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2018 WEPTAC Conference Keynote Speaker: General Mike Holmes

  • Published
  • Commander of Air Combat Command

GENERAL HOLMES: Good morning everyone. I want to start by acknowledging the schedule we’ve asked you to work. We brought you in after the holiday break. You probably traveled over New Year's Day, you come here and work through a weekend, take a family day and work on it, and then get in here, early in the morning then get out of here. Thanks for doing that. I'll take the blame, for putting us in the position to do that. It's a challenge. We're here early. There's a lot of work you've already done, and one of the things to talk about, it's now late in the week. We're going to talk about some things, about the world and how it's changing and how we fit into it.

So do your best to stay with me. If you don't, if you go to your happy place, that's okay.

So I can't help but be reminded, and this is the usual start off to talks on this stage, right? But the first time I stood up here, I was First Lieutenant Holmes. It was either late 1984 or early 1985. I was the Red Air Commander, TDY here from the Ironmen back in that day.


My squadron commander was Ron Keys -- about eight years past the “Dear Boss” letter. We employed six two-ships of Eagles across the range in Red Air. The strike packages were F-4s and F-111s. And it was a different era, and I was pretty much up here because I kept insisting that, you know, it's my turn to do it. Why can't I do it? Let me do it. Why can't I do it? I want to be the red-air commander.

I was about 25 pounds heavier. I had a really cool mustache. I had a chip on my shoulder. And there I was. And I’ve been up here multiple times up since then. This time I'm back here with you as your Air Combat Command Commander.

People say, so what's that like?


Well, what do you think? And my answer is, everything that comes across my desk is fascinating, and it really is. The problems that we're trying to solve, the issues that are out there, all of them - you guys understand them better than anybody else. They're all really fascinating, and then: everything that I ever complained about my whole life is now my fault.


So think about that a little bit, and we'll go ahead and kind of get started talking about a few things. The world we're living in is changing really fast. And it's changing faster than we've been able to keep up with so far as a giant bureaucracy -- part of a giant OSD bureaucracy. We're coming to the end of a period of 30 years of dominance where, as the U.S. military, we could pretty much go anywhere and attempt to do anything. We could have a debate about the lasting power of military force, and we'll talk about that a little bit and whether we can really impose our will on the world. 


But for those 30 years, we could go anywhere. We could stay there. We could attempt any operation that we wanted to, and nobody really could stop us. And we're coming to the end, I think, of that period. We'll talk about that.

There are rising threats. Behind those rising threats are smart, tough, motivated people like you that are fighting and scratching every day like you are to try to find an advantage, and to try to find a way to win over us. And we're a little bit behind in reacting to that, and we're going to have to catch up on it.

We've got aging hardware. We've got 20th century acquisition processes, and replacing our aging hardware may take too long and deliver things too late, and we're stuck in kind of the mindsets we were raised in on how we're going to fight. There are challenges everywhere. You guys are going to help us work through them.

Can I get the slide, please? So, I'm not a TED Talk guy, but I've seen some. And this guy Simon Sinek, who you may know from TED talks brought these next ideas up. He came and talked to us at Corona a little bit back. And the talk he gave us was talking about the difference between finite war and infinite war, and he used game theory, finite games and infinite games.

So in a finite game, you know who the players are. You know what the rules are, and you know what it takes to win or lose. Those are the games that we grew up playing as kids, and that's kind of how we thought of war in the United States. It's us against them. There's a set of rules that bound what we can do, and we win when Saddam Hussein's out of Kuwait, or we win when we've achieved some conditions.

In an infinite war, you're not completely sure who the players are and they change over time. The rules change, and the players can change the rules at any time on how they're going to play, and the goal of the game instead of winning and achieving some condition is staying in the game. It's not losing. It's staying in the game and getting a new plan and keeping pursuing your objectives.

So in that known game you know what winning and losing are, right? And you can say you won, we lost. In the infinite game, you know whether you're ahead or behind. And you know how you're doing on closing that gap.

So in the Cold War with our Russian experience, Mr. Sinek would say that that was an infinite game, an example of it, and that what we fight for as part of this Western coalition, democracies that we've been fighting with together, he simplifies it down to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, right out of our founding documents. That's what we care about.

And he would say that those came together in that Russian threat. So the threat to our lives was the nuclear capability that Russia posed. The threat to our liberty was an ideology, a counter ideology of communism to impose your will over the people and the country. And then they had an economic alternative that was in competition with us. So all of those came together, we were able to muster our whole country and our resources together to fight that infinite game with them. And when it was over, nobody really won or lost. They just quit. The Soviet Union quit and fell apart. They ran out of the energy and will required to play that infinite game.

If you look at where we are now, he says that those things aren't tied together anymore. That the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are kind of spread. So Russia still probably poses that number one existential threat to the United States with the nuclear power that they bring. They still have thousands of nuclear weapons, and they're still an existential threat, but the ideology maybe is centralized in the violent extremist threat that we talk about having a different ideology from us. And then the economic threat, primarily, is driven by China.

And so if those things don't come together, we've had a hard time focusing as a country and trying to figure out a strategy for this new round of the infinite game that we're playing in. So you know, that's not enough to make a lot of money off a TED Talk so you’ve got to add something extra to it.

And kind of what he added to it is: so what does it take to fight and win one of those infinite games? He says you need a just cause. You need courageous leaders. You need a vulnerable team. You need a worthy adversary, and you need an open playbook. So your just cause, is it interest or is it objectives, or is it values? And he would say if you're going to muster the whole country together, and the whole resources of the West, it's got to be about more than interests. It's got to be about your values and having something to really fight for.

He'd say that what he means by courageous leaders is at the national level, at the highest level, being able to put values over those objectives, to be able to do the right thing instead of the expedient thing, and to make hard choices. That a vulnerable team is a team that's willing to admit its mistakes, to debrief for each other, and to ask for help, to be yourself, and to solve problems with consistency, going at it every day, staying at it, working through solutions with consistency instead of intensity. And in his TED Talks the story he gives as an example is, how do you get in shape?

I don't know about you, but I've been in squadrons where we had a five-day get-ready-to-go-to-Nellis fitness plan. We're going to get in shape in five days, you shaped up before you went. His take on it is he's not sure what it takes to get in shape, but he knows if you do something every day you'll eventually get there. And so it's about doing something every day along the way is what matters.

And then a worthy adversary: General Gersten talked to us at our opening the other day about, respecting our adversary, and that hubris kills, and it does. Right now in a lot of ways we ought to be thinking as the underdog, I think. We're not that dominant superpower that could go wherever we want anymore. We're going to be dependent on you and the work that you do in places like this to help us think about how we're going to stay in the game, how we're going to not lose, and how we're going to keep playing.

And then we've got to have an open playbook, and that's what, when we're talking about multi-domain ops or we're talking about multi-domain battle with our brothers in the Army, General Lundy's here to help us think about that. Having an open playbook means that we've got to find new ways to go after it. We're going to find new ways to approach our problems.

So two or three years ago at AU a group called Blue Horizons, where if you go there you either to War College to ACSC, you can be a part of this group and you spend your year working to fix big problems. They usually pick one big problem, and then they let everybody go work what they want to underneath it. Two or three years ago they talked about the threats that we faced and they said that the adversaries that we face in this infinite game are going to employ conventional means, which is kind of what you and I have done and who we have fought. They're going to employ unconventional means to try to counter us and what we know how to do, take advantage of our weaknesses, try to counter our strengths… and they're going to employ irregular tactics as well. Things that are different from using a military force to do it.

And I also think there's an ideological component involved in what they're doing. So slide, please? You know, factor that in, the 4+1 up here and the threats that we face. You guys have heard us talk about the 4+1. Slide, please? Let's go ahead and work through those a little bit.

I've got experts here in front of me. I've got the CFACCs that actually square off against these problems. So they'll correct me, if I get these things wrong. But when I think about China, I'll start with their goal. I think China's goal is to dominate the region where they are, militarily and economically, and then to spread across the world and be the dominant power in the world.

I think they think that is their right. That is the place they should take in the world, and they're patiently working to go do it. On a conventional side, they're trying to remake their military into a professional force kind of on your model. So they've got land power. They're turning into a maritime and an air power to go along with that. And they're working to have a conventional force that can stand toe-to-toe with you. But they're also pursuing unconventional means. So they're using ISR in all domains to know where we are all the time. They've invested in relatively inexpensive precision long-range fires that they can use to keep us at arm's length and keep us from being close enough to fight against them…kind of an unconventional use of it. And they're working harder, faster than we are, at bringing space and cyber and other capabilities to where it's part of that battle.

And then they pursue an irregular tactic using their fishing fleet, using militias, using islands to redefine the space, and basically fighting a Lawfare battle to redefine international law and redefine the world on their terms. So that's what we're squared off against there. And then they're using that giant economic engine which we talked about a little bit again. Slide, please?

So in Russia, I would tell you I think Russia's goal is to be a respected power in the world again. They gave up once as the Soviet Union. Then they un-gave up. It's an infinite game. They’ve got a lot of oil and gas in the ground. They've got resources that they can spend, and they're back in the game. They feel slighted. They feel rejected by the world. They want to be respected as a world power. They have reduced the size of their military to make it professional, and they worked across the lines in their military to, again, to be like you, and be able to counter you. And they focused on electronic warfare, on SIGINT, on the things they've traditionally been really good at. They've also invested in long-range fires both at the operational and at the tactical level. Trying to build an ISR strike complex, and you saw some of the signs of that in the Ukraine and what it can do.

Where an RPA flies over your head in a Ukrainian ground unit and ten minutes later you get hit with the full might of their long-range artillery. And if you're not careful, you don't exist anymore.

They're buying weapons. They're trying to get better. You see them deploy the same threats out there, but they don't have the economy that China does to go toe-to-toe and to overwhelm us in the system. So unconventionally they're playing their geography. They know that they're closer to the things they care about than we are. They put General Wolters and his team in a battle for that every day.

General Wolters was one of the first people I've heard talk that really understood this infinite game. And last year he told me that their goal is that every day we're not fighting with Putin is a day that we're winning. And that's kind of the definition I think of an infinite game. They're after cyber. They're after space. They're particularly good at information warfare and bringing all the tools of EW and cyber together to change people's minds. And we see them doing that in our country.

And then irregularly, they have the nondescript little green men that come across the border. Are they a local militia? Are they Russians? There's some doubt about it and you make NATO doubt that all the way through. Are they going to declare their article V and go reinforce a partner or is it too late to do it by the time that it's over?

Slide, please. Iran wants to be a dominant regional power, and they want their culture to be the dominant culture in the region. The Persian culture and the Arab culture, the Shia and Sunni split, the battle over who will control the Middle East, is being played out in front of us. Their conventional force is much smaller, so they've invested in the things they think would hold us at bay. So modern IADs, trying to build their own weapons to fight through the barricades and the embargoes that people have put on them.

They went after a nuclear weapon to try to keep us at bay and then ultimately, they decided they needed the economic benefit of lifting sanctions more than they needed that nuclear weapon. And so they put that aside and if you watch what's happening in Iran today, they've been unable to fulfill the promise to their people of delivering the economic benefits they promised them they would get when sanctions were lifted because they stole the money and kept it at the top. And so their people are in the streets.

What's going to happen with Iran? I don't know. Time is not on their side, I don't think. But they pose a significant threat to us in the region because what they use primarily are their unconventional forces. The Quds Force which is an expeditionary legion that can travel around the world and work through proxies, they're a regular means of working through proxies around the region to try to get results.

And then that brings us to North Korea, slide, which has been the focus of our efforts, and the things that we've been asking you to do to get ready. I would say they're focused on a secure regime. They'd like to unify the peninsula on their terms. They have a giant regional land force, but they're working to try to modernize that.

They've invested in fires to try to hold Seoul hostage, and then they are pursuing as far as they can go with a nuclear weapon. The challenge we've asked you guys to focus on in the short term is: the leader of North Korea seems intent on acquiring a nuclear weapon, and seems to be willing to go to war to do that. Our president seems intent that they will not do that and appears to be willing to go to war to keep them from doing it. So we're on a path that if somebody doesn't blink, we might be back in conflict on the Korean Peninsula. And so the Chief has asked us to do all that we can do to work with you to eliminate our regrets…To do everything we can in the time that we have, and you've heard him say, “I don't know when the next war is, but I know we've got between now and then to get ready for it.” And so that's why we've been waiting in a three point stance to try to be ready.

Look, we know we can't hold that 3-pount stance forever, and we've talked about the other challenges that we have to meet. But between now and then, there’s “get ready in March” and “Red Flag 18-2.” That should be the focus of your efforts, doing everything you can in your unit, wherever that is, to try to make sure that you're ready to go. If we have to go do this, to end it as fast as we can--because every day that it takes is going to be another 10 or 100,000 people that are victimized in that Seoul area.

We've got to get after it. We've got to go fast if we're going to do it, because the carnage is going to be something that we haven't seen since World War II. Slide, please.

And we still have these guys. So I would say their strategy is to get the West out of their region by fighting us there and fighting us here, and trying to discourage us from being there, to pull down what they would call their corrupt leaders in the region, and to establish a caliphate and return the world back to way it was governed at the time of the prophet. And that's a fairly infinite goal that they're going after.

And they're resilient and they've been patient. Their conventional capability is pretty limited, but you see them trying to get training in small unit tactics, trying to improve their weapons and their skills at the small unit level. They'll capture things that we leave for them. They're focused on nonconventional use, IEDs. We see them going to RPAs, very good at using cyber tools, and then they pursue terror as an irregular means, and lone-wolf attacks are the method they turn to in the West.

So we face all those threats in an infinite game, and then if you're going to play an infinite game, slide, please, you have to think about how long can you play it, right? And so when this guy (Paul Kennedy) went and looked at the world from the dates you see up there, 1500 to 2000, and the great powers and the position that we're in now, he looked at how do you stay in that game forever? You can read this (Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1500-2000), but if you don't want to bother with it, it basically says it's not just your war-fighting skills. It's whether you can economically provide that war-fighting capability, and can you maintain your long-term economic prospects, because if you can't, you'll have to give up on that infinite game or make some compromises.

So again, in the 30 years of dominance, how we will manage our costs over time? And that means that as we try to counter these threats, no matter what we budget level we talk about, we're not going to have an infinite budget to play this infinite game. I think we'll get some more money this year, and we'll get some more money next year.

I still think it's about 50/50 on whether we'll end up at a Continuing Resolution and go back to last year's budget, or whether we'll get more money this year. But that debate is going to play out. I think we'll get some more money, but it's not going to be enough to buy our way out of this problem. We're going to have to continue to pursue, as a nation, solutions that we can afford over time to do it.

And that means we're going to have to think. We're going to have to work closely with our joint partners to be able to prevail, and we're going to continue to have to hold ourselves together with our Western allies and with our traditional partners--that we invite here and then make them leave the room while we pretend they don't know what we're talking about in here. So my apologies, we'll work to do better at that. We'll try to do better next year.

So if you think about all those threats, we're focused on Korea and a three-point stance and we should be. We're focused on all of those 4+1 threats, but if you think about this, what's the real long-term threat? Russia's economy? Again, they're led by kleptocracy. They steal the money that comes out of it. They're going to run out of oil someday, and they've got a demographic time bomb going.

They're not reproducing fast enough to hold onto their population. They're in trouble. They're surrounded by people that don't like them. We're going to manage that over time and General Wolters is showing us how to do that.

Iran, you see the troubles they face in balancing the expectations of their population with their goals. North Korea is trying to allow some openness into their economy, but the way they're governed, they're never going to be good at it. They're going to continue to struggle to feed their people. They're not a long-term threat, but they're a threat we have to deal with.

Violent extremists will fight forever, and it's really a civil war among the Sunni and the Shia and a battle between the Persians and the Turks and Arabs for who's going to control the Middle East. We'll play in that, but I don't think they're an existential threat to us, and that leaves us with China.

China has the economic power. China has the patience. China was built to play in an infinite game, and my goal is to try to make sure that my grandchildren and your grandchildren have options other than giving massages to Chinese tourists when they grow up. And to do that, we're going to depend on you guys. Slide, please.

So we're in that process we go through with the new administration. We have a new National Security Strategy. These things serve a lot of purposes, and some small portion of that is how we might think about how we’ll provide for our nation – and then there are a lot of other purposes that go with it.

The highlights of this one, I'll save you the 50 pages, are protect the homeland, promote American prosperity the economic component, preserve peace through strength, which is trying to avoid fighting long, prolonged conflict and costs that drives, and to advance American influence. So it fits in with what we talked about in an infinite game.

Chairman Dunford worked a couple of years ago to write a military strategy in advance to go under it. He classified it because he wanted to talk about what he plans to do and not let everybody know about it. And then our Secretary of Defense is completing a national defense strategy. So you have your national security strategy that should tie all the elements of national power together in some way, your national defense strategy that brings how the Department of Defense will work together, and then a military strategy on how we'll fight.

All those things are coming together. I encourage you do take the time to read that national defense strategy when it comes out. A lot of work was put into it. It's pretty good. It's one of the better documents that we've had. And their take on the infinite game is that there are revisionist powers, China and Russia that are using technology, propaganda, and coercion to shape a world in their interest. Maybe I could have just said that.

There are regional dictators that are spreading terror, threatening their neighbors, and pursue WMD--Iran, and North Korea--and then violent extremists that use hatred to incite violence against the innocent to achieve their goals. So the world's changing. It's changing faster than we've adapted to. The guys at the top are spinning to try to figure it out, and meanwhile we're relying on you to help us get from here to there. Slide, please.

So we have some guys in history…and this applies to a book right now…Everybody know this book? "This Kind of War," by T.R. Fehrenbach. When General Bergeson and I were sitting alert in Osan in the late eighties to protect peacetime air reconnaissance assets, I read this book, and then we'd go to fly over some of the places. And there's a famous quote that comes out of it. You've probably seen this one.

“The man who will go where his colors go, without asking, who will fight a phantom foe in jungle and mountain range, without counting, and who will suffer and die in the midst of incredible hardship, without complaint, is still what he has always been, from Imperial Rome to sceptered Britain to democratic America. He is the stuff of which legions are made.

His pride is in his colors and his regiment, his training hard and thorough and coldly realistic, to fit him for what he must face, and his obedience is to his orders.”

And this is a quote that people like to pull from the book, and the reason they do is that there's a lot of truth here.

So in that Korean Conflict, you got pushed down to Pusan, and then broke out using an amphibious operation and air and land power together, and then we ran all the way up to the Yalu, and then a couple million Chinese guys came down in the mud and fought their way back down to that line that we're on. And our guys in the mud, along with all the tools that we bring, restored an armistice on the parallel, and the conflict, it still continues. So an infinite game that's not over, right? We fought it to a draw and then we stayed there.

If you look at World War I, World War II, we fought and won battles. We entered late as the United States. We tipped the balance. We brought the peace to end all peace to the war to end all wars, and 20 years later, we started that war right back up again. And you could argue that 70 years after that, the effects of that are starting to wear off. Europe's not sure exactly where they're going to go as they go forward. Japan is rearming themselves and changing their constitution. I'm trying to get to the idea that our war is never over, right?

In our generation we fought three against Iraq. And the odds are there's another one ten years from now, to go back into the Sunni areas up north up. We've been fighting for almost 20 years in Afghanistan. These are infinite wars.

So this one's important and true, the slide. Let’s go back and look at the last time we learned how to fight together against a peer adversary. So in 1942 we deployed an expeditionary force into North Africa. The Navy delivered it. It was primarily U.S. Army. It was a U.S. Army land component and a U.S. Army air component and we had to learn how to fight a peer adversary on that battlefield.

Now we codified some things when we came out of that battle. The Army Field Manual 100-20, written in 1943, codified the lessons learned, and kind of provided the basis of how we fought together as a combined arms team on the European continent. Slide, please.

I'm just going to pull out a couple of things from the beginning and talk about it. Okay, that first one; “land power and air power are coequal and interdependent forces. Neither is the auxiliary for the other.” There's a couple of powerful words there. We've gotten this wrong a lot since then. So airmen have argued about the interdependent part. We've argued that we can do things by ourselves. We can achieve effects that last without having somebody come in and make them permanent and we can do things for ourselves. And we've been wrong, but we've done that.

Sometimes our land combat brothers have argued about the coequal part. And in the place which we've been fighting for 30 years of freedom to do whatever we wanted, that's been okay, and we've been able to make it work. I'll tell you, I think when we square off again against peer adversaries, we're going to have to go look at that balance. And I don't want you to be writing the equivalent of this ten years from now that says land power, and air power, information power, and cyber power, and space power are coequal and interdependent, neither is an auxiliary to the other--because you learned hard lessons in combat.

I'd like us to be able to think through these issues before we go and figure out how we're going to win together and pull those different areas together. The next one says that when you're fighting a pure adversary, the biggest problem that the land force faces is the unobstructed attack from that enemy air power, whether that's ballistic missiles delivered through the upper atmosphere, or whether it's delivered through gravity weapons dropped from air power.

We have to be able to give land forces the freedom of action and maneuver to be able to take on their responsibilities and do their job. And we're going to have to figure out how we're going do that together with them in this environment to make sure that they're not stuck spending all their time and security efforts against that air threat. Slide, please.

And then finally--this is a lot of words to say--We believe the best way to do that is to exercise the command of air forces and support the joint force commander is through an air force commander, and ground forces through a ground forces commander, and we believe that brings benefit. That's a lesson that we need to remember.

And how will we show what we can do? I've been in a lot of joint battles down range over who's going to do what. The only way I ever saw them settled, really, was who could do them better. And our job is to provide the expertise through our air component commanders to be able to solve the problems of the joint force commander and prove to him we can do it better.

Right now I would say that all three of these things are being relooked at, and that it's a good time to go look at them. I talked about the things we did wrong on coequal and interdependent. I think we've got to remind ourselves that our job is to control and exploit the air and space so that the joint force can be effective. And remind the joint force of that… and we're going to have to take a look at our command structures. Slide, please.

So going back to Fehrenbach, there's another quote in there and this is the one that sticks out to me. In an infinite war, what kind of military does it take to be ready for anything? Fehrenbach says, “the man who will go where his colors go without asking, who will fight a phantom foe in the jungle and mountains without counting, will suffer and die in the midst hardship without complaint, is still what he has always been, from Imperial Rome to sceptered Britain to democratic America. He's the stuff of which legends are made.”

That's what our country is kind of asking us to do in this infinite war, and that is exactly what we've asked you to do over this last time of conflict. So Fehrenbach said to prevail in the kind of war that we fought in Korea it takes a legion of people who won't quit. That means we have to have what it takes to not quit, and it means as an Air Force we have to support you and your families so that you can stay engaged in this infinite war.

So where does that leave us? If bad people want to do us harm, if, at the very least, they want to take the food out of the mouths of your grandchildren, and maybe beyond that, they want to do more harm to them than that?

We have the skills that we need, and the experience we need to prevail in that infinite conflict. We have the people that have gained that experience over 20 years of war to be able to do that. And we're part of a profession of arms, and if you'll bear with me, I'm going to give you the same talk I gave every new pilot training candidate, when I was a pilot training operations group commander.

In a profession, you have both a set of skills that you're supposed to master, and a code of ethics. That's kind of the definition of a profession. And in the profession of arms, you guys know what your skillset is. We have air warriors, space warriors, cyber warriors. We have logisticians. We've got our ground brothers here. We have coalition partners here. We have skills and we're expected to master them.

And our code of ethics, if you want to start simple, you could just use the Air Force core values, right, because we all know it and we all understand. So what I told my pilot training candidates was it starts with excellence. You're entering a world where I will not allow you to accept from yourself anything except your best, and you shouldn't allow anybody else that you're with to give you anything less than that.

We owe that to each other. We committed to do that. We've committed to do that with each other. The integrity side, then, to me, comes down to trust.

You need to trust the guys sitting here in the front of the room that if we ask you to go do something, we thought through the consequences and we think it's worth the sacrifice we're asking you and your family to make. Or as we send you to combat, that we think risking your life is worth doing that.

These guys down here in front, so that's really the crux of where we are, right, when we decide how we're going to keep fighting this infinite war, and whether we're going to stay. My take on it is that folks that you see seated out here in front of you are people that you can trust. And I tell you, I'll tell you that because they're people I trust. They're people I've grown up with.

They're people that I have literally trusted my wife and my family to, take care of them as we've grown up together over time. I believe you can trust them. I believe they're working every day to try to get you the tools that you need to take care of your family.

The Chief will be here with us tomorrow. He's not here today because he's riding on an airplane down here with the Vice President along with the Secretary of the Air Force, because they're trying to work to make sure that you get the resources that you need to do the things that we're asking you to do. And they'll be with us -- he will be with us here tomorrow.

I'll tell you that we damn sure trust you, the people down here in the front. You've proven yourselves. You don't have to, but you've proven yourselves. And there's nothing you can do to lose that trust by trying something that didn't work, or by making an honest mistake. In our squadron commanders’ course at Air Combat Command we tell our new squad commanders, the only way to lose that trust is to mistreat your subordinates, to misuse your resources, or to violate these core values.

We talked about an open playbook earlier. Counting on your experience, we need you to try new things. We need you to take chances. We need you to accept risk. We need to push authority down to you and let you make decisions and we're working to do that.

And then finally, there's service, right? So my grandfather got drafted when he was 35 years old in 1943 in the last draft as they went to the oldest guys to go to World War II, and he left, two kids at home with his wife. And when I talked to him about what he did, he didn't say, I went across Europe with Patton, which he did. He didn't talk about being in the Army. He said, I was in the service.

And that's how our grandparents talked about it, and that's what we do. And that's where the service part comes in. The camaraderie, the community that we share is built on that shared service. That's the tie that holds us together, and that's what will hold us together in the future.

So you know, we signed up for it, and you have fulfilled it magnificently. There's no Air Force in the history of the world that's fought this infinite game as long and as hard as you have. There's no Air Force, there's no military that's been in continuous combat for as long as you have, and we've done it on your backs, and we've done it because of what you've been able to bring, and because of the commitment that you've made to do it.

It's because of you and people like you. And we recognize outstanding performers. We have awards every year. One of the big ones we talk about in this place is the Risner Award, and we recognize the top graduate of the weapons school every year. Behind every one of those, there're ten more people that were nominated. Behind every one of those nominees there’re ten more people that could have.

We are blessed with a magnificent force. I'm going to give you just a couple of examples about some of them. Slide, please.

This one most of you know. Captain at the time, Stephanie Boyer, last year in a MAWG made all the jaws drop down here on the front row with a blinding stroke of the obvious that reminded us we had no way to really define the threats that we face so that we could go break them down, think about how we would approach it. Her team that she led gave us a new CAF standard for a threat matrix and quantified it. We've gone on to use that to talk about what we're ready for and how we'll get readier to identify our gaps, and to use it in our budget wars. It had an immediate and a lasting effect.

I asked my CAG to go through the last ten years, of Risner candidates and pick out a few and that's what I'm going to do. That's one of them. Slide, please.

In 2015 Captain Thomas Nichols was a space weapons officer, still is. He led an EW cell in the 609 AOC that kind of codified and put together the things that he talked about as a NKE DO. And in the EW cell he brought together non-kinetic effects. One of the things he did was bring those together in a way that made possible the rescue of 73 Kurdish hostages up on the northern border of Iraq. And he was able to fight through the clearance problems to integrate our allies into that process so that we could use the tools that they bring, the authorities they have, to fight together to do that.  

Slide, please. In 2012, Captain Troy Combs of the 13th Bomb Squadron, a weapons officer in the 13th Bomb Squadron, was the first guy to sit down and work TTPs between the B-2 and the F-22. We're still fighting through the clearance issues to be able to do that the way we would like to do, but Troy pioneered that and led the first exercise in PACAF to try to bring them together and make them work together.

One more. In 2007 Trip Raymond was a brand new weapons officer in the 22nd Fighter Squadron. He came back from weapons school. They loaded a new MMC update onto their airplanes, and two months later they went to combat. He led the first sortie in the new MMC upgrade after teaching the squadron how to do it, and he took three new guys out on their first combat missions and worked them through it. And while he was deployed, he spent the extra time with the special operations forces that they were partnered with to write TTPs and bring those standards aboard.

Slide, please. So there are many more and I'm sitting in a room with a bunch of them, right? We could filter through this list and I could make a talk like that about almost everybody here or in the outstations. You're smart. You're tough. You're capable. You're exceptionally well-educated and trained and prepared.

The Air Force that I grew up, in going back to standard here in 1984, is not the same Air Force you grew up in, and I don't want to overgeneralize the differences and where we were, but I'm going to talk about it a little bit. The irritants that we faced, we had ours. We complained about them, but they're not the same as yours, and I don't want to pretend like I understand it to the degree that you do.

But we'll work on it, and the people down here in front of you are going to keep working, and we're not going to let go of it until we can work through them and get them where you want.

Kind of the last thing I want to work through with you is that I know you have choices to make. You're capable people. You have great experience. There are people that want you in the world, and you have choices to make. And I know you do.

What I want to tell you is that I believe there's a good life to be had here where you are. This camaraderie and community we get from shared service is something that I want you to remember when you're making decisions. We're going to offer you challenges here that you may not face anywhere else.

We're going to offer you leadership opportunities that I can tell you aren't available anywhere else you're going to go. I want you to stay. If I haven't told you that, I'm telling you, I want you to stay, and your country needs you to stay. And if the challenges that we laid out are real, and I believe they are, and we need you to counter them, which I believe we do, it took 6 years, 8 years, 10 years, 25 years to make you, and it'll take us that much time to make somebody to take your place. So we need you and no one else can do it.

You have choices because of who you are and I want you to know, again, I'm speaking for myself, and I think the guys down here in front would echo it. We respect those choices that you have to make. You've answered the call, 1 out of 120 Americans have served in this infinite war, in this time that we've been fighting, and if you decide you're at the point where you and your family need to move on to something else, we're going to give you a hug, and we're going to help you with your resume and your references. And we're going to wish you the best as you go out there, and count on you to help us advocate for resources and do what we need to do in the future.

If you decide to leave, I encourage you to affiliate into the Guard or Reserve. I still need you there. They still need you there. And I want you to get a retirement. And I want you to do that. Okay.

So you've got your decisions to make. Everybody has their own. I'll walk you through a little bit of mine. So I was standing here in 1984. In 1989 was when my pilot training commitment ran out. I was finishing up a tour. It was three years as a squadron weapons officer on Okinawa. I was getting emails every day from my buddies that said, hey, there's a 737 just delivered here with your name on the side of it. Come on over. The water's pretty good.

And I was kind of struggling with that with some of my friends. I was sitting at another squadron's bar talking to another squadron's squadron commander and saying, you know, what am I missing here? Why am I stupid? Everybody else is leaving. Why aren't I? And he kind of looked at me and he said, well, you know, other than that the fact that this is the only thing that you want to do and the only thing you're really good at? I think you should stay.

So the last thing I want to tell you is when you're going to weigh what you've got… and if there's no way I can get around the fact that in the era I was living in, if you left the Air Force it took five years before your pay caught up as airline pilot. Now for you guys, two years after you leave, if you do, you'll make more than I do, and that's the reality.

So I can't compete with that. You need to consider that.

But I also want you to consider what I call some of the things that you might miss as you walk through it. And for me, I was thinking through this a little bit last night, and bear with me here. But if I decided to get out in 1989, I would have missed carrying my babies on a backpack through white sands watching the sun go down on that next tour in Holloman and that experience of growing up there with them.

I would have missed the friends I made since then that are friends for the ages. They're sitting here with me both up front and spread around this room back there, the people that I've worked with.

I would have missed, believe it or not, two glorious years at Maxwell. Learning to think and to write and to try to communicate. I would have missed three years in Germany with my young family, learning how to operate in a joint world, but more than that, driving around visiting -- making it to the amusement parks and the time that I spent there.

I would have missed being part of a squadron that figured out how to work together to win the Hughes Trophy and produce five general officers so far, with one more still to go.

I would have missed walking across the street to a squadron that learned how to fly 14/12s so we could get our training done by working with maintenance, and learned how to fly 100 sorties a day for three days in a row, and bump our chest about that.

I would have missed the year living in a $20,000 house on a million dollar lot in Newport, Rhode Island and watching the sun go down out over the bay, and sail, and spend the time that I spent there.

I would have missed learning the ways of the sausage grinder that is UPT as a group commander, and more than that, the 300 students a year that went through there, and seeing them everywhere I go in the Air Force, and coming up and talking to them and visiting with them.

I would have missed being here on patch night when COMACC told me I was going to be a wing commander three times because he was having a shot with every division and he forgot he had already told me the other two times.

I would have missed the chance to be a wing commander again in an organization that the squadron commanders that I worked with and for, have grown up, six of them, to be general officers in the Air Force, that's how good they were.

I would have missed four-and-a-half seasons in Afghanistan as a wing commander watching the snow melt on the Hindu Kush, watching it fall again, being a part of the organization that brought everything the Air Force brings to bear and gave me a chance to use everything the Air Force has taught me for that timeframe.

And I would have missed standing in the cold in the middle of the night watching a whole base, watching 20,000 people come out of their rooms and pay their respects to the fallen hero who was being put an on our C-17 and taken home.

And I would have missed flying a combat sortie on my 52nd birthday and the 83 combat sorties in the Strike Eagle that I flew there.

I would have missed the opportunity to work for Robin Rand as his vice commander at air education and training command, and all of the things that go with that if you've had a chance to work for General Rand.

And finally, they’d have been fine either way we did, but I would have missed having two confident, capable kids who grew up moving all around the world that are unfazed by any situation that they walk into. And my 28-year-old daughter has a brand new physics PhD and is building detectors in the ISR division in the Los Alamos Lab and is on her way to try to go to space. And a 26 year old who found his own way into the Guard as a Guard baby and started the B course in Tucson this week and everything that goes with watching them grow up in this world that we live in.

So ultimately, I want to go back to this: the group in front here trusts you completely to do the things that we ask you to do. And we're here this week, and we're going to once again be amazed by all that you can bring to us. I love serving with you and your families, and I believe we're going to turn this thing around a little bit.

The Air Force that I joined was turned around by that crowd, the Ron Keys and crowd. They came out of that low point after Vietnam and they turned it around. I think we're starting to see our Air Force turn, too.

Now why do I think that? Because I'm starting to see your wing commanders believe us when we say we want them to move out, take action, and not worry too much about what the people at the headquarters think. To weigh things that need to be weighed. Focus on readiness and focus on building leaders, and then we'll back them up, and then Tex Coe, my IG, when he comes to see them, when they explain to him what they didn't do is because they didn't have time. He's going to say, okay, I got it.

What can we do to help you be able to do that in the future instead of writing you up?

I think I see the readiness indicators starting to turn. It's going to be hard work and we're going to stay after it, but it's starting to turn around, and ultimately, it’s going to turn around because we've got to. They had to do it when it was their turn. We have to do it now when it's our turn.

So I'm grateful for your service. I'm awed by the talents that you bring to what you do. And I’m excited about what we'll see here today, the new lineup, I won't go through everything we're going to look at and what we're going to hear about, but it'll be two great days.

You know, other than apologizing again for coming here on New Year's Day and working through a weekend and starting off in the morning, we're changing the schedule a little bit. That's because it's the Vice President coming down. That's what we're doing.

So we'll finish this up. We'll get started working through the rest of this day and the next two days which will be great stuff. But before we do, let's take a break. What time are we coming back?