Panetta, in Italy, Addresses Global, Local Issues
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
ROME, Jan. 16, 2013 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Italian government officials discussed a range of issues here today, from conflict in Africa to security transition in Afghanistan to Sicilian concerns about a proposed U.S. communications facility there.
The secretary met with government officials including President Giorgio Napolitano, Prime Minister Mario Monti, Foreign Affairs minister Giulio Terzi di Sant' Agata and Defense Minister Giampaolo Di Paola.
Panetta and Di Paolo, the secretary said during a joint conference, “had a very productive session covering a host of bilateral issues -- Afghanistan, our shared concerns about the situation in Mali, and how to strengthen our defense trade and cooperation for the future.”
The secretary noted as the son of Italian immigrants to America, he has always felt a strong connection to Italy. “But as secretary of defense, I have gained a profound new respect for Italy’s significant contributions to regional and global security,” he added.
Italy is a key member of the NATO alliance and the lead nation for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan’s Regional Command West, Panetta said.
“In our session, Minister di Paola and I updated each other on the significant progress our forces are making in building an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself,” he said. “That progress will enable us to reach a key milestone this spring, when Afghan forces shift into the lead for security throughout the country.”
The United States is very grateful to Italy for its “steadfast support” in the ISAF effort, he said.
“We will never forget the more than 50 Italians who have died carrying out the mission in Afghanistan,” Panetta told the audience.
America is also grateful for Italy’s “extraordinary hospitality” in hosting more than 30,000 U.S. service members, civilians and family members on U.S bases in Italy.
Panetta said Aviano Air Base, in northeast Italy; Caserme Ederle, near Vicenza; Naval Air Station Sigonella, in Sicily; and Camp Darby, in the province of Pisa, “enhance the collective security of the alliance.”
The U.S. presence in Italy, he said, is “critical to our military’s ability to respond to crisis, and to meet challenges in the region and beyond.”
The secretary noted he will travel to Vicenza tomorrow, “to personally thank U.S. military personnel who are stationed there.”
Together with their Italian military counterparts, he said, young American service members are helping to write a new chapter in the long history of friendship between the two nations.
“I know they are inspired by the same goal my Italian father always told me: we must work hard and protect those we love to build a better life for our children,” Panetta said.
During a discussion today with Italian reporters and press traveling with him, the secretary responded to questions on the F-35 joint strike fighter, and on the previously mentioned communications complex in Sicily.
Panetta said the U.S. is fully committed to the fifth-generation F-35, which he called “the future in fighter aircraft.”
Italy has partnered with the United States on the fighter since 1998, when the program was in its concept and development phase. Other international partners include the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Turkey, Israel and Singapore.
“We have made very good progress in the development of that plane,” the secretary said.
“We believe it’s a very good investment … and we appreciate Italy’s commitment and willingness to participate,” he said. “We believe the F-35 is the plane of the future.”
The planned communications facility in Sicily, Panetta said, is intended to provide U.S. forces with advanced defense communications capabilities. He noted Sicilian residents have expressed concerns about possible health hazards the installation may present.
“I understand the concerns of the people there,” he said.
The secretary said he and Di Paola are working to address those concerns, and that studies performed to date indicate no risks to health will result from the installation.
“But I want to make sure that we do everything possible to address the concerns of those residents,” he said. “They, too, have to be convinced that this is something that can be done without impacting their health or well-being.”