SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Okay. Are you all right? Okay.
Q: Staff Sergeant Bales’ defense team says they’re facing an almost complete information blackout from the government that’s having a devastating effect.
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, the key here is to follow the procedures that we have under the military code of justice and we’ve made very clear that – I’ve made very clear that those procedures will be followed and that they’ll be entitled to whatever information we’d be entitled to under the military code of justice. But I’ve been assured that this investigation now is going to continue, that charges have now been brought. We’re going through an Article 32 process and the defendant, as I said, will be entitled to the rights that are provided under the military code of justice.
Q: (Inaudible) – since 2007. And 75 percent have been in the last two years. We’re wondering, with this situation can the partnership endure and what needs to be done and can be done?
SEC. PANETTA: No, you know, I really do think that General Allen has the right strategy for Afghanistan and that 2011 was an important turning point that we’ve made some significant gains there and that we’re in the process of transitioning areas to Afghan governance and control. And I think we need to stick to that strategy. As I’ve said, war is hell. We’re going to run into these kinds of incidents. That’s the nature of conflict, but we can’t allow those kinds of incidents to undermine our basic strategy. We’re on the right track and we have to stick to it.
Q: Mr. Secretary –for the spring – what the strategy as far –
SEC. PANETTA: The –spring? I think right now obviously our goal is to make sure that we continue to secure the key areas that we’re involved with and that we continue the transition. There’s another transition that’s due to be made in this year and we’ve got about three more areas of transition to complete. The final transition will take place about in the fall of 2013. So our goal from General Allen is to do that. The other goal, frankly, is that we are going to be withdrawing the remainder of the surge, which is about 23,000. And so General Allen will present me with a plan sometime in April as to how we accomplish that by the end of this fighting season.
Q: Sir, I have a two-part question about BRAC. If you secure approval for it, how might that affect Southern California? If you don’t, what can the Department do on its own? Are you prepared to close the smaller bases -- 300 and less personnel?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, the reason we’ve asked for BRAC authority here is because, you know, as we draw down the force over the next five to 10 years, that we’re going to have – you kow, we’ll have some excess infrastructure. And that if we’re spending money on maintaining excess infrastructure, it’s money that is taken away from other areas in defense.
The BRAC process, I know it’s a tough process. I’ve been through BRAC, when I was a congressman in Monterey. I went through the loss of Fort Ord, so I know what it means for a community. But the BRAC process is at least the only approach we have trying to do this right.
I believe that we ought to do it through that approach. There is some de minimis closures that we have the right to do under the law, but my view is that for the kind of major installation, that ought to be done through the BRAC process.
Q: Mr. Secretary, have we taken any special precautions –
SEC. PANETTA: By the way, on Southern California, I mean, I think generally the bases here are pretty important to the strategy that we put in place in terms of our defense. And I think most of those will largely be maintained.
Q: Particularly regarding the pivot to the Pacific or –
SEC. PANETTA: Yes, the pivot to the Pacific is important, but more importantly being able to maintain the facilities for our troops and our Navy, and particularly the Marine Corps. Those are going to be essential elements to that strategy.
Q: Have we taken any special precautions should the North Koreans launch missiles?
SEC. PANETTA: We expressed our concern. The president of the United States made very clear that the North Koreans should not do this. It is provocative. It’s dangerous and it violates the international law. And so our hope is that they will not do it. But as always takes place in these kinds of situations, we have to be fully prepared for any possibility -- and we are.
Q: Have we moved – (inaudible).
SEC. PANETTA: Put whatever assets in place that we need in order to deal with any contingency.
Q: Mr. Secretary, there’s a lot of concern on Capitol Hill about having sufficient ships in the Navy to do the Navy – (inaudible) – the Navy have pushed the decommissioning another year, but it’s going to be retired at some point. The Marines are concerned and they want to make sure that there’s enough – (inaudible) – them. How do you reconcile the two needs both from a budgetary perspective and also operationally having ships available to train and prepare and then deploy overseas?
SEC. PANETTA: We just – we actually just sent up the 30-year shipbuilding plan to the Congress. And as I testified, our goal is to maintain the target of developing 300 ships in the Navy. And we will do that by – I think the target right now is to do that by 2019. So yes, there’ll be – yes, there’ll be some ups and downs and there are some ships that obviously we’ll draw down that are outdated. But overall, we are going to maintain -- not only maintain, but increase our ships in the Navy.
Q: Are you concerned that there are – you know, the fleet has been ridden hard and put away wet?
SEC. PANETTA: It has and – you know – but these are great ships. I had a chance to go on ships like this and I was just on the Enterprise, which is a carrier that’s being deployed for the last time in the Middle East, but, you know, they’ve served this country well.
One of the things that I want to maintain is our industrial base for the future so that we can produce the ships we need for the future. And I want to do it in American shipyards. I don’t want to do it abroad. So what I’ve got to do is to try to – and we’re committed to this – is to try to do this in a way that protects our industrial base so that it will be there if and when we need it for the future.
Okay? Thanks very much.