CFR’s Military Fellows discuss the state of the U.S. armed forces, including defense priorities for 2023, U.S. deterrence in the face of escalating geopolitical tensions, military recruitment and retention efforts, and other non-combat operations.
The CFR Young Professionals Briefing Series provides an opportunity for those early in their careers to engage with CFR. The briefings feature remarks by experts on critical global issues and lessons learned in their careers. These events are intended for individuals who have completed their undergraduate studies and have not yet reached the age of thirty to be eligible for CFR term membership.
BODURTHA: Well, good evening, everyone. And thank you so much for joining us tonight for this session of the Young Professional Briefing Series. I’m pleased to welcome all of you, whether you’re here at the Council in New York or if you’re there at the Council in Washington, D.C., or if you are joining us virtually via Zoom. I’m Nancy Bodurtha. I’m the vice president of meetings and membership here at the Council. I’d like to say, by way of introduction, a few brief words about the Council, also a bit about the Young Professionals Program, a little bit about our military fellows, and some housekeeping issues, before I turn the proceedings over to our presider tonight.
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We launched the Young Professionals Briefing Series a few years ago to engage individuals who are college graduates and early in their careers to give you all a chance to become better acquainted with the Council and all that it has to offer. We organize approximately one event a month for the Young Professionals, and there’s also a dedicated monthly Young Professional newsletter to round up and highlight our latest resources. So if you like what you’re finding here, we hope that you will consider applying for our five-year Term Member Program, that’s geared toward professionals who are in their thirties. And you can find out more about membership eligibility on CFR.org.
For tonight’s briefing, we are joined in both cities by our Council military fellows. Every year we are honored to host five outstanding officers from the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the Air Force, who spend a fellowship year in residence here at the Council. The fellows are here to build on their already extensive knowledge of international relations through a program of international study, research and reflection, and extensive participation in the Council’s active program of meetings and events, as well as their interaction with our membership.
This is really an extraordinary two-way street. I hope that their year is invaluable here, but the Council community receives so much from the presence of the fellows here each year. I can’t even begin to concisely convey just what a magnificent resource these officers are for our members, scholars, and staff. So we are very, very lucky to have them here with us this evening. Just quickly, how we’re going to roll tonight. There’s going to be forty-five minutes of conversation amongst the panelists, led by our moderator. And this will be followed thirty minutes of Q&A, where you’re encouraged to ask a question and engage in the discussion.
In terms of housekeeping, those of you who are in person, if you’ve got a phone that you haven’t silenced yet, please do so. In terms of the Q&A period, for those of you who are participating virtually, when it’s time to ask questions and you’d like to be recognized, click on the raise hand icon on your Zoom window. And when you’re called on to speak, you’ll need to accept the unmute now prompt and proceed with your name and affiliation followed, by a brief question. Your video will remain off, but your microphone will be unmuted. For those of you in person, in New York or Washington, if you’re called on during the Q&A, please wait for the microphone, and stand, and state your name and affiliation before asking your brief question. A reminder that this meeting is on the record.
And now I’d like to introduce our presider this evening, who will be running the show from our Washington, D.C. stage. Jennifer Kavanaugh, first and foremost, is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She’s also a senior fellow for the American statecraft program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And she’s an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. We’re in excellent hands tonight, as Jennifer is a political scientist who focuses on studying national security threats and their consequences for U.S. foreign policy and defense strategy.
So, Jennifer, I’m going to turn the floor over to you to introduce the fellows and lead our discussion tonight. Thank you so much.
KAVANAUGH: Thanks so much, and welcome, everyone, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Young Professionals Briefing, “The State of the U.S. Military in 2023.” So what we’re going to do to start is I’m going to introduce the military fellows and ask each of them a question about their experiences, so we can all get to know them a little better. And then we’re going to have a discussion—or, a more substantial discussion around some key issues that we discussed beforehand.
So to start, Christa Almonte is a captain in the U.S. Navy. Her career has focused both in the Pacific and in the Middle East, where she served on ships as a surface warfare officer and in embassies and military headquarters as an attaché and a military advisor. And she holds advanced degrees in contingency planning, national security and strategy, and Arabic.
So, Christa, as one of your many assignments, you served as the first female primary attaché to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What was that experience like? And what were the challenges and opportunities that position gave you, and that you took away when you came back to the U.S.?
ALMONTE: Well, just a little context. I switched over from surface warfare to focus intentionally on the Middle East about twelve years ago. I loved being on ships. There’s nothing better than being on a ship at sea at night or at dawn. It was beautiful. It’s not a Disney cruise, but it’s a very, very wonderful experience, if you’re a little sadistic. But I switched over to the Middle East because I had been there a couple of times, the Navy had sent me over, and I found it absolutely fascinating. I grew up largely overseas in different cultures, different languages, most of which I didn’t speak. And we were here and there briefly, so I always was attracted by the different things in the world.
And I was raised a Southern Baptist by a Southern Baptist minister. I am married to a man who was raised a Jesuit Catholic. I’m clearly a woman who believes in my right to join the military or be any other kind of power figure I want to be. So you couldn’t get much more different from what I am, and what my upbringing is, than what the Middle East is, in many locations, and what it represents at many times. But I was still fascinated by it. I was fascinated by the people who are, in general, not at all what we think of them to be. They’re very open, very welcoming, and very, very, very curious, above all, about the United States. So it was fascinating to be over there.
Saudi Arabia was unique to the couple of years—or, the couple of tours I did in Bahrain and traveled in other countries around the area, in that I was one of the first women—I was the first woman in my current—in that particular position of any country. But that is largely, in our defense, because women don’t want to go there, as you can imagine. Most of the people, my peers—my female peers were not in the least bit interested. But I went, and I was extremely well-received. And the best way I can describe it to you is that I was treated like I was a third gender. Frankly, I was judged more harshly by the women and I was never judged harshly by a Saudi man. It was either confusion, unashamed interest in what I was doing, or what does your husband think of your being here? (Laughter.) Does he know you’re here? What does your father say about you doing this?
So it was a fascinating time. It was two years of traveling about the country and meeting and learning about people. And if you’re not growing intellectually and learning and experiencing new things, I feel kind of bored
and stagnant. Well, I can tell you, coming out of Saudi Arabia, my eyesight’s worse, my hair is grayer, I wake up at night thinking my phone is ringing. So it was anything but boring and stagnant. And I really enjoyed it. And I was there during the presidential transition too, so it was quite an active time in the country. I don’t recommend it for vacation, but—(laughter)—maybe the Red Sea side.
KAVANAUGH: All right. Thank you.
Also in D.C. we have Tim MacDonald. He’s a colonel in the U.S. Army. In addition to deploying twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and once to Kandahar, Afghanistan, he’s also served as commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade in Germany. And most recently, as the director of operations for the Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa, in Djibouti. So, Tim, not many U.S. citizens know all that much about our mission in the Horn of Africa. Can you talk a little bit about that mission and why it’s important to our national security?
MACDONALD: Yeah. So I’ll start by saying why I—why I went to Africa. I was coming out of the brigade command and I needed to get joint qualification to remain competitive for promotion, potentially, to general officer. And the quick way to do that is to deploy into a joint environment. I had not been to Africa before. I had really no idea what our interests were, what we were doing in Africa. I knew about Somalia and our experiences there, but I really didn’t know much about what was going on there. And so I chose to go to Africa to, you know, really to broaden myself a little more. And when I was choosing it, it looked like Afghanistan might not be the right choice. Which, in hindsight, was accurate.
So get to Africa. I go to Djibouti, a small country right near Ethiopia, Somalia. And we have about 4,000 people on a camp called Camp Lemonnier. It’s actually run by the Navy. Africa has a COCOM that’s in charge of it. It’s called AFRICOM. They’re based in Stuttgart. And each of the services provides a component to that COCOM, like they do for the other COCOMs. And within that is an organization called Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa. And it’s based there in Djibouti. It resides on Camp Lemonnier. It’s got a big building with a big joint operations center. And there’s four primary missions.
And the first one is to protect and provide safety and security for U.S. embassies in Africa. This is as a result of Benghazi—the Benghazi attacks. And when you think about this, there’s—you know, I think there’s thirty or so embassies around the world that are considered high risk, high threat. Half of those—more than half of those are in Africa. And since the Benghazi attacks, Department of Defense is responsible for providing a response force that’s always at the ready to our embassies, in the event that there’s something that occurs that would put them at risk. It happened twice while I was there that we actually almost sent our response force. This was in Sudan and Ethiopia. But we have—they are based at Camp Lemonnier. There is a response force that’s on a heightened level of alert, along with air assets that can take that response force to an embassy in the area or, really, throughout Africa in a short period of time, to provide that security.
The second mission for Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa is supporting our special operations forces that are forward in Somalia, providing training to Somali national forces in their fight against Al-Shabaab. And the support that we provide is both security, logistics, and engineering support. And then probably the most important aspect of the support that we provide is the personnel recovery and casualty evacuation. We have forces and capabilities that are set aside there at Camp Lemonnier that are dedicated only to providing casualty evacuation and personnel recovery in and around Somalia and Kenya, in the fight against Al-Shabaab.
It was probably the most challenging job that I’ve ever had in the military, a joint job where not too many of those that you need actually work for you. And it’s a very complex environment with a lot of moving pieces. We had a coup counter on my whiteboard. We got up to six coups in Africa while I was there. We had a civil war in Ethiopia. We had a coup in Sudan. We almost had some violence in Burkina Faso. And if you—if you know anything about Africa, you know that it’s just huge. The tyranny of distance is a real thing. And trying to get anywhere to make something happen is really difficult. But very challenging year, but very rewarding.
KAVANAUGH: Great. Thanks.
Our other three fellows are in New York. Jeff Randall is a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard. He’s a sea-going officer and he’s commanded four ships. When he’s not at sea, he serves in a range of different roles, including force allocation, strategy and policy, and law enforcement. But he’s an expert in crisis leadership, and he’s supported federal responses to major hurricanes, Deepwater Horizon, and 9/11.
So, Jeff, can you tell us what attracted you to join the Coast Guard, and also some of the ways that the Coast Guard supports national security, both in crises like those that you’ve supported and every day?
RANDALL: Well, thank you. So how does a person from West Texas end up in the Coast Guard is a good question, when you’re about five hundred miles from any ocean. And I would just say, the short answer is my mom made me apply to every service academy. (Laughter.) And when it came down to choices between which ones I got accepted to—and there’s a funny story behind a couple of those—I ended up choosing the Coast Guard Academy because, one, it was a smaller service, and I felt like it was better suited to me personally and where I wanted to go from a career perspective.
To your question about, you know, how does the Coast Guard contribute to national security beyond crisis, I would say if you look around the world, and you look at many of the countries in the world, a lot of their navies look like coast guards. And so there’s a lot of countries out there that want to model their coast guards off the United States coast guard. And so we work very closely with a lot of those international countries to help them build their own capacity, their own capability to enforce and patrol their own waters to get after whatever threats they may have in the region.
Secondary to that is I think we contribute to national security in a way through, I would call it, a layered defense. And it starts in overseas ports. It’s how we interact with the shipping industry. It’s how we interact with regional organizations. It’s how we impose international standards or apply international standards, both at home and abroad. And through that, we try and build a security net to prevent threats from coming by sea. We try to protect the people on the sea. And then we try to protect the sea itself. And so, in a nutshell, that’s kind of how I would say—I’d sum up what we contribute to national security on a daily basis.
For DHS, we’re also the federal first responders. And so then we’re the first person that they can reach into in time of crisis because we’re a 24/7 deployable force for the department. And DOD’s a little bit different. So they have some other ready forces, but for DHS in the collective we are the ready force. We don’t have overtime restrictions. We have uniformed personnel, and we have ships, aircrafts, and boats. And we can go out and respond to the nation in time of need.
KAVANAUGH: OK, thanks.
Erin Staine-Pyne is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. She is a command pilot with more than 3,400 flight hours in mobility aircraft, including combat airdrop missions over Afghanistan. She’s commanded both an in-garrison airlift squadron, as well as deployed expeditionary squadron for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve. And she most recently served as the senior military advisor to the undersecretary of the Air Force. So, Erin, with all your flight experience and the range of different types of missions you’ve supported, what would you say are the hardest and most exciting parts of being a command pilot in the U.S. Air Force?
STAINE-PYNE: Yeah. Jennifer, thanks for the question. And also, thanks for moderating today. Really appreciate you doing this.
You know, probably the most interesting thing about being a mobility pilot, I fly C-17s. Most people are familiar with the C-17 because of the evacuations that happened out of Afghanistan. That was the aircraft that primarily executed that evacuation. But part of—the greatest part about flying such a capable aircraft is any
given day as a pilot when you show up, you don’t know what you’re going to be doing that day. Tim talked about protecting embassies in Africa. Well, certainly that would be a mission the C-17 would go in and do. Any given mission—it could be taking the 82nd Airborne out of Pope Army Airfield and putting them into a crisis situation anywhere in the world. It could simply be rescuing or evacuating wounded soldiers somewhere in the world.
Being a mobility pilot means you have to be ready for any and all of those mission sets all the time. And when you show up to work, you’re not exactly sure what your day is going to look like. And on top of that, you’re flying around the world. You’re flying into some air spaces that aren’t so well controlled, and you’re flying into some places that are. And so you really have to be on your A game all the time.
But the most important thing that we do as mobility forces is we project power. We project America’s power around the world. If you want us to do it in the next eighteen hours, we will. If you need us to do it a week from now, we’ll do that too. But it’s really important that we have that ability that no other nation has, which is power projection.
And so our final fellow, Alison Thompson, is a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. And she is also a pilot, but of CH-53 helicopters. And she served on combat tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo, and conducted humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in Albania, Haiti, and Turkey. And she’s also served in staff assignments—manpower, budgeting and acquisitions and readiness—and at the U.S. Senate. And she was most recently the senior military advisor to the secretary of the Navy.
So, Alison, not everyone is aware that there are military personnel serving up on Capitol Hill. Can you tell us more about your responsibilities when you were working at the Senate? And what’s the importance of the role the military liaison’s play up on Capitol Hill?
THOMPSON: Great, thank you. I think for the reason that we have military fellows in Congress, or the same reason that we’re here, you know, sitting in front of here you at CFR, and the reason that you’re all sitting here watching us. It’s gaining perspectives, right? And it’s so easy to villainize the folks, in this case, on the other side of the river, right? You’re sitting in the Pentagon and you’re like, oh, those guys on the other side of the river, they don’t know what they’re doing. (Laughs.) You know, if only they knew. And I’m sure that is independent of which side of the river that you’re sitting on. (Laughs.) And just like all of your professions, things are complicated, and they’re messy, and they’re hard, and there’s a lot of competing interests and finite resources.
So putting military people in offices allows that office to gain the perspective of that individual’s experience. You know, hopefully they can speak for the service writ large, but that individual’s experience and some of the pragmatic implications of legislation or statutes that they’re—that they’re, you know, considering. And sometimes you can help craft those, right? So there’s that—what you bring to the office itself, and then it’s what you take back to your service. And you have an understanding of how legislation gets developed and written and what the different factors are in the greater picture. So in those ways, it’s important, just as with everything, to put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a little while.
KAVANAUGH: Thank you.
All right, so shifting gears a little bit, we’re about a month away from the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And this has, rightly, dominated much of the foreign policy discussion in the United States, and certainly across the armed forces, since then. So I think that it makes sense to start there. And so what I'd like to hear from all of you and how the war in Ukraine has changed your service’s priorities, whether that's in terms of training, or investments you’re prioritizing, operational concepts, how you're thinking about
the future of warfare, or maybe nothing has changed and these were things you were thinking about beforehand. So, Tim, I'll start with you before turning to others to see if they have thoughts.
MACDONALD: So, you know, I think all of you are aware the last twenty years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global war on terrorism, mostly a counterinsurgency-type of fight, counterterrorism type of fight. We weren’t training for or actually executing, you know, what we call large-scale combat operations. It just wasn't part of what we were concerned with at that time. And then, you know, recently, coming out of those wars, we did make that shift back, recognizing the potential threats throughout the world. We did make that shift back to large-scale combat operations, which is what I started with back in the mid-’90s when I came into the Army. Learning about Soviet doctrine, and learning about those types of equipment, and how to fight against a T-72 tank, for example.
And so we started to make that shift. And then about a year ago, we really made the shift to large-scale combat operations. Where now we're going back to that doctrine. And what we’ve realized is that, you know, Russia remains a threat, obviously. And we have other threats that we need to be concerned about that require us to relook at our systems and our doctrine, and get back to the understanding of what a large-scale combat operation would mean for us. There's also a couple of things that it made us realize. That the Russians aren’t ten feet tall. They don't necessarily operate the way we would expect them to operate. That they are not mastering—(laughs)—by any means, the combined arms maneuver that we prescribed to.
We trained the Ukrainian army for a number of years, since 2014. I was there in Lviv to see that training. And it sure seems like it worked. I think we did a pretty good job in creating a professional force. And also, what we’ve seen is that the concept of mission command, which is providing clear intent and then utilizing disciplined and empowering decisions to be made at the lower level, actually works. And that's what we've taught the Ukrainians, and that's what we live by. And I think we’re seeing that bear fruit. So there still a long road ahead. Equipment is still needed. More training is required. And it's going to be a while. But it's been pretty interesting to see this war so far.
KAVANAUGH: What about others? Erin or Jeff or Alison?
STAINE-PYNE: Yeah, sure. I'm happy to chime in, Jennifer. I think an airman's perspective on the war in Ukraine has really been around air superiority. Air superiority is this idea that you can operate at the time and place of your choosing with your forces because you're protected by a layer of air superiority. So your forces can maneuver. And we really haven't seen any air superiority achieved. Not by Russia. Not by Ukraine. And there’s kind of this mutual stalemate in air superiority which is contributing to a longer, drawn-out war. And so certainly it highlights the importance of having an air force that can achieve air superiority. Not just an air force. Really, a joint force and combined arms, is what we call it when all the services work together to facilitate attack maneuver on a battlefield.
But that importance has an exclamation point on it after seeing what's happening between Ukraine and Russia. And it's really important that we ask the question is it because, like Tim said, Russia’s not ten feet tall? Or is it because the Ukrainians have employed some really impressive air defenses with the equipment that they do have? And so figuring out what the reason is for that air superiority to not be achieved in Russia could have great impact on future—our future wars, right? We need to know if these kind of inexpensive solutions are going to prevent us from having something like air superiority in future wars.
And so that's really, I think, what the Air Force was already focused on. We're focused on this mix of kind of expensive and exquisite capabilities, combined with these inexpensive maybe drones or cyber capabilities that we could produce in mass. And it’ll be really important that we get that mix right if we face some kind of peer threat in the future.
THOMPSON: You know, I’ll just in, quick kind of dovetailing on some of these threads that are already put out. I would bin it in the training and information flow. So, just as Tim articulated, Marine Corps absolutely for a long time is taking great pride in giving the commander’s intent, take that hill, and then allowing everyone who understands that space, whatever their area is and the circumstances around it, to figure out the best way to take that hill. And so we are, I think at this point probably, quintupling down on that.
But you can't just give responsibility and authority without also training an individual, right? And I think we can take this back to any organization that you're in, any discipline. You’ve got to invest in the individual. And so we're doing that as well, to make sure that as we bring in these young men and women into the Marine Corps, that we’re giving them all the tools that they need. There’s the equipment, materiel piece. But then also just the thought process, and then the confidence, to make these types of decisions so that we can operate in smaller and more autonomous units. Which will dovetail over to Indo-Pacific.
But then, with that as well, information, right? You're only as good as the information you receive. And we see this, you know, likely with President Putin and authoritative regimes. You’re not getting good information flow, and if you're getting information that's not good then you may be making poor decisions. So ensuring that we have good connectivity and processes, and redundancy, to get good information and that we understand the state of our forces, our sister services, and our allies, as well as the enemy and the threat. And I say enemy and threat, because whether or things that aren't directly the enemy can be threat to mission accomplishment too. So you've got to make sure you’re looking at all these different aspects, gathering and collating all that information, and pushing it to point of need.
RANDALL: Yeah. And I think the one thing I’d offer, there's not a large maritime component. But I think we're thinking about it in probably three lanes. Command and control, as has already been mentioned. Two, how do you secure those lines—sea lines of communication for logistic support? And we’ve already seen the Ukrainians have some success in their ports. And then how do you secure that if you're going to get into a conflict with there is a larger maritime component? And then, third, what are other people learning from this experience that they're going to apply to the next conflict that happens, wherever that may be? And so the role of autonomous, I’ll call it vehicles, because it could be air, land, or sea. The role of AI. The role of cyber. And how are those lessons going to be applied in future conflict? And are we reevaluating our plans and reevaluating our thinking to adjust and adapt to those—to the changing nature of warfare?
KAVANAUGH: So, the other major driver of foreign policy, of course, has been China. And developments in INDOPACOM and U.S. efforts to deter China and build the force structure and capabilities that we need to operate in that theater. So in the context of INDOPACOM, one of the things that—terms that comes up a lot is JADC2, which is Joint All Domain Command and Control. So, Erin, you're our expert here on JADC2. Can you tell us exactly JADC2 is, and where its development stands?
STAINE-PYNE: Yeah. So JADC2 stands for Joint All Domain Command and Control. And imagine if every military member— and I'll just start with that. Every military member, every military vehicle, including satellites, including airplanes, et cetera, was a sensor. And if you could take all of that data and you could have machines learn what they need to learn, AI do things you don't need a human to do, and then put the information in front of a commander to make the best military decision as fast as they could. That is Joint All Domain Command and Control.
Command and control is typically an Air Force capability and function. And so the Air Force’s system is called ABMS. And it's being developed. This is a really difficult problem, though. Because, as you can imagine, just trying to start with the data, right? How do we format the data? Like, each service does this completely differently. How do we even start with that, so we could put it in a place, in a cloud, where you could do all those other things that you want with the data. So it’s a really ambitious project. But if we can do it, when it’s successful, it'll be difference-maker in a future war/
KAVANAUGH: Yeah, it sounds like it’ll be really important, especially given our discussion just about some of the issues in Ukraine that we're learning about command and control. The other set of developments, I would say, is around force structure. You know, the Army has its Multi-Domain Task Force. There’s been a lot in the news about changes to the Marine Corps, and how they are rethinking their role and their capabilities to better operate in a really challenging theater where, you know, talk about tyranny of distance, it’s a long way away. So, Tim, can you tell us a little bit about the MDTF, and how that fits in? And, Alison, similarly for changes that are ongoing in the Marine corps with the force development plans?
MACDONALD: So I'm actually going to start by answering your question with talking about Army Futures Command first.
MACDONALD: And the reason for that is, we—so the Army in 2018 decided to stand up what we call Army Futures Command, which is led by an Army four-star. It's in Austin, Texas. And what we had realized prior to that is that our acquisitions process, as you may already know, is slow and laborious. And we needed to be able to break through that, and bring the program manager closer to the production—you know, the production line, and have that understanding, so that we can get things to our soldiers quicker. So that's the first part, is we've stood up that four-star level command. It seems to have been successful so far. And it continues to kind of feel its way through acquisitions process and refine how it does that.
Part of that, and part of what Erin was just speaking about, was that within that JADC2, within that construct, is what the Army is calling the Multi-Domain Task Force. And it's really, I think, the Army of 2030, when we look forward. And when we think about what's happening in Ukraine, what we’ve—what we’ve realized is that we need sensors that can see further and can see better than the enemy. We need highly lethal, smaller capable combat forces that can get in and out, but be lethal at the same time. We need to be able to protect ourselves from air threats.
So you’ve seen the drone threat that has grown considerably over time. I mean, just not too long ago in Africa it was clear that Al-Shabaab had a plan to develop their own drones, and be able to use them against Western interests. So it’s there. It's out there. We need to be able to protect ourselves from drones. And then also cyberattacks. So part of that Multi-Domain Task Force will be a way to protect ourselves from cyber. I will say, it’s been surprising that we haven't seen it in Ukraine as much as we had anticipated. But we know that there's capability there. Our adversaries have that capability to attack us from a cyber perspective as well, so.
KAVANAUGH: Alison, what about the Marine Corps?
THOMPSON: Yeah, so for the Marine Corps, you know, from Secretary Austin, Secretary of Defense Austin, one of his key priorities is to modernize and innovate, right? So, OK, roger that. Modernize and innovate. Towards what? Well, the other thing is that China is our pacing threat. OK, great. So how do we get at this? And so, you know, Marine Corps absolutely prides itself on 9-1-1 force. And we’re the only service that has the extra clause of, “as the president directs,” right? So, president, hello, Marine Corps, go. Roger. We’re already there. We’ve got it. (Laughs.) You know, in theory.
So part of this was how do we support all of our sister services in a joint fight—because no one service can take on a threat like China by itself. And it would be silly to do so. So how do we best support in a joint environment, and tie in with JADC2 and Multi-Domain Task Force, using Coast Guard, all these different things, and be value-add, given that we’re such a small service and we’re also globally deployed, right? We put a bunch of Marines on an amphibious ship, and it’s amphibious because, most of them—there’s some exceptions—(laughs)—have vehicles that can come out of the back of a large ship that’s kind of smaller than a carrier, and hit the beaches, right? And we also have our own helicopters. And we’re very self-contained unit.
But, you know, depending on the threat, we may not be able to get this still very large ship in. So the idea is being that we would be—they’ll use the term “stand-in force.” Meaning we’re already kind of in theater. We’re already there and prepositioned so that you don’t have the entire Department of Defense knocking on Erin’s door, hey, can we get a ride on a C-17 or some strategic lift? Because we only have so many planes in the world—or, you know, in our inventory. And it’s not feasible to move the entire Army and the entire Marine Corps in any kind of timely fashion to the Indo-Pacific, right?
So the idea being that we operate small, autonomous units that are inside of hopefully the first island chain, right, and can get in that decision-making process of China. But it’s not just to get at a—and we’ll probably talk about this later—you know, a Chiwan—(laughs)—a Chiwan—a China-Taiwan conflict. (Laughter.) I almost called Tim, Kim earlier today too, because, yeah, right? (Laughter.) So anyways, that’s what we’re trying to get at.
MS. : What did she do?
THOMPSON: Christa to Tim turned into Kim, right? (Laughter.) But, so it’s not just to get at a China-Taiwan, but also just to ensure that we have a fee and open Indo-Pacific, right? When you look at the volume of the world’s goods that flow through there, we need to ensure our partners and our allies for our national security and economic security that we keep those waters open. And that kind of aggressive, you know, overtures to take claim on something that is either open domain or someone else’s sovereign territory isn’t going to be acceptable, right? That’s imperative for kind of the world economy to keep going, and therefore global order, right? So this is our big to kind of rapidly modernize to be able to play in that arena.
KAVANAUGH: So before we move on from talking about Indo-Pacific, I want to make sure we talk about the maritime piece. There’s—you know, it’s not a flash of the—it’s not a keen insight to say there’s a lot of water. So the maritime piece has to play a big role.
STAINE-PYNE: I thought you were getting ready to say it’s not all about the air warfare. I would have really appreciated it if you had said that. (Laughter.)
KAVANAUGH: So I want to make sure we talk about the maritime piece with both the Navy and the Coast Guard. So, Christa, can you tell us a little bit more about how the Navy is thinking about this theater? Especially because we hear so much about how quickly the Chinese Navy is growing, and how quickly it’s modernizing.
ALMONTE: So I’ll get to that question, and kind of the previous one a little bit. The key to force structure is the same for the Navy as it for all of the other forces, as it is for any corporation, or business, or nation that’s in business with any other corporation, business, nation, or military in the world. And that is you look at yourself and you say: What are my capability gaps? What do I have that my competitor does not? Where is my competitor catching up? What exquisite ability do I have that I need to build upon or keep secret from? You know, where am I weakening? Where does my budget need to move in order to keep the strategic ability that I have, and not allow someone else to gain it?
So this is not just—not in any way just military. I would say it’s corporate every bit as much as it is military. But we look at our forces now. If you look around at Navy ships, for example, you’ll see the Aegis system, which is our weapons system. It’s the combined—it’s a combination of the weapons and the radar system. It’s our suite. This was technology invented before most of the people in this room were born. I think, I may have to do some math. But it was invented a very long time ago. So we are inventing technology today that we’re not going to see fielded for thirty or forty years into the future. And that’s the kind of planning you need to do in a military.
A lot of the times, that’s what you need to do in a corporation. So we are looking at things like artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, systems that are counter-hypersonic, that are hypersonic. How do you—how
do you foresee war or a conflict in the future against anyone? It doesn’t make any difference who your pacing threat is, who your near-peer competitor is, who your distant competitor is, because you don’t know who tomorrow is going to be your enemy or, in business, your competitor. So that’s kind of the war that we have to plan against.
And so we have—that’s why we have specialties in all of the difference fields, and why we have an Air Force and an Army. You have to be prepared for everything in the future. So the Navy right now is looking at systems that will allow us to do that, especially hypersonics, counter-hypersonics. But I’ll kind of combine three answers into one and say, as you are where you sit, or your view is where you sit, I’m a foreign area officer. So to me, for our Navy, the greatest thing you can possibly develop is alliances. That is one of our great strengths. It’s one of China’s greatest weaknesses. They have spent decades bullying their neighbors, and they have grown greatly economically because of it. They’ve gained land. They’ve gained access to water. They’ve gained access to minerals. They have lost every friend they had.
We haven’t done that, thankfully. And we build more and more alliances every day. Whether it’s trying to get China and South Korea and the United States into one, AUKUS with the U.K., Australia, and the United States, or any of the other groups that we have around the world, I think we can see that tremendously playing out in Ukraine today, and what alliances can do for someone in need. So as we build our force structure, I think the greatest structure that we can create for war in the Indo-Pacific, or anywhere else on the planet, is the alliances we can build. And that makes—that means making your partners stronger. That means giving to them, and training them, and understanding and knowing them and their capabilities, and what they can and cannot do, based on their own governments.
KAVANAUGH: Jeff, anything to add before we move on?
RANDALL: Yeah, no, I’ll throw in a couple of things. One is interoperability. So the one thing that we’re trying to do is make sure that we stay interoperable with all the other four branches, so in time of conflict we’re ready to respond because we can be called upon and fall under the Department of the Navy if we have an actual declaration of war. And we’ve done that several times over our history. So number one is interoperability. And we’re doing that by also participating in a lot of the big exercises, the RIMPACs, the other kinds of exercises that we do out there in the Indo-Pacific.
And I think the second thing that we’re trying to do is also ensure kind of a rules-based order and good maritime governance through—like Christa said—through some of those alliances. So we’re looking at those—some of those smaller countries, the Philippines, the other—kind of the RMIs, the other small countries around there. And providing some reassurance to them that if things start to kick off over there, if things start to heat up, that they have a good partner in the United States. And that they have someone—they have an ally they can depend upon and that will be there in their time of need.
And we also recognize that those are going to be some stepping off points for logistics and other things. And so we’re going to have some responsibilities in and around beyond that first island chain, to kind of help support the overall conflict. And we’re writing into a lot of the plans. And so we’re prepared to do that. We’re reviewing those. We review those on a regular basis to make sure we’re, one, interoperable and ready to help promote that good maritime governance and rules-based order that we want to see throughout the world in the maritime commons.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I’ll just jump in as well because this governance piece is really, really important. And it’s probably—I don’t want to say not given enough attention, there’s a lot of attention given it, but there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. There’s a lot of areas where there isn’t direct maritime governance. But you talk to a lot of these countries, island nations, Oceania. But globally, and especially given warming and rising oceans, fishing migration patterns and all that. So a lot of what the Coast Guard does is absolutely existential to many countries. If they can’t fish, if they can’t harvest some of their resources that are in the ocean, and that
some countries are coercively taking, then they can’t feed their populace, they don’t have their economy, this type of thing.
And so being able to establish and enforce a rules-based international order on the oceans is absolutely critical, especially as you look at rising oceans. OK, tell me where an economic zone starts and finishes, off of what map? This year’s map? Next year’s map? You know, ten years from now? These are things that need to get worked out, but are really, really important.
KAVANAUGH: Great. So I want to make sure we have time for questions, but we do want to touch on two other topics that I think are really important. So we’ll do maybe just a couple minutes on each. So the first, you know, all this planning and modernized force structure and new capabilities, allies and partners, they’re not all that helpful because we don’t have good, trained, qualified people serving in the military. And you hear this from all the service secretaries, as well as Secretary of Defense Austin, who’s always saying that the people are the most important asset. They’re the heart of the military. And there’s been a lot of attention about the, quote/unquote “military recruiting crisis,” and low propensity to serve across the U.S. population.
So I wanted to talk a little bit about what the military is doing to help counter any shift in propensity to serve and in the challenges that the military is facing, as it always does in a strong economy, to recruit personnel. So, Tim, you’ve served in the recruiting command. And the Army’s problem here seems to be the most severe. So I’ll start with you, and let others weigh in. Can you tell us a little bit about how you see this problem and what the military is doing to counter it?
MACDONALD: Yeah, so like you mentioned, when the economy is strong, in particular when unemployment rates are low, it is—it is more difficult for us to recruit. I think it’s just obvious. But I think we’re in a different situation now than we have in the past. We’re in a war for talent. When we look across the available pool, what we see is only 23 percent of our seventeen to twenty-four-year-olds are even qualified to enter the service. So that’s the starting point. And that’s because of obesity rates. It’s because they can’t pass the ASVAB. Or because they have a criminal history. So 23 percent, right off the top.
And then, within that, only about 9 percent of those are even interested in serving in the military. So then that gets parsed out—that percentage gets parsed out to all the services. And we only get a piece of that. So I think when we—when we look at that as an Army, we have to understand, OK, what is our targeted population? How are we—how are we marketing to them? We have a marketing process, a recruiting process, that’s really forty years old. And we haven’t changed it. So we’re relooking at that now. And how do we target populations that maybe we haven’t targeted before? Do we still need to advertise at NASCAR, for example? I think we own that market. Do we really need to continue to do that? So maybe we could take that money and shift it somewhere else.
What we’ve also recognized is that the Army—in particular, the Army is a family business. Eighty-three percent of those that serve are connected to someone that either has or is serving. And so, how do we attract those that really don’t know about the military, didn’t grow up with it and don’t have that familiar nexus to the military? And what would drive them to serve? And I had a conversation today with a young professional about what would drive our younger generation to serve? And we need to understand that so that we can recruit the best, as you—as you said.
We’ve got—the last thing is, we’ve got a pilot program that we’ve stood up at Fort Jackson. We’re going to expand it elsewhere. Where we’re taking those that do want to serve but don’t qualify for one reason or another—whether it be intellectually or whether it be physically—and we’re sending them to a pre-basic, if you will, where they are improving their skills or improving their fitness, and then coming out and going to basic training. We’ve seen a great result with that. About 60 percent, I think the numbers are, that are coming out and going to basic training. And those individuals are actually leading their cohorts at basic training, so.
KAVANAUGH: What about others? Any other perspectives from different services?
ALMONT: I’ll jump in just real quickly. I know we don’t have a lot of time on it. But Navy met its retention and its recruiting goals this year. We don’t necessarily expect to next year, but we did this year. But Tim’s absolutely correct. It’s a strong economy. It’s a low unemployment rate. Those are the key factors. And the other is, we’re relatively safe and secure and at peace right now. When there’s a war going on, I have 100 percent confidence that America’s men and women will answer it and join the military, as they always have, every time. So I have no doubt that we will meet numbers if we need to.
The problem is, you’ll meet numbers with new recruits. And we need people that are already trained, already experts in their field, and already ready to go downrange, not ready to leave home and go learn how to shoot a weapon, or how to swim, or how to jump off a sinking ship, or drive a tank. So that’s the problem with, hey, we’re comfortable. We don’t need a military. There’s no impetus. We don’t see anything on the television that would inspire someone who doesn’t have family in to, hey, maybe I need to join this, maybe I need to contribute.
So I think one of the greatest messengers we have in the military is, frankly, the military. I won’t say at our age, but at the different age status that those of us on this stage and that stage are at right now, we aren’t the ones necessarily to do that. I know that I have gray hair. The one that needs to go do that is the twenty-year-old, and the twenty-one-year-old and the twenty-two-year-old that are out there that can talk to their peers about what they do. So that’s the message that we try and get off to the younger generations of our naval officers and enlisted. And I’m sure the other services do the same thing.
It's just—it’s basically being a messenger to society, because that’s all the military is. We are exactly what you are. We came from all over America, or not from America. We came from every background, and every white collar, blue collar, and brown collar you can imagine. So that is what the military is. So it’s not a you and us. And it’s trying to get that message across to people who think the military is what I read about and what I hear pundits talk about, and what folks are saying, the civ-mil relationship and that kind of thing is. We’re just people that decided to join the military. And we came from your seats where you are right now.
I can tell you, it was a gigantic shock to my mother when I said I was going to join the military. She was wildly against it. And my father said, yeah, sure, OK, absolutely. So it doesn’t necessarily come from a background of military or family support, or someone who had mentioned it to you. You just have to get out there and be a messenger for your service. And think about, you know, do I want to go take a chance at this for a couple years? It’s not going to do anything other than build your resume and make you a stronger leader and give you an idea of something you’re unfamiliar with. And frankly, there’s not a lot of downsides to that. It’s not an easy day at the office, but there’s not a lot of downsides to at least giving it a shot.
KAVANAUGH: So something you both have mentioned—
THOMPSON: Can I—oh, I’m sorry.
KAVANAUGH: Yeah, go ahead, Alison. No, go ahead.
THOMPSON: I just wanted to jump in because I feel like I’d be remiss. You know, for all of you out there—I’m looking at the camera because I know there’s a broader audience—when you see young people, bring it up. There’s a lot that you get out of the military, even if you just do one year. You come back, you look—you get this perspective that we’re talking about up here, and you learn leadership. And that will absolutely serve you, regardless of what you do in life. That personal responsibility and leadership of yourself and leadership of others.
You know, we’ve had conversations with CEOs here in New York City and they’re saying, yeah, training people and that leadership piece, companies have not been investing in it. It’s sorely needed. And so now they’re outsourcing it. It’s a cottage industry. I don’t know how you develop the culture of a corporation if you’re outsourcing your personnel development, right? So if you have young people, they can go do cool, exciting stuff—flying airplanes, flying helicopters, driving ships, all these different things. And they come back with a host of experience, not in debt if they’re a doctor or, you know, doing these different programs. So I’m kind of enlisting, recruiting you all to kind of help the ambassadors. If you’re not thinking about it, you don’t know anyone, that’s fine. Just bring it up in the conversation. We need to have a greater conversation within the U.S. about this. Otherwise, our experiment of an all-volunteer force will fail.
KAVANAUGH: So once piece of recruiting and retaining key people is taking care of the families, the spouses, the kids. You both have mentioned family in a different context. So I think, you know, we’d be remiss if we didn’t touch on the way the military is thinking about taking care of families, and all the developments they’ve made in the past few years in this area. So I don’t know if maybe, Erin, do you want to start on this one, and give the Air Force’s perspective on this?
STAINE-PYNE: Yeah, I’m happy to start. Yeah, so I think, especially with twenty years of war in Afghanistan, there’s a highlight on the sacrifice that not just the service member makes, but the family makes too, right? Most spouses don’t sign up for military service. They come along for the ride. Some willingly, some unwillingly. (Laughs.) And certainly our children too, who make multiple sacrifices as military kids. And so as a service, I think each of our services recognizes this and has put in place program after program to certainly try to address the challenge of military life. I’d say the biggest one right now continues to be spouse employment. Our spouses are the most overeducated and underemployed in America.
And so we’ve seen this really great work between government and corporations to try to address this issue, to try to help with work that’s mobile, so a spouse can move when the military member has to move, or work that you can move your license from state to state much more easily, if you have a license, as a spouse. But spouse employment continues to be a challenge. And so we just need to continue to work at that one.
As far as other programs for military and military members, I think we’ve seen really a lot addressed in the past two years. Parental leave, for example. Twelve weeks for someone who’s had a baby. That’s for both the—both of the spouses in the relationship there. Dual military getting assigned together. That’s a big one in the Air Force. We have a lot of dual military, married to each other. And there was a time where you weren’t necessarily guaranteed that you’d be assigned together. And we’ve addressed that.
Talent marketplace is something we’ve recently developed, where you can go in and ask for a very particular assignment. Maybe it’s because your spouse is trying to get a Ph.D. and wants to go somewhere at a particular school. Maybe it’s because you’ve had kids and you want to be near mom and dad, or some kind of family. But you can now go in and really ask for that assignment. And the command team can go in and see who has asked for the assignment, and then try and select the most qualified person. So if you’re doing well in your career, you get rewarded by getting the kind of assignments that you want.
So those are just a couple of examples of how we’ve tried to stabilize tours, make them longer—four-year assignments—to give families more stability, to give kids more stability, and really try to take care of our families.
KAVANAUGH: Any adds to that? That was a great answer.
ALMONTE: That’s a good answer. Jeff, no, you go ahead. I don’t want to answer this question.
RANDALL: I was going to say, we’ve implemented a number of similar programs. So, like, for our naval engineers, we do a program where they do a couple years in one spot, and then they stay at the same location
and go to a support element that works on the ships that they just came off of. So you keep that talent in kind of one place. And then they might go back to sea again. So we’re kind of—we’re working on some of those kind of programs.
And, having been the one organization that had to live through a lapse in appropriations, back—for those of you who remember—back in 2019/2020 timeframe, we really—that really got us thinking about support programs, and what that safety net is for families that had to live through that DHS lapse in appropriation. So I think we’ve built a lot more mechanisms around that to—and then we’re also doing the same thing like the other services, because we basically mirror the other services’ assignment policies in a lot of ways, and a lot of the other support programs. But I think that was a very educational experience for us on how that really impacts people, and what you need to do to create the right safety nets.
The other one that we’re really working hard on I think is another one that’s a stressor for some families, and it goes to this—especially for spouse to spouse—is childcare. And making sure that that’s more available and more readily available for folks, in a reasonable commuting distance so that it has less impact on their ability to perform at work.
KAVANAUGH: Christa, do you want to say something, or should we go to questions?
ALMONTE: No, I don’t. (Laughs.) Yes, I will. So now that I’ve just said, you know, you should get out there and give the message of the military and we’re fantastic, there is a downside. And that is, the number one and number two reasons across the board, year after year, survey after GAO survey, is we leave the military because our spouse can’t work and because we do not have stability. Now, if you’re unmarried and you like to move, this is the job for you. And I was when I joined. And I was for ten years or so. And it’s—you’re either—it’s a job, and it’s an adventure, and it is, most certainly, a burden on families. And it’s an incredible sacrifice that they give.
I was mil-to-mil. My husband was in the Navy. And when the Navy, that does put a little bit less priority on co-location than the Air Force, told us—told my husband that Romania was very close to Saudi Arabia—(laughter)—and that there was no issue with him going there and me going here, he did retire. So we became gloriously a statistic of why you depart the Navy. So it is difficult. But you have to also look at it—since I did a year of sort of human resources with the Navy—the military has missions to achieve all over the world. And someone does have to go achieve those missions at every rank, no matter whether or not they have a husband, wife, spouse, partner, and no matter how many children they do or do not have when they go.
So it’s a very difficult lifestyle. It is and can be an adventure, but Tim watched me count on my fingers a couple of times before we came in. I commissioned in 1999. And I have conducted sixteen PCS moves around the world since then. So every—whatever twenty-three and a half divided by sixteen is, that’s how many times I’ve moved around the planet. And it’s not an easy—it’s not an easy job to do. But it can be quite an adventure. And the Navy does try somewhat to allay the problems with families. But it’s an amazing sacrifice they give when they stick around.
KAVANAUGH: All right. So now I’d like to open it up for questions, invite participants across sites to ask questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record, so keep that in mind when you’re asking your questions. So we’re starting in D.C. I’ll start here, in the pink jacket. No, no, you in the pink jacket.
Q: Oh, thank you. This is really helpful, and I learned so much from this conversation.
I’m wondering if you could speak to, in terms of the recruitment conversation and the issue of recruiting new people to join the military, our care for veterans. None of you mentioned that, and I was just wondering if you could talk about efforts that we could do to care for veterans’ homelessness, mental, physical disabilities. I just think that that’s one of the main things that my generation hears about, is that we have failed our veterans. And
so anything that you would want to see from Congress, from the Biden administration, or your own peers, that would be really helpful. Thank you.
THOMPSON: So I guess I’ll jump in. So my wife works that the VA, disclosure. She was thirty years in the Navy and emergency medicine, physician assistant, served on shock trauma platoons and whatnot in Iraq. So very, very, very passionate about this. And so, yeah, the—you know, for many of you who may or may not know, so there’s Department of Defense and then there’s the Department of Veterans Affairs. So two separate departments, but clearly a huge overlap in the Venn diagram there.
And, yes, there’s a tremendous amount of issues associated with homelessness and mental health, as you pointed out. Suicide rates among veterans is pretty high. But there is a lot being done. And the PACT Act, if you guys haven’t heard of that, was some pretty landmark legislation that was recently passed that greatly expands the benefits. So things that a lot of folks experience, both in, you know, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and then most recent wars with exposure to toxins from burn pits, Agent Orange. There’s a lot of these types of things that previously were kind of hard and nebulous to pinpoint but now are getting covered under Veterans Affairs.
So there’s a huge effort to try to get word out to veterans that, hey, your benefit—if you were previously denied, please revisit it. Because you may be eligible for benefits. So if any of you have family members or families of families, whatever, please try to get word out. There’s a lot being done on that. So I’ll just pause there.
KAVANAUGH: Over to the other question here? New York, OK, so we’re asking a question in New York. I can’t see that, so hopefully someone will call on somebody. (Laughter.)
BODURTHA: Yes, I think I was designated. Sir, please.
Q: James Brooks, I go to med school—oh, sorry, thank you. All right. So, James Brooks. I go to med school thirty blocks north here at Mount Sinai. And just another plug, I use the GI bill, so I’m not going into too much debt because I served seven years in the Marines.
So this question is sort of—we talked about force design a little bit. And this question is on sort of the questions I got all the time when I was in the Marines of, like, why was doing what I was doing? So, like, whether that was deploying to western Iraq or being in cyber warfare. These don’t sound like missions that the Marine Corps would do in general. But and I sort of believed the Marine propaganda back then that it was, like, we’re doing it because we’re the—you know, we’re the nation’s readiness force, all those things that they say.
But what do you think are the benefits of having sort of these overlapping missions that the Marines have, that they can do the mission that aren’t parts of the mission that Army has? And what do you think the costs are? And do you see us—when I left, it looked like we were switching, where the Marine Corps was going to shift more to the Pacific and get out of sort of the wars in the Middle East. Do you think that’s where we’re going? And do you think that’s a good thing, I guess? Thank you.
THOMPSON: First of all, I’ll try to address because there was a lot there. I could spend a lot of time, and we’ll get to a lot of these other questions as well. But, yes, so yes. There’s an inherent overlap. The thing with the Marine Corps is that we are a kind of self-sufficient package. Like I mentioned before, we get on a Navy ship, go out, crisis erupts somewhere, and the idea being that, you know, we’re kind of the entry force, or first to respond, take care of whatever the situation is, get it at least to take a knee until the bigger sister services come in, right?
Now, both Army and Air Force have quick response forces as well, so depending on the crisis we get in. So you inherently need your own capabilities to sustain you through that period. So some of the things that you mentioned—cyber or—I already forgot some of the other ones. But you need to kind of have that complete
package suite. I think the other thing is that if we have a little expertise, you know, I don’t want to say we’re jacks of all trades and masters of none, but at scale at a strategic level are we going to make an impact, Marine Corps cyber? No. You know, we’ve got other entities.
But we need to be able to plug into that, so that we can provide and then also consume some of the information flow, or be tied in on fires. We often talk about combined arms. You’ll hear that with the Ukraine war, being able to employ weapons and fires from different areas and different services, and coordinate it. And this gets to that JADC2 that Erin eloquently spoke about, being able to do that.
As far as focus on the Pacific at the expense of everything else, certainly a lot of debate about that, whether or not we’re putting too many eggs in that basket. We’re clearly, by design, not putting all of our eggs. We still have our Marine expeditionary units that go out and kind of are that forward presence. We do run into some rubs with shipping availability, like Christa’s spoken to. But we absolutely want to maintain that global response capability, but with an eye towards being able to make a difference and pitch in in that Indo-Pacific. So we try to balance all of that. Does that get at your question?
STAINE-PYNE: Can I add on real quick? Because I think, certainly coming from a service that’s mostly a force support, right? We support other operations. Sometimes we are the operation, but mostly we support other operations. I do think it’s really important, as a Department of Defense, that we actually sit down and talk about the capabilities that each service is going to bring and be responsible for. I mean, certainly budgets are really tight. Even though we have a really large defense budget, you know, within the services budgets are really tight as we try to ensure we can compete and keep up with that peer competitor. And so, yeah, I think it’s really important that we sit down and make sure that each service is spending money on the right thing, and that the services are appropriately apportioned for the role that they’re going to play, especially against that peer competitor.
KAVANAUGH: OK, so we’ll take our next question online.
OPERATOR: Great. Our next virtual question will be from Leah Foodman.
Q: Hello. Can you hear me?
Q: Hi. My name’s Leah Foodman. I’m a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, active duty armor officer.
And my question goes back to the recruiting and retention issue that was previously discussed. So as our military faces these challenges associated with the diminished retention and recruiting, senior leaders have incentivized service and lowered barriers to entry for both current and prosecutive service members. So I’m wondering what impact the policy issue and the associated response have on our image abroad and our pursuit of foreign affairs.
ALMONTE: I can answer that question from the abroad and foreign affairs point of view. And I can tell you, I’ve never had—and that’s all I do, is go abroad—I’ve never had anyone ask or question, including since we started opening to different—to sectors that we wouldn’t have previously. For example, drug use is now legal in many states. So previously when I joined you said, yes, I’ve tried drugs before, that was a hot no, thank you for asking, you can’t come in. To most foreigners that I’ve talked to about that they’ve said, what do you mean, you can’t join your military if you’ve done drugs? It wasn’t an issue to them. It was obviously you should accept people who’ve done this. They now want to serve their country and that shouldn’t be something that cuts them off. So things like that.
We had not lowered our standards for the people that we will allow to join the military. Let me repeat myself. We have not lowered the standard for who can and cannot join any of our military services. They are ready, willing, able, and very enthusiastic, capable young men and women. And they serve honorably. Let me emphasize one other thing, our foreign counterparts have very different criteria for who can and cannot join their military. They have the same kind of tests and such that we do, the same kind of lists and ASVABs that they need to pass. And so they understand each country has different checklists. And they don’t believe that ours are any worse than theirs.
I can tell you, across the board, I have never met a foreign military member or member of a foreign government who has thought the United States military is weak, or incapable of service, or incapable of defending this country. And that was—when I first joined in 1994, March 7th, and now that has not changed. The view of the American military remains constant abroad.
THOMPSON: You know, I’ll just pitch in as well that I think a lot of—a lot of what we can do as a military outside of conflict, and when you start thinking about levers of national power and soft power, is—and this is—we have to prioritize the list—is helping train other nations’ forces. And so we’re very much in demand for expertise. And they want to partner with us, and train with us. And that is a phenomenal way to bridge that gap. Like, I started off with talking about getting perspectives of different culture, different constraints and restraints of an allied partner and building those bridges.
KAVANAUGH: So I know there’s a lot more questions, but we are, unfortunately, out of time. So we will wrap it up, just so you all can have time for your networking reception, which is another hugely important part of this event. But I know that we’ve really—that our military fellows would be happy to talk to you more about these issues. I am volunteering them—(laughter)—but I’m sure they would be happy to talk to you more about these issues, because I can tell from this discussion how much they care about their jobs and reaching out to the next generation. So if, you know, you want to reach out to them, I’m sure they’d be happy to talk more.
So thanks to everyone here, and in New York, as well as online, for participating in tonight’s discussion. And have a great night. (Applause.)