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Media Roundtable with the Secretary of Defense in Hawaii

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
March 09, 2012

            SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA:  (In progress) -- we have threats from Iran, from North Korea.  We have the Middle East in turmoil.  We have rising powers in the Pacific.  And we have the cyber -- cyber war and cyber threats. 

            So we've got some very significant threats to confront, and that's why we developed this strategy, this new defense strategy, which we think represents a very effective force for the future.  And Hawaii and the military forces that are located here will play a very important role in that force for the future.

            Hawaii will always be a very important part of our history because of the sacrifices that were made here, and I can assure you that it will be part of our history for the future.  So with that, happy to answer your questions. 

            Q:  I was wondering if I could switch away from our region very briefly.  How -- has the U.S. offered or talked to Israel about providing them with a more advanced bunker-busting bomb than the one that they currently have?

            SEC. PANETTA:  We have not discussed that area.  One area that we have discussed is the area of missile defense for Israel, and -- but we have not discussed that area. 

            And, you know, we've had -- we have very close military relationships.  We obviously talk about a lot of things in terms of plans and training, et cetera.  And we will continue to have that kind of relationship in the future. 

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, I've been doing some research on the open sources on the North Korean army, which is, just in terrible shape; it's really in terrible shape.  In contrast, the South Korean army is in pretty good shape.

            But the question arises, particularly in this climate now of, as you said, serious budget restrictions.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah.

            Q:  Why is it necessary to keep American forces in Korea at all?  Excuse me -- and then one other thing that, you know, I just remembered today is that we're -- one of your senior subordinates testified before the Congress that you're probably going to have at least one more, probably two more rounds of the BRAC.  So you're going to be closing bases in the U.S. itself.  Why do we need one in South Korea? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, as we went through our strategy and, you know, obviously, a key part of the strategy is that we will have a smaller and leaner force.  But it will be agile, it will be quickly deployable, and it will be technologically advanced.  But also, part of our strategy was to emphasize our presence in the Pacific as well as the Middle East.

            We are a Pacific power, we're going to remain a Pacific power, and in order to do that, we need to have force projection in the Pacific.  That obviously involves not only our Navy, which has a strong presence in the Pacific; we'll maintain our carriers in this area as well our fleet.  

            Secondly, we'll continue to maintain our Air Force and our bomber capabilities in this area.  And we will maintain our military forces as well.

            We have Marine deployments in the Pacific, and we have Army deployments in Korea.  And we maintain those forces not only for -- to help in the protection of South Korea, but also as a force to indicate that the United States is going to always maintain a military presence in the Pacific because we believe this is an important area economically, militarily, strategically and in terms of the allies that we have in this region that are an important part of our Pacific family. 

            Q:  Senator Inouye recently told our editorial board that a thousand Marines would be moved from Okinawa to Hawaii.  Will that happen, and will they be -- would they be permanently or rotationally based here?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, as I indicated, we're going to maintain, obviously, a significant Marine presence in the Pacific.  That's an important part of our force projection.  And we are obviously in discussions in Japan with regards to Okinawa, and we're continuing those discussions that would involve some reduction in Okinawa and relocation of those Marines in Guam.

            As far as Hawaii's concerned, you know, I'm not going to get into decisions that obviously the Marines are going to make as we go through this process, but there's no question that, as I said, the Pacific is going to be very important to us in terms of our military presence.  And that includes Hawaii, but it also includes those locations west of the dateline that we want to continue to maintain a presence in.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, regarding Iran's nuclear program and Israel's role in that, do you think that the Israelis have been receptive enough to the U.S. advice about allowing the sanctions to work there?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, as you know, we had very good discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu.  The president had very good meetings with him, as did the vice president.  I met with him, as did the secretary of state.  And I think all of us conveyed the same message that the president expressed, that, you know, we obviously respect their sovereignty; we understand that they have to make decisions, you know, that are in their interest; the United States also has to make decisions that are in our interest.  And we will -- obviously we will do whatever we can to defend Israel, but more importantly, when it comes to Iran, we have common cause against Iran.  We have the same concerns as Israel with regards to their obtaining a nuclear weapon, and we've made very clear we are going to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And we are also going to ensure that they do not close the Straits of Hormuz.

            We think the sanctions are working.  We think that diplomacy and holding the international community together in applying that pressure needs to continue, and that's the right way to go right now.  We hope that Israel will continue to be part of that international effort.

            Q:  And regarding Syria, you testified in front of the Senate committee yesterday, I believe, and you said that, quote, our goal would be to seek international permission.  Could you clarify what you meant by that?

            SEC. PANETTA:  No, our goal is to try to approach the issue of Syria on an international basis.  The international community has brought sanctions against Syria, has condemned Syria, has made a specific request for Assad to step down.  We are working with the international community, with the Arab League, to try to develop strategies that will continue to put pressure on Syria, and that is the direction that the administration supports at this point.

            You know, we can -- as General Dempsey indicated, we -- you know, we looked at military options; we planned for military options; but at this point in time, the president feels very strongly that we should continue the international pressure against Syria, because we think that it is -- it is having a significant impact on Assad and is weakening his regime, and that that's the way to go.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, it strikes me as a real difference in the U.S. position about nuclear weapons in Iran.  I mean, you and your colleagues in the Cabinet and Washington just gets all excited about Iran.  The North Koreans, so far as we can make out, are ahead of the Iranians as far as developing nuclear weapons.  But we don't get -- people don't seem to get so excited about that.  Why is that?  Why is there that difference?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think -- I think we have -- certainly we at the Defense Department and I think the administration continue to have concerns about North Korea and their nuclear capability, and that's one of the reasons we continue to press them to suspend their enrichment process and to step back from their continuing efforts at developing a nuclear capability.  So we continue to bring pressure against them.  We consider that a threat.  That's the reason we have our forces in South Korea.  It's the reason that we -- one of the reasons we have the kind of force projection that we continue in the Pacific.

            With regards to Iran, obviously the concern there is the destabilization that would occur in that region if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon.  Iran is a country that is -- does not behave according to international rules, is engaged in spreading terrorism, in destabilizing countries in that part of the world, and a country that operates on that basis becomes extremely dangerous if it obtains a nuclear weapon.  So that's the reason the world is unified.  There's a strong international community that has come together on sanctions, on diplomatic sanctions, on economic sanctions, to make clear that Iran has to change its ways.  And it's having an impact.  Iran is growing increasingly isolated as a result of international pressure.  And so we ought to continue that effort to keep that pressure on.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, what sort of -- (off mic) -- or advice are you giving Admiral Locklear as far as implementing your defense  strategy? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, you know, Sam Locklear, as I said, is a commander who really has performed in an outstanding fashion.  I have to tell you, when NATO came together on Libya, there were a lot of questions about whether that operation could ever come together.  Now, when you're bringing that many nations together to go after targets in Libya, and be able to coordinate that, be able to develop targets and then distribute those targets to the various countries to be able to go after them, that was a huge responsibility.  And yet Sam Locklear was able to put that operation together in Naples.  It became an international operations center.  And he really performed in an outstanding fashion.

            So he -- in many ways, he brings some great talents to this job, not only in terms of his capability at operations, but also his understanding of this region as well.  And you know, Bob Willard did a tremendous job here, and we really are -- we'll miss him, but one of the great things about the United States military is that we have a great bench.  We've got some great people who are ready to take these positions when they -- when others transition out.  And you know, in the end, I have to tell you, and I've said this before, we've got great weapons, we've got great technology, we've got -- you know, finest planes, the finest ships.  But none of that would be worth much if it weren't for the men and women in uniform that put their lives on the line, and for the commanders that have led those men and women in battle.

            So it's -- it makes me as secretary very confident that when we're called upon to protect our country, we can respond.

            OK? 

            Q:  Thank you very much.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Thank you guys.