Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper delivers a speech to students and faculty of the U.S. Naval War College on Aug. 27. This was his first address at a military academic institution since taking office July 23. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tyler D. John/released)

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Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper spoke to students and faculty of the U.S. Naval War College on Aug. 27, his first address at a military academic institution since taking office July 23.

Esper told his audience that the Department of Defense is focused on the competition posed by China and Russia, after 18 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Many of you spent most of your career fighting irregular warfare,” Esper said. “But times have changed. We are now in an era of great-power competition. Our strategic competitors are Russia and China.”

The question for the Department of Defense, Esper said, is how to address that competition.

“I see the greatest challenge that I have, that the department faces, is how do we balance the present versus the future?” Esper said. “How do we offset near-term readiness versus future modernization?”

He told the Naval War College audience that as senior military leaders of the future, they must have this context in mind. It will affect nearly all aspects of the U.S. armed forces, including training, equipment and placement of troops around the world, he said.

A strong network of like-minded allies and partners is also critical, Esper noted, speaking to a Naval War College class that includes military officers from more than 60 nations.

Esper said he traveled to the Indo-Pacific region earlier this month, noting that the area is “our priority theater.” The secretary said he spoke to officials from nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Mongolia who are troubled by China’s aggressive behavior but are hesitant to confront its rising economic and political power.

“I can’t tell you how many anecdotes where I had foreign leaders tell me about China’s behavior in forums, in conferences and other engagements, one-on-one and or in a multilateral setting, that is particularly troubling,” Esper said.

“China’s Belt and Road Initiative is gaining it significant leverage in the region, and our challenge is to work with our allies and partners to compete.”

If the United States expects to lead that competition, Esper said, it must be present in the region.

“Not everywhere, but we have to be in the key locations. This means looking at how we expand our basing locations, investing more time and resources in certain regions we haven’t been to in the past,” he said.

“It also means we have to continue to fly, to sail and to operate wherever international rules allow to preserve freedom of navigation for both military and commercial operations, whether it’s the Strait of Hormuz or whether it’s the Malacca Strait.”

Esper said the world is only getting more complex, and the challenge before the U.S. armed forces is to be ready.

“I need all of you to help ready the joint force, to deter conflict and, if necessary, to fight and win.”

Founded in 1884, the U.S. Naval War College is the oldest institution of its kind in the world with more than 50,000 graduates, including nearly 300 of today’s active-duty admirals, generals and senior executive service leaders.

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