SECRETARY PANETTA: Good morning.
It's my privilege to welcome Defense Secretary Hammond to the Pentagon. We had a very productive meeting. We had -- we've had the opportunity to meet a number of months ago at the NATO Summit in Chicago and I was pleased to have another very valuable discussion with the secretary here today.
The close working relationship that Secretary Hammond and I have established is the latest example, I think, of the very special relationship and bond between the United States and the United Kingdom.
It's a relationship that is rooted in deep cultural/historical ties that we've had through history and shared aspirations. And it's been fortified by battlefields across the world.
Today, we discussed the important progress that has been made in Afghanistan, as well as the challenges that will need to be overcome to ensure that our shared sacrifices result in enduring gains.
I would like to express my -- my personal gratitude and the nation's sincere gratitude for the roughly 9,500 British troops who continue to serve alongside of our sons and daughters in Afghanistan.
And I would also like to express our deepest condolences for the more than 400 who have given their lives so that our nations could be more secure. They have courageously followed in the footsteps of generations of British service men and service women who have fought side by side with the United States to defend our freedom and to defend our values.
We also spoke about a number of issues of shared concern in today's world, from the violence in Syria to the destabilizing behavior of Iran.
Additionally, we discussed the challenges of maintaining a strong defense at a time of fiscal austerity. This department looks forward to continuing to work closely with the British military as they work to right-size their force structure and as both of our nations implement new defense strategies.
A crucial part of these new strategies is enhanced alliance cooperation. For that reason, I'm delighted that Secretary Hammond will have the opportunity to mark yet another milestone in our defense relationship tomorrow by taking the first international delivery of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The United Kingdom was the first partner nation to join the F-35 program and has been a tremendous partner throughout the development, testing and the initial production.
I'm pleased by the significant progress that the program has made across all of the service variants, particularly in the past year. Although there is still a long road ahead to complete development of the JCF (sic), we are making good progress in testing and stabilizing future production and sustainment plans.
The delivery of this jet is an indication of the considerable strides that we have made. The F-35 represents, I believe, the future of tactical aviation for both of our armed services. And this advanced aircraft's air superiority, its precision strike capability, will help ensure our dominance of the skies for years to come.
Our continued commitment to this program will also further solidify the U.S.-U.K. alliance. And that will help us achieve our shared vision of a peaceful and prosperous future.
So let me again thank Secretary Hammond once again for his strong partnership, his strong friendship. I would now like to present Secretary Hammond with a small token of appreciation for his partnership.
Tomorrow, you'll get the keys to the real Joint Strike Fighter. But until then, I wanted you to have this less expensive version. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY HAMMOND: Well, thank you very much for that, Leon.
Good morning, everybody. I'm delighted to be here at the Pentagon. And I greatly appreciate having the opportunity to continue my ongoing dialogue with Secretary Panetta on some of the most pressing issues of the day.
We've had a very useful discussion this morning on Afghanistan, as we and our ISAF partners prepare to draw down our combat operations by the end of 2014, and in particular, as we plan the drawdown in Helmand province, where U.K. forces work so closely and in such an integrated fashion with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Our forces are proud to work alongside U.S. forces, and we honor their dead, who have given their lives in our common cause.
We also discussed the latest situation in Syria and the ongoing need for the international community, including Russia and China, to make it clear to the Assad regime that the Annan plan must be implemented in full.
The events of this week in the Gulf demonstrate the tense situation that we face there. And I can reaffirm our commitment to play our part in maintaining freedom of navigation in the international waters of the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz.
I said before here in Washington in January that any attempt by Iran to close the Straits would be illegal and the international community will not allow it to happen.
More broadly, Secretary Panetta and I have also been discussing the future threats and security challenges that we will face together in the post-Afghanistan combat era and how we need to transform our defense structures in order to confront them.
Close collaborations and working partnerships will remain the key, and the U.K. intends to remain America's most capable ally, both on current operations, such as Afghanistan, where, as Secretary Panetta said, 9,500 British troops are fighting alongside American, NATO and Afghan partners, and on future operations, whether they take place on land, sea or air, or indeed where they are fought on the new frontier of cyberspace.
The U.K. is transforming its armed forces to meet the needs of our national security as we build what we are calling Future Force 2020. We will continue to exceed the NATO guideline standard of 2 percent of GDP on defense spending, and we plan to spend around $250 billion on our equipment program over the next 10 years.
We will continue our close collaboration with the United States as our most important defense relationship, building on the shared experience of a decade fighting together, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan; on our wide-ranging intelligence relationship, our joint work on the F-35B, regenerating the U.K.'s carrier strike capability, and of course the work on the nuclear deterrent and the common missile compartment, all crucial keystones of our relationship.
The U.K., despite tough economic conditions and major fiscal challenges, will continue to play a significant role in coalition operations in the future, acquiring the next generation of military technology and platforms, delivering the training, skills and fighting spirit that deliver a battle-winning edge, and, crucially, maintaining the political will to deploy our forces when required in defense of our freedom and prosperity.
As we structure our armed forces for the world post-Afghanistan and develop our capabilities to face the new threats ahead, we will focus on interoperability and collaboration with our closest ally, the United States.
As President Obama said in London of the U.S.-U.K. relationship, this is one of the oldest and strongest alliances the world has ever known. My message to our American partners today is that we want to see it get still stronger and much older.
Q: A question for both of you on Syria. What do you make of the accelerating pace of the developments on the ground, in particular today's suicide bombing at the National Security building that killed both the defense minister and apparently also the deputy defense minister? Do you see indications that the regime could be cracking from within?
And also, on the question of chemical weapons, these reports that they've moved some of their munitions, does that suggest to you that they're preparing to use them, perhaps out of desperation?
SEC. PANETTA: Look, we're -- we are very concerned by the increasing violence that's taking place in Syria and the tremendous loss of lives associated with that increased violence.
It is more essential than ever that the United States and the international community continue to work together, through the United Nations, through whatever possible vehicles we have, to bring additional pressure on Assad to step down and to allow for a peaceful transition of government there in Syria.
And it is -- it's something that we've made very clear to them: that they have a responsibility to safeguard their chemical sites, and that we will hold them responsible should anything happen with regards to those sites.
This is something that -- that we and our allies are working very closely together: to ensure that they are fulfilling their responsibility to effectively secure these chemical sites.
SEC. HAMMOND: Well, we're all horrified by the level of loss of life, the atrocities against civilian populations being carried out in Syria. And as you say, there is a sense that the situation is deteriorating and is becoming more and more unpredictable.
And as Secretary Panetta has said, in these circumstances it is ever more imperative that the international community, including all players who have influence, bring pressure to bear on the Assad regime to implement in full the Annan plan to stabilize the country and allow an orderly transition of power.
Because you've raised the question of chemical weapons, and of course a disorderly transition in Syria raises significant issues for all of us. And as the secretary said, we're all watching very carefully how the Syrians discharge their obligations with regard to these chemical weapon sites that they're -- that they're sitting on.
And it's very much in all of our interest that, despite the chaos in the country, these sites remain under tight control and that there is no -- no proliferation of materials out of those sites, and certainly no use of them against the civilian population.
Q: Jonathan Beale, BBC.
If I could ask you, Secretary of State, reports today that 2,000 more troops are on standby for Olympic security. I wonder whether you can confirm that. And if so, is that it? I mean, the cupboard must be pretty bare at the moment.
And I'd just like to ask Secretary Panetta, I know it's not your beat, but looking from afar, the fiasco of security guards or a prior contractor not turning up, the Army having to step in. Are you convinced that Britain can deliver a safe and secure Olympic Games, that American citizens, participants will also be safe?
SEC. HAMMOND: Well, Jonathan, we are, as you know, determined to deliver a safe and secure and enjoyable Olympics, and we're very confident of our ability to do so. There was always going to be a very significant military component to the security plan. That -- that -- that military component is now larger than was originally intended.
The military makes contingency plans for everything and anything, and then a few more contingency plans just in case. So you would expect the military to be preparing for every contingency. But we haven't placed any further troops on notice to move.
However, if there is a requirement for more military support, it will be provided. The prime minister has made very clear that we will do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary to ensure the safety and security of the games. And our military stand ready to deliver that task if they're called upon to do so.
SEC. PANETTA: We've worked very closely with Secretary Hammond in this effort, and offer him whatever assistance he may need in order to ensure that proper security is provided. I think we have the greatest confidence that -- in he and his government, that they will provide effective security for the athletes that are going to be there.
Q: More specifically on Syria, what do you make of the fact in the last several days the fighting has shifted right into the center of Damascus? What does this tell you about the opposition, about the regime, the fact that it now is taking place inside essentially government buildings?
If I also may follow up on this, for both of you, all of this. On the Strait of Hormuz, do you have new concerns that Iran could, might, is threatening to shut down the Strait? Do you think they're really going to do that?
SEC. PANETTA: With regards to the last part of your question, the Iranians need to understand that the United States and the international community are going to hold them directly responsible for any disruption of shipping in that region by Iran or, for that matter, by its surrogates.
And the United States is fully prepared for all contingencies. We've invested in capabilities to ensure that the Iranian attempt to close down shipping in the Gulf is something that we are going to be able to defeat if they make that decision to do that.
Q: And the fighting in Damascus, for both of you gentlemen. It's been the last couple of days now. What does this tell you about what is going on there?
And when you said that you're working to ensure -- with the allies -- to ensure that the Syrians understand their responsibility on chemical weapons, what -- can you tell the world what you're doing so the world feels more reassured that you have an ability to do something about this with the fighting in Damascus?
SEC. PANETTA: I think -- I think, as I indicated, it's -- it's obvious that -- that what is happening in Syria represents a real escalation in the fighting, and that all of the concerns that we've expressed about the need for Assad to step down, the need for a peaceful transition, the need to achieve a peaceful solution to that situation, that by ignoring those appeals by the international community, that the violence there has only gotten worse and the loss of lives has only increased, which tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control.
And for that reason, it's extremely important that the international community, working with other countries that have concerns in that area, have to bring maximum pressure on -- on Assad to do what's right, to step down and to allow for that peaceful transition.
SEC. HAMMOND: Well, I absolutely agree with the -- with Secretary Panetta at this sense of a situation spinning out of control as the violence gets closer and closer to the heart of the regime.
I think what we're seeing is an opposition which is emboldened; clearly, an opposition which has access increasingly to weaponry; probably some fragmentation around the edges of the regime as well.
And I think it just emphasizes the importance of the implementation of the Annan plan, which applies to all parties and is intended to create a framework for a peaceful and orderly transition of power.
And -- and both sides need to understand that the international community is determined to see an orderly and peaceful transfer of power in Syria, not least because of the significance of the presence of these chemical weapon stocks in the country, which we do not want to see exposed to a situation that is out of control.
Q: Can you stop them from using those chemical weapons?
SEC. HAMMOND: We -- we can -- we can apply -- we, collectively, the international community can apply pressure to ensure that the regime understands that we will not tolerate the use or the -- or the proliferation of those chemical weapons.
And I think that scenario -- we have -- we have differences with other international players on some issues. But I think this is an area where all the major international players share a desire, a necessity to see these weapons kept under tight control and not used in any way, shape or form.
Q: Can you stop them ahead of time from using them?
SEC. HAMMOND: We, collectively, the international community, can apply pressure to the regime and we are doing so.
That -- that -- the -- the regime -- the regime exists at the moment because it receives tacit support from other powers in the world. If those powers are sending clear messages about the limits of their tolerance for the activities of the regime, that will be an effective constraint on the activities of the regime.
So our diplomacy has to focus on getting those who have the greatest influence with the regime to ensure that it acts responsibly in relation to chemical weapons.
If I can just answer your question on the Straits of Hormuz. I made clear in my earlier remarks that we are determined to work as part of the international community effort to ensure freedom of passage in the international waters of the Straits of Hormuz.
This is an effort which clearly the United States is leading, and the powerful signal was sent by the decision to order the John Stennis to the Gulf. And we have supporting assets in the Gulf. We will continue to maintain those supporting assets and work closely with the United States and others.
SEC. HAMMOND: Yeah. David?
Q: Yeah. David from the News Sun.
There's been some claims that the Joint Strike Fighter could be lost in budget cuts here in the U.S. Have you been given any assurances that it will survive?
And maybe follow up with Mr. Panetta. How important is the JSF to the U.S. Marine Corps?
SEC. HAMMOND: Well, yes. I mean, obviously this is a question that I have asked repeatedly since I came into this job. And I have assurances at the highest levels that this is a program that is now on track. It's a program that's doing very well.
It went through a period 18 months or so ago when it was placed on probation because of some technical difficulties. It's come out of those. The aircraft, the B variant now has over 1,000 hours of flying time clocked up, the U.S. Marine Corps is successfully flying it off maritime platforms, which are ships, in plain English.
And I look forward to seeing it in operation later on today at Pax River, and then picking up our first test aircraft tomorrow -- not literally picking it up, because it's a single-seater, you understand. So I won't be flying it home, but picking up our first test aircraft at Fort Worth tomorrow.
And I know that the -- this is a project that is extremely important to the future of the U.S. Marine Corps. And I also know that the administration understands the crucial importance of this aircraft variant to our own carrier -- carrier strike regeneration project, which I should place on record, the U.S. administration, the Department of Defense, has been massively supportive of and is providing us with all sorts of facilities to maintain and regenerate our capabilities to operate the carrier flight deck and to maintain the skills in our pilots, many of whom are now flying with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to keep those skills alive.
SEC. PANETTA: And I've made very clear that -- that this fighter plane is critical to our future defense strategy. Our future defense strategy depends on agility, it depends on flexibility, it depends on the ability to stay on the cutting edge of technology. And the JSF fighter represents a perfect example of that kind of agility, speed and capability.
We are committed to it, We're committed to all of the three variants, because we think that each of the forces will be able to use that kind of weaponry for the future, so that we can effectively control the skies as we confront the enemies of tomorrow.
It is -- it's something we have to continue to put pressure on, to maintain cost controls on. And we are working with the industry to do that, because we do want it to be cost effective.
But we are fully confident that we're going to be able, working with industry, working with the Congress, to be able to meet our full commitments with regards to the Joint Strike Fighter.
STAFF: Thank you all very much.
SEC. HAMMOND: Thank you.