command] AOR [area of responsibility]?
SEC. CARTER: Did everybody hear that? It was about, how's it working out with the rotational forces here?
My understanding -- but I'm interested to hear your own feedback -- is that it's working out very well. I think it's a better overall system for managing, particularly in the Army, because readiness is at a premium here on the peninsula.
And so you can't afford to have a situation where people are coming in and they don't know the situation and they're coming in dribs and drabs and being trained up as they go, and that has historically been the case for the Army on the Korean Peninsula -- unaccompanied tours, short, people would come in and get trained up.
And so I think from a point of view of readiness, which is at a high premium here on the peninsula, it's better.
I think it's probably going to better for the folks too, in terms of quality of life and so forth. But again, I'm interested to hear whether that's true or not.
So I think it was a great idea. In fact, it's one of those things that, as I thought about it, I -- I -- it's one of those things that you wonder why we didn't think of it earlier. But I think it makes a lot of sense here.
Do you agree with that? You're welcome to disagree if you don't or have any feedback.
SEC. CARTER: Yeah. And we're doing a lot more of that in the Air Force and the Navy also, and Marine Corps also, by the way, and not just here on the peninsula, but all around the Asia-Pacific.
And it's a good way of managing forces, and it keeps people sharp, and it's good for all our allies and partners out here too. It's a good system.
Who's next? Yeah?
Q: Sir, there's been recent discussion about changes to the U.S. military retirement system. What do you expect will change, and do you expect those that are currently serving will be affected by the change?
SEC. CARTER: Good question. It's about retirement, and is -- do I think it's going to change, and will it affect serving service members?
Let me take the last part first, and the answer to that's no. Nobody's going to change the game on anybody who's in the game already.
We are looking -- and there was a commission that looked into this -- about whether the system that we have and have had for so many years, which is the sort of 20 years, nothing before that, something after -- whether that's the most sensible way to manage retirement in the -- in -- in today's society and today's economy.
So I'm definitely open to rethinking that, and we are in the process of rethinking that. But we're not going to change the game on anybody who's -- who's -- who's already in the game.
The way it'll appear to you is as a choice. You can keep the way things are, or you can switch to a new system if you choose to, but you don't have to.
And it'll -- I think individuals, you know, will make up their own minds and think about it a little bit and talk it over with their family and kind of do the math in their heads and decide.
You know, choice is good, and we -- and we should recognize that the system we have, which we've had for so long, is just one system.
It's unusual, actually. Not many other big organizations have it. It works for some purposes, but for some people, it might not work.
And, you know, what matters to us is not -- isn't saving money. This isn't about saving money at all. This is about having the force of the future that we want and being able to attract and retain the kind of people we want. That's -- that's -- that's the design objective of all of this.
So I think it's a good thing to take a look at, and the commission did, and then we will, and the president will, and Congress'll have a voice and so forth.
But for you, it'll end up as a choice, not a must-do. I think that's important.
Doesn't have to be a question.
Q: Hello, sir. Can you hear me?
SEC. CARTER: I can hear you. I'll repeat it if it doesn't come across loudly.
Q: Thank you. There have been recent rumors, or recent proposals for changes to career-progression models, including sabbaticals, creating mid-career entry points for well-trained civilians, shifting the promotion weight from seniority to merit of skills.
What -- what changes do you anticipate?
SEC. CARTER: Yeah. This is another good question, has to do with how people are rewarded and promoted and what the criteria are.
You mentioned specifically civilians, I think. Did I hear you right? Yeah.
A couple of things.
The first is we, I think, sometimes take for granted our civilians in the Defense Department. And we have about 800,000 of them. They are very skilled and dedicated also.
And I think that -- how to say this nicely -- I -- I don't think we treat them always the way they should be treated. You know, they've had a pay freeze for a number of years. They have a personnel system that I think is also outdated.
And so I -- I think there's some things we need to do.
And you mentioned mid-career professional development -- is another thing that we don't do enough with our civilians.
One thing that you should know is that most of our civilian personnel policies are government-wide. So we can change things as regards you all in uniform. When it comes to civilians, it has to be government-wide so we don't have quite the same latitude.
But we're a big employer of civilians and we need them. And so their quality, and that they're rewarded and valued for what they do is as important as for the uniformed side.
Do you have a -- a relative or spouse or friend or something like that that you have in mind particularly?
SEC. CARTER: Yeah. You know, in Washington sometimes they think about the civilians as people who sit at desks. That's not what most of our civilians are doing. They're -- and they're essential. So, I worry about their future and whether we're going to continue to be able to attract and retain really good civilians, too. And we need to up our game, I think, if we're going to do that. It's a good question.
Okay. We've got time for one more. Yes, sir?
Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. My question is: What changes can be expected here in Korea with the U.S. policy, the rebalancing in the Pacific as it progresses?
SEC. CARTER: One thing it means is that a lot of our newer capabilities, the ones that we're making investments in, are going to be flowing into this theater because of the importance we attach to it. So you probably know we're building new stealthy fighters, a new stealthy bomber, several new ship classes, a number of new Army equipment sets of all kinds, ranging from vehicles to command and control and so forth.
And because this is a very demanding theater, and because, as I said, half of the world's population and half of the world's wealth resides in this theater, it makes sense that we have -- and some of the most demanding kinds of situations, potential military situation, also are out here, we need to do that.
And that's what the whole rebalance is about. Let's focus our newer capabilities out here. So you'll see a lot of the new stuff showing up here first. And that's deliberate and that's appropriate because this is a demanding theater and that's what rebalance is all about.
And on that note, let me just go back to what I said at the very -- at the very beginning. You're doing something really important out here because the stakes here at huge. And if this, God forbid anything happens out here, it's big trouble and it hasn't happened because you're ready, as we say, to fight tonight. We don't take that for granted.
And the other thing I don't take for granted is that you have families. You have futures that you want to make sure are secure. And that -- and we need people who are as talented and dedicated as you are. We're incredibly lucky as a military to have people like you.
And I know we need to work at attracting and retaining good people. It's not automatic and I'm -- I'm really committed to doing that. I know that you do what you do because you love the country and you love the mission. And that's great. But, you know, you also have to take care of your families. You have to take care of your future and so forth, so you have other concerns.
And we can't ask you to do what you do just without paying adequate attention to your situation as human beings, as well as your situation as soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. So I try to keep that in mind.
But you are the best and we thank you and appreciate it every day.
Oh, wait, one thing now -- don't applaud for me. I'm applauding for you.
I now want to look at each of you with, you know, in the eye and get to thank you personally and give you a coin. These are, by the way, brand new Ash Carter coins. They're right out of the mint. So, you'd be the first one on eBay if you put it up there. (Laughter.)
But I'm watching. So come on up and let me say thanks to each of you individually.