President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence joined the welcoming ceremony Thursday for new Defense Secretary Mark Esper, at which all three pledged to carry out the creation of the U.S. Space Force as the sixth branch of the military.
In his remarks at the full-honors ceremony on the Pentagon grounds, Trump said that the mere mention of "launching the United States Space Force" is one of the top crowd-pleasers at his campaign rallies. "They go absolutely wild," he said.
"We're well on our way" to making the Space Force a reality, Pence added.
Esper said he is committed to following Trump's mandate to "create for the first time in 70 years a new branch of the service, a United States Space Force."
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Trump told Esper that he will be taking over at the Pentagon, which has just gone through the longest period in its history without a Senate-confirmed defense secretary, with a record budget to maintain the U.S. armed forces as the world's strongest.
The president noted that the tentative $738 billion defense budget, which is still working its way through Congress, includes a 3.1% pay raise for the military -- projected as the largest increase in 10 years.
The U.S. military now "strikes fear into the hearts of our enemies," Trump said.
Under his administration, he said, "Our military today is more powerful by far than ever before, and three years ago we couldn't have said that, could we, Mark?
"I have absolute confidence that Mark will ensure that our incredible military is fully prepared to deter conflict and to defeat any foe" with the funding provided, Trump said.
"We have rebuilt things nobody ever thought of rebuilding," he added. "We've added the greatest planes in the world, the greatest missiles in the world. We've upgraded our nuclear -- very, very powerful, including new.
"We never want to have to use it; pray to God that we never have to use it. But we have the best in the world in every aspect of [the] military. Any battlefield will be a battlefield on which we win," he said.
Trump also hailed the growing deployment of troops to the southern border to back up law enforcement in dealing with the flow of migrants.
"Our first priority is always the safety and sovereignty of our nation and our citizens," Trump said. "Here at home, we have deployed the military to confront the grave security crisis on our southern border.
"I want to thank all of the great military leaders for the help you have given us on the southern border. No nation can be safe or secure that fails to control its borders," he added.
The ceremony on the sun-splashed Pentagon grounds featured cannon salutes and took place before smartly turned out honor units from all the services, which passed in review at the conclusion. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was traveling, was not in attendance.
"It's a great day for a prayer, great day for our nation," and also "a time for peacekeepers, a time for peacemakers," Maj. Gen. Paul Hurley, the Army chief of chaplains, said in opening the ceremony.
Trump noted Esper's 21 years in the Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, and his service with the 101st Airborne Division in Operation Desert Storm, during which he earned a meritorious Bronze Star.
The president called Esper "a brave guy. They all told me he was a brave guy. I know that anyway."
In his remarks, Esper said, "It is an honor of a lifetime to be appointed secretary of defense and lead the greatest military in history."
With continued support from the administration, the U.S. armed forces are "ready to face any challenge, anytime, anywhere, as we continue to stand guard around the world," he said.
In recent years, "the global security environment has become more complex" and "the free and open order that has preserved the peace and sustained our prosperity for decades is under duress," Esper said.
In addition, "great power competition has re-emerged as China and Russia seek to displace the U.S. and shift the balance of power in their favor," the 55-year-old Esper said.
As the 27th secretary of defense, he said his priorities include building a more lethal force and strengthening alliances, but he stressed that partner nations will have to contribute more, in line with Trump's directives.
"President Trump has called on other nations to do more, and they have responded," Esper said. "By the end of 2020, our NATO allies will spend an additional $100 billion on defense, an unprecedented increase that will make the alliance stronger."
As have other defense secretaries before him, Esper pledged to reform the way the Pentagon does business "to make the best use of every single dollar."
He also said he would put "particular emphasis on the well-being of our military families. I am committed to ensuring they are properly cared for."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.