CAPTAIN MARK SAKAGUCHI, COMMODORE PHIBRON 3: Good afternoon, sailors, Marines of the 15th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit). Today we are honored to showcase our nation’s exceptional amphibious and expeditionary war-fighting capability to a man who have served most of his life in public service, from service as a U.S. Army intelligence officer, positions in the executive and legislative branch of our government, the service as a chief of staff to President Clinton and the director of Central Intelligence Agency for President Obama, today, please join me in a Navy and Marine Corps welcome to our 23rd secretary of defense, the Honorable Leon Panetta.
Mr. Secretary. (Applause.)
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Thank you very much, Commodore. I really appreciate the introduction. And it’s a real honor to have the opportunity to be here to see the USS Peleliu up close. This is a historic ship that has done some tremendous duty for our country. The longest and by far one of the most dramatic amphibious landings occurred in Afghanistan and it took place over a long distance from the USS Peleliu. It has been deployed time and time again to crucial areas that we have across the globe. So you’re part of history being part of this great ship.
I also had a chance to get into an LCAC and come out here across the sea. I think I left a little of myself back on those damned boats. It is I guess an exciting trip to come across and get a sense of what it’s like to be deployed when you have to be able to go into enemy area and do it off a ship like this. So it’s a great experience for me.
Most importantly, first thing I want to do is to thank all of you for your service. Navy, Marines – all of you have dedicated your lives and you’re giving something back to this country. I’m a believer in public service. I think that this great country that all of you help defend, this country depends on men and women who are willing to give something back to this nation in order to make sure that we protect this country, that we keep it safe, and that we give our children a better life for the future. That’s what it’s all about.
I’m the son of Italian immigrants. My parents came here like millions of others – not much education, not many skills, not much language ability, but they came because of the hope that this country gave them. I used to ask my father, why did you travel all that distance from Italy – a poor area of Italy, but at least they had the comfort of family. Why would you leave all of that to come to a strange country like America? And my dad said because your mother and I believed that we could give our children a better life.
That’s the American dream. That’s what you want for your children. Hopefully that’s what your children will want for their children. That’s what my wife and I want for our three boys and for our grandchildren – to be able to ensure that they have a better life by being more secure, by being protected against those enemies that would try to attack this country. You have, through your dedicated service, time and time and time again responded to everything we’ve asked you to do.
And for that, I thank you. I thank you for your service. I thank you for your dedication. I thank you for your commitment. I thank you for your willingness to put your life on the line. And I also want to thank your families. None of us in these kinds of tough jobs could do this without the support of our loved ones. And they have to sacrifice as well – long periods of absence, not seeing you, holidays away from your family. And so to them as well – to your families, I thank them for their sacrifice, for their dedication and for their loyalty to this great country.
So I said you’ve done everything you’ve been asked to do. After 10 years of war, as a result of the sacrifice of men and women in uniform, you know, we’ve reached a turning point after 10 years of war – the end of the mission in Iraq. And the whole purpose there was to establish an Iraq that could secure and govern itself. It’s not going to be easy, but now it’s up to them. We gave them the opportunity to establish a democracy in that region of the world because of us, because of the sacrifice that we made.
In Afghanistan we’ve also made a turning point. Thanks to General Allen, thanks to, again, the men and women that have put their lives on the line in that very difficult terrain, 2011 represented a turning point. The level of violence has gone down – first time in five years. We’ve seen the Taliban weakened so that we have – they’ve been unable to establish and organize efforts to regain any of the area that they once possessed. We’ve weakened them.
In addition, we see an Afghan army and Afghan police that are operational, that are fighting alongside of our forces, that are doing the job, securing areas. And, ultimately, it is going to be up to them to secure their country. That’s what this is all about. So we’re transitioning areas to Afghan control and Afghan security.
And the bottom line is it’s working. We now have transitioned – over 50 percent of the population in Afghanistan is now under Afghanistan security and under Afghanistan governance. And we’re going to continue that process. That’s the plan that General Allen has laid out and we can’t let anything – anything – undermine that strategy. We’ve got to be dedicated to the mission that this was all about, and we are.
Terrorism – those that attacked this country on 9/11, we’ve gone after them as well. It all began with 9/11. Thankfully, we’ve been able to go after their leadership and seriously weaken al Qaeda and their ability to strike this country, a mission that I was proud to be a part of as director of the CIA with the mission between the intelligence forces and the SEALs to go after Osama bin Laden and to get him. And we’ve gone after others throughout their leadership. They still remain a threat. We still have to confront them in the FATA, in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa. We can’t give up in terms of the pressure we need to continue to put on terrorists. But we have made this country safer by virtue of what we’ve been able to do.
And in Libya, because we were able to work with NATO – complicated mission, a lot of countries involved, but the end result was that we brought Gadhafi down and we gave Libya back to the Libyan people. So because of you, because of the sacrifice you’ve made, this country has made significant gains over the last 10 years fighting an enemy that attacked us, fighting terrorism, fighting those that would try to dictate to their people what they should do. We’ve been successful at it.
But there are still a lot of threats out there that we’re confronting – a lot of threats. We continue to fight a war in Afghanistan. We’re continuing to have to go after terrorists. We have rogue nations like North Korea and Iran that continue to try to destabilize the world and continue to spread support for terrorism. We’ve got to deal with unrest in the Middle East. We’ve got rising powers in Asia. We’ve got the whole threat of cyber, a whole new world of attacks on this country. We get literally hundreds of thousands of cyberattacks in this country every day.
And today, as a result of the technology that’s developing in the cyberworld, it is capable to cripple this country, to take down our power grid system, to take down our governmental system, take down our financial system. Cyber is the weapon of the future and we’re going to have to deal with it.
So we’re facing a lot of threats that we have to confront if we want to keep America safe and if we want to give our children a better life. And it’s all happening in a time when this country’s also facing a security threat – a national security threat by virtue of the huge debt and the large deficits that are being run in this country. If we don’t have the resources – if we don’t have the resources we need to maintain a strong defense, if we don’t have the resources we need in order to maintain the quality of life that our people deserve, then we are going to weaken our national security.
So for that reason it is important to take on that challenge. That was the reason I was handed a number of $487 billion to take out of the defense budget over the next 10 years. It’s a challenge. It’s not easy – half a trillion dollars.
What we decided to do – the chiefs, the combatant commanders, my under secretaries who decided if we’re going to do this, we have to develop a strategy that ensures that we maintain a strong defense for this country. We’re not going to let budgets drive defense strategy. We’re going to develop a strategy and then base our budget decisions on that.
We’re guided by four principles. We were guided by four principles. Number one, maintain the strongest military force in the world. We are that today and we’re going to stay that in the future.
Secondly, we don’t want to hollow out the force. That mistake has been in the past. Every time we’ve had a drawdown, cuts have been made across the board and we’ve weakened everything in defense. That’s called hollowing out the force. We’re not going to do that.
Thirdly, that means we’ve got to look at every area in the defense budget in a balanced way. And lastly, we have to maintain trust with you, the men and women in uniform. We made commitments to you. We made promises to you. You’ve been deployed time and time again. We cannot break that trust. And so the result of that effort was to develop a strategy for the future, a defense strategy that will not only work today, but will work in 2020 and beyond, a force for the 21st century. Let me just tell you the basic elements.
We’re going to be smaller. We are going to be leaner, but we have to be agile. We have to be flexible. We have to be deployable and we have to be technologically advanced. That’s what the force of the future has to be. Secondly, we’ve got to focus on the key areas that are the main threats right now, so we’re focusing on the Pacific because clearly there are some threats in the Pacific from North Korea and elsewhere. And we are a Pacific power and we’re going to maintain a presence in the Pacific.
We’ve got to maintain a presence in the Middle East because there, too, we confront threats from Iran and elsewhere. So that, too, will be a main focus.
And thirdly, we’ve got to maintain a presence elsewhere in the world as well. And I pay tribute to the service chiefs who came up with a creative idea of being able to have our troops go into areas, to deploy there, to do exercises, to do training, to develop partnerships, to develop alliances, whether it’s Europe, whether it’s Latin America, whether it’s Africa, to be able to have that capability. That’s something the Marines do, something Special Forces do. We’re going to have every element be able to develop that kind of forward presence capability. We’ve got to be able to confront any enemy anywhere, anytime.
And, lastly, we have to invest in the future. We’ve got to invest in cyber. We’ve got to invest in unmanned systems. We’ve got invest in Special Forces. We’ve got to invest in the technology that you’re all a part of in this ship, the kind of planes that we have to have, the kind of equipment that you need in order to be able to fight the wars of the present and the wars of the future. We’ve got to be able to mobilize with our Guard and with our Reserve. All of that is part of the new strategy that we put in place.
And let me tell you all something. The Peleliu and what you do is what we need for the future. This is about agility. This is about being able to move quickly. This is about being flexible. It’s about doing the things that you do right here from this ship. That is the future and that’s why I wanted to come here because it’s important for me to tell you how important you are to our strategy now and in the future.
But I have to tell you the most important thing we have in our defense, it’s not our ships. It’s not our weaponry. It’s not our great planes, not our helicopters. The best thing we have in the United States military are our people – you, men and women in uniform that are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to keep this country safe.
Toughest thing I do in this job is have to write notes to the families of those who have given their lives to this country in battle – toughest thing I have to do. And to each of those families, I convey my deepest sympathies and my prayers and my thanks, but the one thing I say to all of them is that as difficult as this is, your son, your daughter gave their life for their country. They loved life. They loved you. They loved their country and they gave that life for this country, for all they loved. And that in my book makes them a hero and a patriot and they will never be forgotten. And to all of you, I want to say you’re all heroes. You’re all patriots in my book. And your service and your sacrifice will never be forgotten because in the end that will ensure that we protect this country and we give our children that better life for the future.
Thanks for everything you do. Appreciate it.
AUDIENCE: (Cheers, applause.)
SEC. PANETTA: I’ll take your questions. You’ve got the secretary of defense. Is there anything I can respond? Yes, sir.
Q: Good afternoon, Honorable Secretary. My name is IT3 John Turpin (ph). My question regards the military retirement, sir. And – (inaudible) – retirement plan provides an incentive to invest in your own retirement. Has there – (inaudible) – thought about providing an incentive for military members to invest in thrift savings plan, sir?
SEC. PANETTA: One of the things we get in the budget and that we submitted to the Congress is we’ve asked to have a commission established to look at the retirement system and some of the options that ought to be made available for the future. The one thing that we made clear, though, is that all of those on active duty have to be grandfathered in. We’re not going to change your benefits under the retirement system. You came in with a promise about the kind of retirement benefits you’re going to receive and we’re going to stick to that promise.
But, having said that, we also need to look at how we can try to control costs in the future. So we’ll establish a commission that will look at that issue and I’m sure we’ll look at some of those alternatives to see whether or not those can work in a way that really protects people and their families.
Another question. Yes, sir.
Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. Yeoman First Class – (inaudible) – Operations Department, LPO (Leading Petty Officer). You spoke about USS Peleliu being a part of the country’s war-fighting mission of the future. And with regards to our decommissioning, I know it’s dependent upon the timeline for the completion of the America, but since their timeline is uncertain, I was wondering if you could comment on when our decommissioning timeline – provided that we’re – (inaudible) – in fiscal year 2014 and the Marines have asked to – (inaudible) – 2019.
SEC. PANETTA: Yes. You know, I’m going to let the Navy handle that, just exactly the timing here. If I start getting into that shit, I’ll be in trouble. But the fact is that we need to maintain this kind of ship because it’s abilities, because of just exactly the kind of agility that I think is important.
We’re going to maintaining 11 carriers. And as we draw down – by the way, as we draw down – one of those carriers, the Enterprise, which is now on its way to the Middle East, will be decommissioned after this deployment but we have a new carrier that’s ready to go in to support us. So we’re going to maintain that level.
The same thing is going to happen with these kinds of ships. We’re going to make sure that we maintain the fleet – that we have with these kinds of ships because they are flexible and they are agile.
So the goal right now I think with regards to the Peleliu is at some point – it’s had a long duty. At some point, it will be decommissioned in the future. But as to the exact time, the exact place – and what will happen at that point, I’m going to leave it up to the Navy to decide.
Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary.
SEC. PANETTA: How are you doing?
Q: YN3 Jones, admin department. I have two questions for you. My first question would be as the secretary of defense, what are your greatest concerns in relation to military members and their families? The second question is, do you think Payton Manning is going to lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl this year? (Laughter.)
SEC. PANETTA: All right. You know, on the first question, which is, you know, what are my greatest concerns about you and your families – you know, obviously, I really do believe it’s important that when we make commitments to you, when we provide benefits to you and your family that we try to stick by the benefits that we provide you.
You guys – and sometimes I’m often asked the question, you know, why can’t we just give you the same kind of health care that civilians get. And I say, you know, because civilians don’t put their lives on the line every day, because this is special, because all of you are special. And for that reason I want to make sure we maintain the level of benefits that go to you.
Now, I have to tell you the biggest concern I have right now is something called sequester. What happened was that the Congress did a stupid thing. What they essentially did was to put a gun to their heads and to the head of the country and basically said that if they did not come up with a plan to reduce the deficit, that this so-called sequester process would go into effect. And what sequester would do is cut about $1.2 trillion, but it would do it across the board. And defense cuts would total almost $500 billion as a result of that. But the cuts would be made across the board and it would guarantee that we would be hollowed out. It would guarantee that every area would be cut back. It would guarantee that it would weaken our defense system for the future.
Now, the committee that was supposed to come up with the deficit reduction failed to do it. The sequester is supposed to trigger but not until January of 2013. I’m doing everything possible to tell Congress that it would be irresponsible to let that happen. The chairman, the leadership, everybody agrees that that should not happen. But my biggest concern is that the Congress has got to find the strength, the courage and the will to get this done.
I told members of Congress, look, I’ve got men and women that put their heads, their lives on the line every day to protect this country. They’re willing to fight and they’re willing to die if necessary for this country. I’m just asking you to assume just a little bit of risk here to do what’s right for this country to solve the problems that we face. If my men and women in uniform can do it, you too can do it as well. So I’m hoping that ultimately they’ll do what’s right and that that won’t happen.
As far as Manning’s concerned, look, I’m a 49er fan. I’m a Californian. I was born in Monterey and I’ve always supported the 49ers. And I was thinking for a moment maybe Manning would be great taking Alex Smith’s place, but that didn’t happen. Manning – you know, I’ve seen Manning play. He is – he’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen. And he’ll – I think, depending obviously on how his injuries were from what happened last year, but if he performs at his peak, believe me, the Denver Broncos are going to be competitive.
Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. Corporal Davis, 35K Company – (inaudible) – platoon. My question to you, sir, is what kind of op tempo and what kind of different missions are we looking at for the Marine Corps and for our uniformed armed forces in America in general now that we’re looking at more a peacetime environment, sir?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I’m hoping that if we can maintain where we’re at right now – you know, we’ve ended the mission in Iraq, we’re in the process of as we make the transition in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, drawing down in Afghanistan as well, I’m hoping that we can rationalize these deployments so that they can take place at a rational basis.
I know the Marines – about six months I know General Dempsey is, when he was chief of the Army, took it down to about nine months because it was more than that in terms of time abroad. I’m hoping that we can make it uniform and make it rational for everybody in terms of their deployments.
Now, there’s a big if – there’s a big if as always, which is the crisis that can happen, that suddenly occurs. In North Korea they’re threatening to fire a missile and they’ve done this before. We thought we were in a period of accommodation with them. Now it looks like we’re in a period of provocation with the Koreans – North Koreans. And so you never quite know. If they fire this missile, something goes haywire – they just fired a couple of other missiles today. If they do a nuclear test, we’re never sure where that all leads. You know, our hope is that it is just provocation for the moment and that we’ll be back in a period of accommodation. But we don’t know. It’s a touchy part of the world.
The other touchy part of the world is Iran. And we’re concerned about Iran. We’re concerned about them trying to improve their nuclear capability. And we’ve made very clear that they are not to develop a nuclear weapon. If something – if Israel decides to go after Iran and we have to defend ourselves, we could be engaged sooner than any of us want.
So those are some of the crises that can happen out there that might again demand that we’re going to have to respond. I hope that’s not the case. I hope that all the sacrifices done over these last 10 years will lead us to a period that hopefully diplomacy and better sense and better international pressure will provide peace, not war. But the whole purpose for the United States military is to be able to respond when we’re called upon to any crisis anywhere in the world, and we will with the best fighting machine any country has ever had.
Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. Sergeant Wimer (ph) – (inaudible). My question to you, sir, is with ever rising tensions in the Middle East and across the world and by implementing budget cuts and personnel cuts, is there any fear of losing in the middle and upper ranks experienced veterans in the occurrence of a future event?
SEC. PANETTA: Yes, that’s a great question. And it’s one of the things we don’t want to lose. One of the things that General Odierno is doing with regards to the Army and the same thing is occurring with regards to Marines is that we want to maintain those middle-rank individual who have a tremendous amount of experience that have been out there and try to not lose that experience for the future.
In the past they’ve basically taken down everybody throughout all the ranks and, frankly, we pay a price for that. We have gained tremendous experience over these last 10 years. We’ve got people that are honed. They understand what combat’s about. They know how to do the job. I don’t want to lose that.
The same thing, frankly, is true for the Reserve. We’ve got Reserves and the National Guard that has been activated that are fighting right alongside the active duty and doing a hell of a job. I don’t want to lose that experience as well. So one of the things we’re going to do in the future is make sure that we continue rotational deployments with regards to the Reserve and the National Guard so they’re brought in on a regular basis, on an operational basis so that we cannot lose that experience.
But the answer to your question is we are not going to make the mistakes of the past. We are going to try to do everything we can to maintain the experience, the operational skills of those that have really learned those skills over these last 10 years.
Thanks very much.
Thanks everybody. I appreciate it very much. And, gain, best of luck to all of you. (Applause.)