Blue skies graced Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo., where 973 Air Force Academy cadets graduated May 25 and began careers facing unprecedented challenges and technological advances. There, commencement speaker Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III warned that adversaries are testing America’s values.
“Today, America’s adversaries are testing the very values that you swore to defend,” Austin told the new second lieutenants. “You’re here to defend America’s security and win America’s wars. But we’re also here to safeguard America’s values.”
Austin pointed to two examples: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s aggressive behavior in the Pacific.
The defense Secretary gave five pieces of advice, including the importance of teamwork, which he described in terms of U.S. allies and partners.
“America’s unrivaled network of allies and partners is so important,” Austin reflected. “They’re crucial to what I call integrated deterrence. They extend our strength; they magnify our power; and they deepen our security.”
Austin commended the graduates for withstanding the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, which restricted graduates to their dorm rooms during their sophomore year, and told them that the world they face will require discipline and innovation.
Of the 973 graduates, 16 represent 15 countries, including lesser-known American partners on the African continent such as Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, and Niger; and Central Asian and Indo-Pacific countries including Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Kazakhstan, and Thailand.
Graduates were 73 percent male and 27 percent female, and 31 percent represented minorities. Of the graduates, 461 were rated, including 417 pilots, 11 combat systems officers, nine air battle managers, and 24 remotely piloted aircraft operators. Another 382 graduates were non-rated, and 94 graduates commissioned into the Space Force. Three graduates cross-commissioned into the Army and six into the Marine Corps.
Three cadets received scholarships for advanced degrees in the United Kingdom, including two Marshall scholarships and one Holaday Scholarship, while two more cadets received fellowships at Stanford University.
“I know that you’re ready because I see Academy graduates shine every day,” Austin said. “When I travel the world from Eastern Europe to the Indo-Pacific to remote bases, I see young lieutenants and captains just like yourself.”
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said cadets will face transformational change in their careers.
“You begin your service just as we are entering a new and more dangerous strategic era,” Kendall said.
“You are at an inflection point in history,” he added, noting the shift from counterinsurgency to great power competition in the past two decades. “You must be prepared to do your duty in an environment that features the greatest strategic challenge we’ve seen in a lifetime, my lifetime at least. And some of the most significant technological changes in the history of warfare.”
Kendall said graduates’ Air Force careers will be dominated by the National Defense Strategy‘s pacing threat of China, just as he faced the Soviet threat when he graduated from the Army’s U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1971.
“You, too, will face a strategic, well-resourced threat that is doing all it can to be able to defeat the Air and Space Forces that you joined today,” Kendall said. “I believe that you are ready.”