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Town Hall Meeting with Secretary Panetta at Yokota Airbase, Japan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
September 17, 2012

            SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E.  PANETTA:  At ease guys. 

            Thanks very much, Mark.  Appreciate the introduction.  Ladies and gentlemen, it's a great -- great treat to be here at this -- at this base and have a chance to talk with all of you, and have a chance to visit this great area. 

            First and foremost, let me -- let me thank you for your service.  You know, challenges that -- that face our country are huge, but whatever those challenges are, greatest confidence I have in the ability of the United States to confront any challenge anywhere is because we have men and women in uniform that are willing to serve this country. 

            And so, let -- let me thank you for your service, let me thank you for your sacrifice.  It's never easy to do this -- this kind of work, and these kinds of assignments.  It's never easy when people have to put their lives on the line in order to protect our country. 

            This country is founded -- our fundamental strength going back to our forefathers, the great strength of the United States has been the fact that we have always had citizen warriors.  People that have been willing to serve this country, to give something back to this country, and to keep us strong. 

            That's the tradition that made the United States of America the strongest country on earth, and it wouldn't happen unless there were men and women like all of you that are willing to serve this country, and also your families, the families that are willing to support that sacrifice.  

            We can't, frankly, do our jobs, without the support of our families.  And so I pay tribute not only to you, but pay tribute to all of your families who -- who are part of our family, our military family, and who deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their loyalty and for their constant support, and for their love. 

            This is in many ways a historic time to be part of the -- the defense structure of the United States of America.  Historic in many ways.  We have on one hand, achieved a great deal because of the sacrifice of men and women like you.  We've been in -- in war over 10 years.  And during that time, we've taken on terrorism, those who attacked our country on 9/11.  

            We've gone after their leadership, we've decimated their leadership.  We went after Osama Bin Laden, took care of him.  Took care of good -- good many leaders of Al Qaida.  And basically undermined their -- their command and control capability to be able to put together the kind of 9/11 attack that we saw.  So, we have made tremendous success against the leadership of Al Qaida that was involved in 9/11.  

            We did bring the war in Iraq to a conclusion.  We are in the process of drawing down in Afghanistan.  General Allen has put a very affective plan in place that will give us the opportunity to transition there to an Afghanistan that hopefully can secure and govern itself.  

            It will not be easy, it's tough.  It's still in a war there.  And you know we're -- we continue to run into an enemy that is resilient, but we are making progress because of the sacrifice of many men and women who have really struggled in order to make sure that we could defeat the Taliban and try to ultimately provide an Afghanistan that would never be a safe haven for the terrorism that attacked our home country.  

            We're making good progress, and my hope is that we can complete that transition by the end of 2014.  We obviously have engaged in other challenges.  We engaged with NATO in Libya in an effort that brought down Gadhafi, and returned Libya to the Libyan people.  We have -- we have, as a result of 10 years of war and the sacrifice of a lot of men and women in uniform, been able to achieve some very important successes. 

            At the same time, we're -- we're a country that continues to face threats in the world.  We still face a number of challenges.  The last few days were an indication of the kind of challenges that we have to confront.  We're still fighting a war in Afghanistan.  We still confront terrorism in Yemen and Somalia, in North Africa, and elsewhere.  

            We continue in this part of the world to face the threat from North Korea and possibility of nuclear confrontation with them.  We continue to face the threat from Iran, and their interest in trying to develop a nuclear capability.  We have turmoil in the middle east.  What you've seen going on over these last few days is an indication the kind of turmoil we've had to confront.  

            We're facing challenges in Syria.  And turmoil there as well.  We're facing the threat of cyber-war.  We now are facing cyber-attacks almost every day.  It is, in my view, the battlefield of the future.  All right?  With the potential of an enemy that will use cyber to -- to cripple our nation, to bring down our power grid, to impact on our financial systems, our government systems, that's the reality.  And that's something we have to defend against in the future.  

            We're facing the challenge of rising power, here in the Pacific, and elsewhere, and the challenge of being able to work with them to respect international rules and regulations.  

            So, there's a -- there's a lot of challenges that we're confronting, lot of threats in the world.  We are, thank God, the strongest military power in the history of the world.  Somebody asked me the other day, "How can we confront all of these challenges?"  

            It's because we are the strongest military power in the world.  I'm able to deploy forces to the middle east, at the same time, we are focusing on rebalancing in the Pacific.  The United States of America has the power and capability to be able to do that. 

            We are, at the same time, as we face all of these challenges, facing the challenge of having to address some real budget concerns from the United States.  We are a country that's in a heavy deficit, and we in -- in the defense department obviously have a role to play in trying to deal with that as well. 

            The Congress handed me a number of $487 billion to take down the defense budget over the next 10 years.  The approach we took was to say to our military leadership, our civilian leadership, "How do we develop a strategy, a new defense strategy for the 21st century?"  Let's build that strategy and then decide how we implement a budget that meets that strategy.  

            I asked two or three important guidelines.  Number one, I want to maintain the strongest military in the world.  Number two, I do not want to hollow out our force.  In the past, when we were reduced the defense budget, we'd cut it across the board.  And it basically hollowed out and weakened every area of national defense.  We are not going to repeat that mistake. 

            Lastly, I -- I said it was very important that we maintain trust with the men and women who have served this country.  People that have been deployed time and time and time again, we have got to make sure that we hold true to the commitments we've made to you and to your families. 

            And so with those guidelines, we developed a new strategy.  And the strategy really does implement elements that are important to our confronting this historic transition that's taking place in the world of today. 

            Number one, we know we're going to be smaller.  We're going to have to be leaner.  But we have to be agile.  We have to be quickly deployable.  We have to be flexible.  And we have to be on the cutting edge of technology. 

            Secondly, we have got to focus our force in those areas that we -- in which we face the biggest threat.  So that's why we're rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific because we confront real threats here from -- from North Korea.  This is an important region in terms of our economy, in terms of diplomacy, in terms of trade, in terms of our future.  And that's why we're focused on this area. 

            Secondly, we've got to focus on the Middle East because of the challenges that we confront there.  

            Thirdly, we need to maintain a presence everywhere in the world.  It's important that when it comes to Latin America and Africa and Europe and elsewhere, that we're able to maintain a presence there.  So we've developed an innovative approach of rotational deployments where we will send troops in.  They'll exercise.  They'll train.  They'll assist.  They'll develop the capabilities of other countries so that they can be a partner, an ally in providing security in this very complex world. 

            Fourthly, we've got to be able to defeat more than one enemy at a time.  If we have to confront a war in Korea, in North Korea, we've got to be able to deal with an enemy that may close the straits of Hormuz.  The United States has to be strong enough to be able to confront more than one enemy at a time. 

            And lastly, we have to invest in the future -- invest in the kind of technology that I talked about; invest in space; invest in cyber; invest in unmanned systems; invest in the capabilities of technology that we need in order to keep us the number one power in the world; invest in the ability of maintaining a strong reserve and a strong National Guard that will always be there to be able to respond to crisis. 

            So those are the key elements of the strategy we've put in place.  And I believe we have a strategy that is very effective to dealing with the challenges that I just described in a very complex world.  

            The key, of course, is that we will need to have the strong support of the Congress in being able to support that effort.  We'll reduce the budget, and the plan that we put in place does an effective job at providing savings.  

            But the one thing that I can't have happen is to have the Congress fail to deal with the sequester mechanism they put in place.  If they don't deal with this and sequester goes into effect, you can take that strategy I just talked about and throw it out the window because it will hollow us out.  It will cut another $500 billion out of the defense budget and that would undermine everything we're working for.  

            So one of the big battles, frankly, we have is to make sure that the Congress does what it's supposed to do -- roll up their sleeves and make sure that sequester does not happen. 

            Look, I am very proud of the great weapons and technology that we have.  I see it here.  I see it throughout the world.  We've got the best weapons, got the best ships, the best carriers, the best planes of any other country in the world; the best capabilities.  But you know what our greatest strength is?  The men and women in uniform that serve our country. 

            None of that technology, none of those weapons is worth a damn if it weren't for men and women that were willing to serve this country and that have the capabilities that you have in serving this country.  So that's the reason I thank you.  Thank you for your service.  Thank you for your sacrifice.  But most of all, thank you for keeping America strong, not just today, but keeping America strong for the future. 

            Thanks very much. (Applause.) 

            I'm happy to answer some questions if you've got some. 

            Okay, right there. 

            Q:  -- (inaudible). 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Just speak -- speak up. 

            Q:  Sir, Master Sergeant Fred -- (inaudible) -- from Yokota Fire Department.  Today is the Combined Federal Campaign kickoff, which is one of your programs, and may I present you with a coin to thank you for the 2,500 charities that you support and looking forward to another record year last year with 5 million, hopefully this year 5.5 million? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  (off mic) 

            (Applause.) 

            Q:  There you go. 

            Q:  Thank you for supporting the program, sir.  There's a lot of firefighters that benefit from that.  Thank you, sir. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Thanks very much. 

            Q:  Cheers, sir. 

            Q:  Thank you. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Okay, with that commercial message, any other questions?  Yes, sir.  Over here. 

            Q:  Sir, I'm – A1C (inaudible) -- Smith from 374th Logistics Readiness Squadron, fuels, you spoke about being ready for the future, and -- (inaudible) -- cutbacks.  Is -- is our education going to be affected by that, sir?  Because I believe for us to be more prepared for the future, college is very, very important for us.  How can we look forward to a future if they're going to be cutting back our education? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Concerning those -- concern about the cutbacks and whether or not it'll affect education, our -- our goal right now is to maintain all the benefits that we have in the G.I. Bill and to provide all of the education benefits you have.  As a matter of fact, we're working with the V.A. to establish a transition process for those that are going to process out to make sure that they get the best education assistance, if they want to get a good education, to get the best advice if they want to start a business, to be able to get the best support if they want to return back to their communities. 

            We're providing a whole transition -- a new transition system that we've piloted in a number of areas to try to make sure that you get the benefit of all the programs that are there and you're made aware of that as you transition back. 

            We're going to be transitioning a lot of -- a lot of people.  As we do the drawdown, there will be a lot of people going back home.  We want to make sure that we give them the support system that you need in order to make sure that you can get back into your communities and be able to -- be able to support your families and support yourselves.  So right now, there's -- there's a very strong commitment in the Congress, in the administration, and elsewhere not to reduce those benefits. 

            Q:  Sir? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yes. 

            Q:  Sergeant (Roberto Godella ?), U.S. Army -- (inaudible) -- Japan.  My question concerns re-enlistment.  A lot of MOSs (military occupational specialty) are closed to those without normal color vision.  Do you foresee in the future more MOSs opening up to those without normal color vision? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I hope that'll be -- our goal is to make that the case.  Look, we are going to have to protect the capabilities that we have in the military.  We're the strongest military, why?  Because all of you have developed skills and capabilities and MOSs that are extremely important to our defense system. 

            Our defense system is highly technological.  That's the nature of it.  And we're going to become even more technological in the future.  We're developing, as some of you may know, this new -- the new fighter plane, the Joint Strike Fighter.  It's a complex plane.  But it'll be the most effective fighter plane in the force.  We're going to be developing a new bomber for the Air Force.  We're developing some new ships.  We're developing some new capabilities. 

            We're going to need to protect those capabilities that you have if we're going to be an effective fighting force.  So what I've asked all of the services to do is to carefully review their MOSs, make sure they're protecting those that are going to be essential to our maintaining a strong defense for the future. 

            You get two? 

            Q:  A1C (inaudible) -- Smith from the 374th Logistics Readiness Squadron.  With us doing less with more, sir, do you feel like that we in the future -- we're going to have to depend more on technology than we are with our manpower?  Do you feel like we're going to depend more on technology in the future more than our manpower? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  The question was whether we're going to have to, you know, rely more on technology than manpower.  The fact is, technology demands manpower.  I can't -- I can't just do technology alone.  I mean, of course what -- even in developing unmanned systems, even in developing drones, which have been, you know, very effective, the reality is, I need people in order to operate those drones.  I need pilots.  I need people who are technicians.  I need people from the intelligence agencies to be able to do it. 

            So in order to make it work effectively, I need good men and women who've got the brainpower to make this stuff work.  This stuff is not going to operate by itself.  It's like a computer.  I mean, you know, computers are great, but without people that are working it, without people that are -- that understand how to make use of these computers, it doesn't mean a damn thing.  So that's the reason we've got to maintain capable men and women in uniform who can be effective.           

            Now, yeah, we're going to develop new technologies.  We've got to develop new technologies to stay on the cutting edge of the future.  But to make it work, as I said, even -- you know, the best weapons systems, the best planes, the best fighter planes, the best bombers, best ships aren't worth a damn if I don't have good men and women who are prepared to serve this country.  That's the key to keeping America strong. 

            Other questions?  All right, guys.  I'm going to -- we're going to -- back there?  Go ahead.  Last question. 

            Q:  Yes, sir.  Major Ramsey, Fifth Air Force.  There's been a lot of news stories about the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkakus.  What is the expectation from Defense Department on America's posture?  And if that gets into a more heated dispute, what are we -- how are we going to posture ourselves? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  That's a question I just got just visiting Tokyo and visiting with the defense minister and visiting with the foreign minister, as well.  And there are demonstrations, as you know, going on in China. 

            I'm going to climb on this plane in a few minutes and fly to China.  I've got a trip to China.  I'll be meeting with the Chinese leadership there.  And actually, first time as secretary of defense, I'll be actually visiting some of their military establishments, so that'll -- that'll give me a chance to get better insights into what China's doing. 

            This -- this is an issue that concerns us.  These territorial disputes are not just related to the islands that Japan cares about.  The fact is, we've had territorial disputes elsewhere, as China tries to assert itself in the South China Sea.  And so the disputes over these territories -- I mean, the reason this is happening is because a lot of these countries look to these islands, look to the resources that are out there, look to offshore drilling, look to energy resources, and so it's going to become more competitive between countries as they face this issue. 

            Our goal in the United States is to try to make sure that these countries develop a process in order to try to resolve those issues.  We don't -- as the -- the United States does not take a position with regards to territorial disputes.  But the one thing that I am urging is that countries develop a process to resolve these disputes peacefully.  That's what they have to do. 

            Fortunately, the ASEAN nations developed a code of conduct with regards to navigation rights and with regards to territorial disputes that we think is -- is important, but China's got to participate in that, and so do other countries, to develop an enforcement mechanism that will allow these issues to be resolved -- to be resolved peacefully. 

            There is a danger that, you know, provocation of one kind or another, you know, we could have a blowup in any one of these issues.  And so it is the responsibility of those countries involved to try to resolve these issues peacefully.  And that's where I'm coming from.  That's what I'll urge the Chinese to do.  That's what I urge the Japanese to do.  And hopefully that'll work. 

            They know that, you know, when they play the game on who -- you know, who's in charge, it starts to get risky.  And the key for them is to find a way to be able to deal with these issues through diplomatic means and find ways to resolve it.  That's what we're going to be urging -- that's what I'll be urging when I go to China.

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