The Secretary of Defense Honorable Mark Esper, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1986, visited USMA to discuss current affairs with Russia, China and U.S.-allied partners, among other things, with the Class of 2021 Cadets at Eisenhower Hall Theatre Oct. 9-10. Establishing a rapport with the cadets, Esper stood before the podium and said, “I have a 44-page speech right here to give you guys.” The Class of 2021 applauded with enthusiasm, ready to be engrossed in Esper’s message.
“You should’ve been booing me when I said that not clapping,” Esper responded as laughter filled the auditorium. “I’m going to set the speech aside.”
The cadets cheered as Esper walked away from the podium toward the edge of the stage to engage them in an impromptu discussion on what’s happening in the Department of Defense.
“Let’s make it a conversation if you will, more than me speaking to you,” Esper said. “I do too much (of delivering speeches) too often, and it’s good to come and talk to you all because you are the future of the United States Army. I know you heard that many times. However, I want to impress upon you how important this moment in time is and how critical it is to the future of the United States Army and, of course, the United States Military.”
Esper began by explaining two of the three distinct lines of effort of the National Defense Strategy on the new era of “great power competition” among the U.S., China and Russia. Within the last few years, the Chinese Communist Party and Russia (to a lesser extent) have been strategically competing against the United States of America. The second-tier competitors consisted of adversaries from North Korea and Iran, with Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) acting as the third tier.
“It will be a generational fight,” Esper added as he explained how the U.S. Army is moving away from low-intensity conflict counterinsurgency and into the era of high-intensity conflict. According to the National Defense Strategy, to build a more lethal Joint Force, the military needs to rebuild military readiness.
“We have a lot of work to do—you have a lot of work to do. The United States Army, the United States Navy, the United States Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Space Force—we all have work to do,” Esper said. “I’m excited for you because it’s a great time. A great air of opportunity for you as first classmen heading into graduation next year and then swearing that oath to the constitution and going to be the best and brightest our country has to offer.”
Paraphrasing the second line, Esper explained the importance of strengthening alliances with international partners. He spent time traveling to the Indo Pacific regions over the past 16 months meeting many countries like South Korea, Japan down to New Zealand and Australia, and as far west as Thailand and India. Everywhere he went, those countries shared the same political values as the U.S.
Esper added the allied countries in the Indo Pacific regions agree the Chinese Communist Party is threatening the international order through their aggressive behavior with predatory economics, debt diplomacy and other transgressions.
“Any country that represses its people, restricts freedom of religion and freedom of the press is not the type of system we (as Americans) want to live in or near,” Esper said. “That is the (Chinese Communist Party’s) ambition — to impose an authoritarian system on the world, and if they can’t impose it, they want to reshape it.”
Esper added the crucial advantage the U.S. has over Russia and China is the variety of partners who support U.S. viewpoints. Moreover, many cadets have roots tied to other countries, which will provide the U.S. with cultural awareness and a greater understanding of international affairs.
Subsequently, the Q&A portion began with cadets asking a series of questions that highlighted today’s political climate in relation to important issues in America and current international affairs. Class of 2021 Cadet Max Weisman approached the microphone and prefaced his question by stating how Esper has been a big advocate for defense innovation.
“I was wondering how you can create a more innovative culture within an environment that is not always favorable toward creativity,” Weisman asked.
Esper answered by explaining a man or woman with influence would need to find the right people and fit them in a position within an organization and empower them to make the necessary decisions that demand change. However, the challenge lies in the bureaucracy and policies that can sometimes get in the way of innovation due to bureaucrats being averse to taking an unnecessary risk.
“We don’t want people to waste a single dollar, and I am a big proponent in not wasting money, but the fact is, when it comes to innovation, there will be a measure of failure and as I like to say to my kids, ‘if you are not failing you are not trying,’” Esper said. “You got to get the right people who can think outside the box and challenge the status quo. We need to give them the authority and resources to get it done and take the necessary risk.”
Class of 2021 Cadet Jordan Burtt took the microphone and briefly spoke on the U.S. military’s transition period in between low- and high-intensity combat.
“What are the most important lessons that we’ve learned in this period of low-intensity conflict, both as a nation and as a military?” Burtt asked.
Esper said that when it comes to long-term counterinsurgency, the U.S. Military has learned a lot in improving doctrines and tactics. In the past, training events mainly focused on counterinsurgency. Today, most of the training will focus on high-intensity combat scenarios.
“You know, counterinsurgency is very hard, but we’ve come a long way and paid for that knowledge through blood and treasure and everything else, and so we cannot afford to lose those lessons,” Esper said.
After the Q&A, the Class of 2021 was called to attention and applauded Esper for the knowledge he imparted.
“We know that it is about those three magic words, ‘Duty, Honor and Country’ and you got to think about that all the time. When you get out there in the real Army, you’ll be challenged and, at all times, keep those three words in mind, in your heart, keep them close because they will guide you.” Esper said. “As MacArthur once told us, ‘through those tough times character is the key in all of this.’ You got to make sure that you're doing the right thing for the right reasons, and that means owning up to taking responsibility. That means standing up and having not just physical courage, but moral courage to do the right thing.”