LEXINGTON — Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, in a speech Tuesday to Virginia Military Institute cadets, outlined his work to create a defense strategy to help strengthen the country against terrorism, nuclear war and cyberattacks.

Mattis retired as a Marine Corps general and commander of the U.S. Central Command in 2013. He told cadets the United States was emerging from an era with no clear military direction.

“I was shocked when I came in,” said Mattis, who took office in 2016. “I said bring me the strategy. They said, ‘We don’t have one.’ That was my first indication there may be a problem.”

Mattis said he has written a national defense strategy with three major focus areas.

First, he said, the Defense Department plans to make the military more lethal. Armed forces that have lost sight of their purpose end up getting beat, he said. He wants other countries to dislike the idea of having to confront our military on the battlefield.

Second, Mattis said, he wants to strengthen and broaden the country’s alliances, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

President Donald Trump attended NATO’s annual summit in July and shocked members when he called them “delinquent” on their military spending and insisted they increase it. His remarks alarmed some who worried Trump may be trying to tear down the alliance or potentially leave it.

But Trump isn’t the first president who has asked NATO members to increase their defense spending. And on Tuesday, Mattis agreed that they should.

He said members have been relying on America, but that democracies around the world need to increase their spending to ensure powerful responses in times of war.

He repeatedly mentioned the need to strengthen and create alliances so that America does not alone carry the financial and physical burden of potential conflicts.

“Nations with allies thrive and nations without allies basically wither away,” he said.

Mattis’ final piece of the national defense strategy is to modernize the Department of Defense. He did not mention specific initiatives, but later discussed the need for better cybersecurity.

He said the department’s cybersecurity forces were actively working to protect the next election from external threats. But he said the country will have to change its technology to make it more resistant to threats and able to keep up with modern warfare.

“I will just tell you as threats change, we cannot be dominant and irrelevant at the same time,” he said. “We’re going to have to learn how to protect our country.”

VMI invited Mattis to speak to cadets after he showed an interest in visiting the institute. Mattis is the second current or former member of Trump’s cabinet to speak at VMI this year.

The commencement speaker in May was Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state, who in a not-so-thinly veiled rebuke of Trump, warned the cadets of a crisis of integrity and ethics in the nation’s leadership.

Mattis told the cadets Tuesday that he wanted to come to Lexington because so many VMI graduates served with him throughout the years. He felt a debt to the school for creating a strong group of dedicated men and women.

Mattis commanded troops in both Iraq wars and in Afghanistan and is only the second retired general to serve as defense secretary, the first being VMI alumnus George C. Marshall.

“Since the Civil War, every generation of America has turned to your graduates to help keep alive what I call our experiment in democracy,” Mattis said. “And that’s all it is, one great experiment.”

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Alison Graham covers Botetourt and Rockbridge counties and Lexington. She’s originally from Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University.

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