Panetta Answers Troops’ Questions in Japan
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan, Oct. 24, 2011 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta answered troops’ questions about the impact of defense budget cuts on the U.S. military presence in Japan, time at home for soldiers between deployments and other topics during a town hall meeting here today.
Addressing some 200 troops gathered in the 459th Airlift Squadron’s hangar, Panetta said President Barack Obama has made very clear that the Pacific remains a priority for the United States.
“We will continue to have force projections in this area; we will continue to not only maintain, but to strengthen, our presence in this part of the world,” Panetta said. “We are a Pacific nation, and we will have a Pacific presence in this area.”
That means he doesn’t foresee any cutbacks in the region, the secretary said. “If anything,” he added, “we’re going to strengthen our presence in the Pacific.”
Looking ahead, the secretary said that even without budget pressures, portions of the military would be facing drawdowns based on ending the combat mission in Iraq and phasing troops out of Afghanistan.
“My goal is to maintain a force that is capable of responding to … those threats that are out there,” he said. “Whether it’s terrorism, whether it’s [a] threat from Iran, threats from North Korea [or] the cyber issue, … we need to have a force to respond if we have to.”
One of the important things a defense secretary learns “is that you can’t afford to be surprised,” Panetta said.
“You’ve always got to have the capability to respond,” he added.
Asked whether he will recommend maintaining the goal the Army adopted this month of 24 months home for each nine months of deployment, the secretary said he would rely on the service chiefs to recommend policies in that area. Panetta said active and reserve-component forces will deploy periodically to maintain their capabilities, but that he’ll seek commanders’ and service chiefs’ recommendations on how to manage dwell time.
Responding to a Japanese service member’s question on the possibility of increased U.S.-Japanese joint military cooperation at Yokota, Panetta said one of the reasons he is in Japan is to “make clear to my Japanese colleagues that we are prepared to strengthen the alliance that has existed over 50 years.”
The world views the response to the March earthquake in Japan as a model for disaster relief activities, Panetta said, noting Yokota Air Base was a hub for relief efforts following the devastating quake.
“I commend all of you,” Panetta told the gathered American and Japanese troops. “That was a tough task, and yet you worked together, hand in hand … to provide that relief.”
When President Barack Obama visits the region next month for the East Asia Summit, the secretary said, among the topics he’ll discuss are improving humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
“You’ve been through it; you know what it takes,” Panetta said. “And we’re going to learn a lot of the lessons that have been involved here.”
A U.S. soldier asked how the Libyan people would fare following the recent death of former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. The Libyans, Panetta said, “have a tough road ahead.” After 42 years of tyrannical rule under Gadhafi, he said, Libyans lack a democratic tradition and functioning government institutions.
Forces opposing Gadhafi have learned to work collaboratively, Panetta said, noting that in his previous role as CIA director he was privy to intelligence that assessed anti-Gadhafi forces as too divided to mount an effective military campaign against the dictator.
However, Libya’s rebel forces “proved us wrong,” the secretary said.
“They were aggressive,” he added, “they moved on Tripoli … from both sides, both the west and the east.”
NATO members and partner nations contributed enormously in the effort to topple Gadhafi and performed “truly magnificently,” Panetta said. The U.S. military has offered to assist with care for Libyans hurt in the fighting, and the State Department stands ready to help Libyans develop functioning government institutions, Panetta said.
Another concern is accounting for the former regime forces’ weapons and ensuring they don’t fall into the wrong hands, he noted.
“This is going to be challenging, but they have shown tremendous leadership to bring their country to the point where they could declare liberation,” the secretary said.
Panetta predicted history will compare events in Libya and other recent developments in the Arab world with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Meanwhile, the secretary said, the United States has some responsibility “to make sure that what happens in Libya and what happens throughout the Middle East heads in the right direction. And I think it will.”
The secretary shook hands with American and Japanese service members, and gave each a commemorative coin.
Panetta, who came to Japan after a visit to Indonesia on his first trip to Asia as defense secretary, will travel to South Korea later this week.
While in Japan, Panetta is slated to meet with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Foreign Affairs Minister Koichiro Gemba and Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa.