Acting Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper emphasized to his NATO counterparts that the change in leadership in the Pentagon does not mean changes in strategy, missions or the commitment to American alliances.
Esper spoke at a news conference at the conclusion of the NATO defense ministerial in Brussels. The acting secretary attended the meeting the day after he assumed his new duties.
The acting secretary is no stranger to the issues of NATO, having served in Europe as a young Army officer and as an assistant defense secretary.
Esper emphasized the continuity in his position. "The U.S. National Defense Strategy remains our guiding document," he said. A new era of great power competition has emerged. China and Russia are America's foremost competitors, he said, and strategy will be guided by that reality.
"The department's mission remains clear: To deter conflict, and if necessary, fight and win on the battlefield," he said.
Esper also reiterated the lines of effort the department will use to implement the strategy — improving lethality, building and strengthening alliances, and reforming DOD for greater performance and accountability.
The acting secretary said he is pleased with allied progress in burden-sharing, noting an increase of $100 billion in defense spending next year. Still, he said, more needs to happen.
Some of that money is going to improving and maintaining NATO readiness, which Esper called critical to deterrence. "More readiness equals more deterrence," he said. "These investments are essential to deterring aggression in Europe and beyond, and to responding if deterrence fails."
Russia is the problem in Europe, the acting secretary said, with the country still seeking a "veto power" over its neighbors. "Moscow's military activities in the Middle East, in Venezuela and elsewhere prolong human suffering and provide cover for autocrats."
Russia is also sinking scarce money into military capabilities to include space and cyber activities, and into upgrading nuclear forces, Esper said. He also addressed Russian violations of the 32-year-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Russians have built a new class of missiles — the SSC-8 — that violate the agreement with the United States. Esper stressed the U.S. will continue to work toward arms reductions with the Russians.
Russia has until Aug. 2 to come into compliance with the INF Treaty. "Should Moscow refuse [to come into compliance], the INF Treaty will cease to exist," he said. "This is a dangerous and entirely avoidable reality, but Russia chose it."
Tensions in the Gulf
The acting secretary spoke about the situation in the Persian Gulf with his NATO counterparts. The United States does not want war with Iran, he said. American leaders want the diplomatic track to take precedence as Iran sits down to discuss not only its nuclear program, but its ballistic missile program, its support for terror groups and other malign activities in the Middle East and beyond.
Administration officials have said Iran's aggressive actions, such as placing limpet mines on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, or shooting down surveillance aircraft in international airspace, must stop and that the United States is willing to sit down with Iranian leaders.
The U.S. did not respond to the Iranian shootdown of the Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk drone last week. "We do not seek armed conflict with Iran," Esper said. "But we are ready to defend U.S. forces and interests in the region. No one should mistake restraint for weakness."