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Town Hall Meeting with Secretary Panetta with US Military and Japanese Defense Force Personnel at Yakota Air Base, Japan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
October 24, 2011

            (Applause.)

            HOST:  Ladies and gentlemen, we are truly blessed and honored to have with us a man who's dedicated his whole adult life to service -- Army officer, congressman from the state of California, White House chief of staff, director of the CIA and now our 23rd secretary of defense, let's give a warm alliance welcome to Mr. Leon Panetta.  (Applause.)  (Audio break.)

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Again, it's a tremendous honor to have a chance to be here and to be able to say thank you to all of you for the great service that you provide.

            This is -- this is my first trip to Japan as secretary of defense, but I've had the opportunity to come here a number of times as a member of Congress, as a chief of staff to the president of the United States -- had the opportunity to accompany President Clinton to Japan; I came here as the director of the CIA and enjoyed that opportunity here as well; and now as secretary of defense. 

            And in this capacity I bring a very important message to Japan and to this region, and the basic message is that the United States, as a Pacific nation, is and will remain a Pacific power in this region.  We will always maintain a strong presence in the Pacific, and we will be a force for peace and prosperity in the Pacific region.  This alliance with Japan stretches over 50 years, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is in many ways the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific -- and it will be for the next 50 years as well. 

            We will continue to strengthen our presence in this area and continue to build the strong alliance that we've developed with Japan and with other countries throughout this region.  I just had the opportunity to be in Indonesia and meet with the ASEAN defense ministers, and I conveyed the same message to them:  The United States will continue to work with all of them to improve our cooperation, to improve our assistance and to make sure that we strengthen security for all nations in the Pacific region.

            I want to commend all of the extraordinary efforts that the Japanese forces have made here to rapidly mobilize, to organize and to bring relief to their fellow citizens at a time of great stress and great crisis and great peril as a result of the earthquake that Japan suffered.  The world witnessed the strength, the character and the resilience of the Japanese people, and I pay tribute to Japan for the way they responded. 

            And I'm also proud of the way the United States helped Japan in this crisis. 

            The military -- the United States military -- should be justly proud of the great work that you have done in supporting the Japanese troops as we battled the difficult elements, as we brought relief to the suffering and as we helped begin the rebuilding that has taken place here.  Close bonds have been forged between our troops and between the Japanese in an effort to assure that this great alliance -- this great alliance -- would always be able to respond to help the people not only of the nation of Japan, but of our country as well.

            That's the bond that you have, and that's the bond that I see in coming here to Japan.  And for that reason, I want to in particular thank all of you for the service that you provide.  The strength of America lies in the service of the men and women who serve in uniform and have put their lives on the line.  And I know that those who serve here in Japan have really contributed to the security of this area.

            The United States in many ways is at a turning point because of the sacrifice of the U.S. men and women in uniform.  Today, we are at a turning point after a decade of war.  On terrorism, we have significantly weakened al-Qaida and its militant allies.  We've been able to go after Osama bin Laden successfully; we went after al-Awlaki in Yemen; we've gone after most of the leadership of al-Qaida.  And as a result of that, we have significantly undermined their command and control and their ability to plan attacks on our country and on other countries.  That is because of the efforts of many of you in the military, and also our intelligence communities as well.

            The key right now is to continue that pressure and make sure that they never have any place to hide -- whether it's Pakistan, whether it's Yemen, whether it's Somalia, whether it's the Maghreb in North Africa.  We have to keep the pressure on and do what the president said we must do, which is to dismantle, disrupt and defeat al-Qaida and its militant allies.  And we will do that.

            The president announced just a few days ago that we will begin to withdraw all of our combat forces in Iraq by the end of this year, pursuant to a security agreement that was worked out by President Bush and that President Obama said he would adhere to as well.  And so by the end of this year -- we're already beginning that process, but by the end of this year, our combat forces will be out of Iraq.

            The mission there was to establish an Iraq that could govern, defend and secure itself, and Iraq has come a long way in their ability to be able to do that.  At the same time, it's important that the world understand that we are going to maintain a long-term relationship with Iraq, and that we will continue to work with them to establish a normal relationship that will provide for training, will provide for assistance, and will give them, hopefully, the capacity to be able to continue to secure their own country.

            At the same time, for Iran and anybody else who has any other ideas, let me make clear that the United States maintains 40,000 troops in that region, 23,000 in Kuwait, and numbers of others in countries throughout that region.

            Let me make clear to them and to anybody else that America will maintain a presence in that part of the world.

            In addition, we are seeing in Afghanistan great work by General John Allen, who developed a plan that will gradually reduce our forces there through the end of 2014 pursuant to what was agreed to by NATO in Lisbon.  And John Allen has done a remarkable job and is beginning a transition whereby, as we reduce our forces, we transition to Afghan security and Afghan governance.  And I believe that we have made great progress there as well in weakening the Taliban, in building up the Afghan army and police, and in giving them the capacity to be able to secure their country.  All of that has been done because of the sacrifice of the men and women in uniform who have put their lives on the line.

            In addition, just this last week we saw the mission in Libya come to a successful conclusion.  And I also want to commend not only U.S. forces that were involved in that mission, but I want to commend the members of NATO and also the partners of NATO, all of whom participated in this mission, a mission that has now given Libya back to the Libyan people and removed Gadhafi from power.  They have a chance now to establish a new country, one that represents all of the people of Libya and one that represents all of their hopes for freedom and for the ability to govern themselves.  They just announced the liberation yesterday.  And so all of us can take a great deal of pride in the work that was done to achieve that mission.

            All of this would not have happened without the sacrifices of those who were willing to serve.

            Work remains.  Work remains.  We've got to continue to confront terrorism.  We've got to continue to confront nuclear proliferation in Iran, in North Korea.  We've got to continue to fight now a whole new battlefield for the future, called cyber, and the attacks that come from cyber.  We've got to deal with rising powers.  We've got to continue to deal with turmoil in the Middle East.  So there are challenges that are out there, but we have the opportunity now to be able to focus on those challenges, provide an American military that is capable, that's agile, that's flexible and that can respond to those threats.

            And most importantly, we have the opportunity to strengthen our presence in the Pacific.  And we will.  This is an important region.  Security of the world in many ways is dependent on the security of the Pacific.  And so we will continue to do that.

            Most of all, I wanted to come here to thank you.  You are the long arm of American military power.  You do a tough and a vital job, and I thank you.  I thank you for your service, because America's strength is in people like you, those willing to give back to their country, to sacrifice and to put their lives on the line.

            The new Greatest Generation in America is the one that has gone to war these last 10 years.  They have borne an unbelievable burden.  More than 6,200 have given their lives.  More than 46,000 have been wounded, many with terrible wounds that they now bear as wounded warriors.  You have done everything you've been asked to do, and we thank you for that. 

            Your sacrifice, your service, and the sacrifice and support of your families makes our great nation what it is -- a strong, enduring nation that seeks peace and prosperity in the world.  I want you to know how grateful I am to all of you, as secretary of defense.

            And finally, one of my great responsibilities is to protect those who protect America.  That's my job.  I know how important it is when you're away from family, when you're away from those you love, the one thing you want is to make very sure that they're taken care of.  That's my fight, that's my duty, to watch your back and to fight to make sure that you're protected, that you have all the resources you need in order to make sure that we protect America.

            As all of you know, we're going to -- we're facing some very challenging fiscal issues in America, and there are going to be some tough choices associated with those issues; but I believe, in talking with the service chiefs, in working with them, that we can do this, and we can do it in a way that will keep America strong. 

            United States is the strongest force on the face of the Earth, and I intend to maintain that.  So as I go through these budget decisions, let me make clear what my goals are and what my guidelines are.  Number one, that we protect the best defense in the world.  We will do that.  Number two, that we will not hollow out this force.  I am not going to just do simply cuts across the board.  We're going to look at areas where we can get efficiencies, where we can eliminate duplication, where we can eliminate overhead and look at all areas in order to make the best decisions when it comes to the budget challenges that we face.

            And most importantly, I am not going to break faith with the people who serve in uniform, who put their lives on the line time and time and time again.  I commit to you that I will do everything I can to protect the benefits that were promised to you and to your families.  That's essential to our commitment to you for what you have done for America.

            So let me say that the things that I talked about this evening are in large measure due to your service, your sacrifice and the fact that you care about protecting our country. 

            We work together with countries like Japan and with other countries in the region.  Why?  To make sure that we protect the safety of the world.  I am the son of Italian immigrants, and I used to often ask my parents why did they travel across the world to come to the United States.  No money, no language ability, no capabilities.  Why would you do that?  My father said the reason was because we wanted to give our children a better life.  I think that's the American dream.  I think that's the dream of the world.  It's the dream that Japan has for its children; it's the dream that America has for its children; it's the dream that every nation has -- to give their children a better life.  And what you do through your service is to make sure that we give our children a better life.

            So for that reason, God bless you.  God bless the people of Japan.  And God bless the United States of America.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)  Thank you, guys.

            I'm going to get a chance to meet each of you and to give you one of the coins that we get in this job, so all of you will owe me a drink at some point, wherever the hell I go.  But before that I'd like to open it up to questions.  If you've got some questions, we can take a few questions. 

            Over here.

            Q:  (Through interpreter.)  So my question is related to your budget discussion.  So with the budget cuts that you're looking at, are you going to review the deployment of aircraft carrier, and also are you looking into reduction of forces elsewhere?  Thank you.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Thank you.  The question -- the question was basically, as a result of going through the budget, are we going to reduce carrier presence and make other cuts in this region.  And I want to make clear to everyone in this region that one of the things in discussing what our future strategy will be -- and we've begun those discussions within the Pentagon; we've also had discussions in the White House -- and the one thing that the president made very clear and the one thing that I will make clear is that the Pacific remains a priority for the United States of America, and that we will continue to have force projection in this area; we will continue to not only maintain but to strengthen our presence in this part of the world.  We are a Pacific nation, and we will have a Pacific presence in this area.  So I want to make it be very clear that the United States is going to remain a presence in the Pacific for a long time, and that means, just so you understand, that we are not anticipating any cutbacks in this region.  If anything, we're going to strengthen our presence in the Pacific.

            Other questions?

            Q:  Sir, my question is, with the recent change to the Army's deployment, the dwell time ratio -- I believe it's 18 months now time back and nine months deployed -- how long is that expected to stay, or is that going to be, like, a long-term thing or is that just a short-term?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think as we go through the budget decisions -- so obviously the service chiefs will be looking at that issue -- there is going to be -- as you can imagine, there will be some force reduction.  We are -- even without the budget constraints we would -- we would have been facing some force reduction by virtue of what's happening in Iraq and the beginning of the drawdown in Afghanistan. 

            And my goal is to maintain a force that is capable of responding to the crises that I talked about.  If we're going to maintain the best military in the world, then we have to be capable to respond to those threats that are out there -- whether it's terrorism, whether it's threats from Iran, threats from North Korea, the cyber issue that I talked about, the -- you know, the importance of having a presence in places like the Pacific in order to make clear that we intend to be here, in order to protect free and open commerce, in order to protect an international order in this part of the world, and that we need to have a force to respond as we -- you know, if we have to -- to some of the turmoil that takes place in the Middle East, as well as elsewhere.

            One of -- one of the important things you learn as secretary of defense is that you can't afford to be surprised.  You've always got to have a capability to respond.  So for that reason, you know, we're going to maintain a strong force.  They are -- they are going to be deployed.  We're going to maintain a strong National Guard and Reserve, because frankly that's been important to our ability to respond to crises in the world.

            And we want them to be operational, we want them to be out there, as they have been, because they've gotten tremendous experience in what they've done.  So my goal is to maintain the military at a pace that allows us to move when we have to move if we've got to respond.

            With regards specifically to your question on deployments, I -- what I'm going to do is leave that to the service chiefs and to the commanders that are out there to recommend exactly how we should continue the routine on deployments in order to maintain the force that I just described.

            Q:  Sir, I'm Wantos Akimoto (sp) from JSDF, Japanese Self-Defense Force.  And I'm assigned in -- (inaudible) -- air defense group -- coordination office in -- (inaudible) -- and full coordination of our JSDF relocation project.  And possible, we appreciate everything what U.S. -- the U.S. service members -- not only service member, but U.S. civilian have been providing great support for -- to Japan for recovery from last earthquake.

            And as you may know, ADC, Air Defense Command headquarter, which is one of our JSDF major command, is relocation shared to Yokota, and we expect this move to maintain and even improve our joint mission capabilities of both of U.S. service members and our service members.  And my question is what you expect -- how you expect our bilateral relationship, because we improve our bilateral relations, especially with regarding to the embassy personnel of both services?  How do you think?

            SEC. PANETTA:  One of the reasons I'm here is to make clear to my Japanese colleagues that we are prepared to strengthen the alliance that's existed over 50 years.  We will continue to provide assistance; we will continue to provide weapons that are necessary in order to be able to secure your nation; and that we will -- we will work very closely with the Japanese in developing the kind of capabilities that can be developed here at this base.

            I think you have performed -- I mean, this base has been the hub for what was done in terms of relief in the -- in the earthquake region, and I commend all of you.  That was a -- that was a tough task, and yet you worked together hand-in-hand -- Japanese, Americans working together to provide that relief, and I can't tell you how proud I am of all of you for the great job that you did.  The whole world looks on this relief effort as a true model for how we should respond to disasters and provide humanitarian relief.

            When the president comes to this region, one of the areas he wants to talk about is how can we improve humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.  You've been through it.  You know what it takes.  And we're going to learn a lot of the lessons that have been involved here.  But I want to assure you that my role as secretary of defense will be to make sure that we not only provide assistance that we've already committed to, but that we develop new areas for coordination and working together in order to make sure this alliance -- this alliance has lasted 50 years; my challenge is to make sure this alliance lasts for another 50 years and more.

            Other questions?  Last question, I guess is what they're telling me.  Over here.

            Q:  How are you doing, sir?  Specialist Blackwell, Kanzung , Japan, 78th, 2nd Battalion.  My question is, with Gadhafi out of power, is the U.S. ready for any up rise or a new power to come and take over?  And do we have any type of defense for the Libyan (sic) people and as well as for our country?

            SEC. PANETTA:  The question related to Libya and, you know, what can happen there now.

            Well, let me be frank.  Libyans have a tough road ahead.  This is not going to be easy.  This is a country that's been under the domination of Gadhafi for over 40 years.  This is a country that has never experienced the opportunity to have a democratic government, a representative government or the institutions of a free government.  This is a country that largely has been a tribal society in many ways.  And so the effort that the opposition forces had when they were fighting Gadhafi is how to unify those forces so that they could take on Gadhafi.

            And there were a lot of people who questioned whether they would have the ability to do that.  I can tell you as CIA director, you know, the intelligence we got was that the opposition was often divided.  We weren't sure whether they would be able to represent an effective fighting force.  And the reality is, they proved us wrong.  They proved us wrong.  They did continue to fight.  They were aggressive.  They moved on Tripoli from -- and they moved from both sides, both the west and the east, to basically accomplish that.

            Now, it was done, obviously, in conjunction with NATO.  The NATO mission there, you know, was truly magnificent in the way they performed.  When you get that many nations coming together to operate in a war, it takes tremendous coordination. 

            I went to Naples the last trip I took to that area, and at Naples they showed me the operations room and what they did in order to be able to go after targets in Libya.  And as you can imagine, you know, we got a lot of targets that came in through surveillance.  Those targets would come in.  They then had to assign those targets to the different nations that were participating; you know, which ones would be hit by the French, by the British, by U.S. forces, by others, how would they be able to target the different targets that were there.  It was a -- it demanded tremendous coordination.  And they did it, and they did it effectively.

            So the NATO mission needs to be commended.  The people who came together in the Libyan opposition need to be commended for their sacrifice.  They've lost a lot of people and they've got a lot of wounded there.  So what we are doing right now is to look at what are their medical needs; can we help them with regards to dealing with the wounded, particularly the kind of wounded warriors that we've had to deal with, can we provide assistance in that area.  And we're looking at that to try to see what we can do to help them.

            We need to look at trying to control the weapons that were located there and make sure that those weapons don't wind up in the wrong hands.  So that that's another area that we're focusing on.  And the State Department is obviously focusing on what kind of assistance can we provide as they try to develop the institutions of government.

            This is going to be challenging, but they have shown tremendous leadership to bring their country to the point where they could declare liberation.  And, you know, I think that in these situations, as we've seen throughout the Middle East -- I mean, what we're seeing in the Middle East is -- are changes that history will look back on.  These are as dramatic a change as what we saw with the fall of the Iron Curtain, and all of those countries behind the Iron Curtain struggling to establish new institutions of government.  They were -- you know, they were able to do that.  And I believe that those countries in the Middle East that have gone through the revolutions that we have seen, that they too will find ways to be able to govern themselves.

            This is a -- this is a remarkable period to be living in, to watch that kind of change taking place.  And we have a responsibility, as leaders in the world and leaders who really -- you know, we represent a country that in many ways is the model for representative government and for freedom and for the kind of rights that we want all people to enjoy.  So we have some responsibility, it seems to me, as a result of that 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.

            Ok, guys.  Thank you very much.

            HOST:  Mr. Secretary, on behalf of all the men and women of this great alliance, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to be here with us and honoring us with your presence and those great remarks.  And I'm going to, if I can, give the first coin out tonight, and thank you --

            SEC. PANETTA:  You got it.  Thank you.

            HOST:  Thank you very much, sir.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Thanks very much.  (Applause.)