Esper Discusses COVID-19, Inclusion, National Defense Strategy
August 12, 2020
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper discussed the National Defense Strategy and U.S. great-power competition, the challenges COVID-19 brought to the Defense Department and his initiatives on diversity and inclusion in a virtual address to the Aspen Security Conference.
"When I was confirmed over a year ago, … one of the things I made clear is my top priority would be implementing the National Defense Strategy," the secretary said in today's remarks. "As you know, the NDS says we are now in an era of great power competition, [and] our chief competitors are China and Russia, in that order."
A second tier of countries must be addressed, he added, such as North Korea and Iran, and the enduring threat of violent extremist organizations also figures into the equation.
Since Esper took office, DOD has been moving out for nearly 13 months in terms of implementing the NDS and its three lines of effort:
"I translate that into freeing up time, money and manpower to put into other priorities," the secretary explained, noting that he and his leadership team came up with 10 goals to guide DOD over successive months:
"We've made considerable progress on those 10 objectives," Esper said. "Our goal was to complete many of them this year, and we're on track."
One of the challenges DOD has faced over the previous seven months is the impact of COVID-19, which hit the department in January, the secretary said.
"I've been tracking this since mid-January, and the department received its first U.S. citizens from China in late January," he said. DOD put its global defense plan into effect Feb. 1.
"We've been at this for seven months, and I'm really proud of the Department of Defense," Esper said. "I think at our high point, there were over 60,000 service members on the streets of America, in many of the hot spots — particularly the National Guard — whether it was medical professionals helping out in hospitals to [those] distributing supplies."
"I'm very proud of what the United States military did — often putting themselves at risk," the secretary said.
And during that challenging time, the secretary outlined three priorities: to take care of DOD's people and their families, ensure the department could maintain our readiness to execute the national security mission and to support the whole-of-government effort.
On top of that, he noted, DOD dealt with civil unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. "Our service members again did extremely well in serving their state governors … making sure that Americans had the right to exercise their First Amendment right of freedom of speech and assembling to protest, and to do that peacefully, so I've been very proud of our Guard in that manner," Esper said.
The civil unrest led the secretary to pursue three initiatives to address racial discrimination, diversity and inclusion in the military ranks.
"Clearly, while the U.S. military has been a leader in dealing with discrimination in its ranks and making sure it is not part and parcel of our force, we are not immune to what's happening in broader society, so we're taking a number of actions to do that for two reasons," the secretary said.
"First, it's the right thing to do. But secondly, it's important to our readiness," he said. "We need to be able to recruit the best and the brightest and to make sure they all feel respected, regarded and have all the opportunities that everybody else does in our force. And that applies not just to persons of color, but to ethnic differences, gender, sexual orientation, you name it. We want to represent the American people that we've sworn an oath to protect and defend."
DOD is focused inward and is helping inward and at the same time, maintaining its national security capabilities and defending the country, Esper said. "And we see that as our top priority," he added, "and [we] are committed to continue to do so as we move forward."
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