BRUSSELS, Oct. 6, 2011 – Countries of the NATO alliance must work together to defend common security interests now and in the future, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today.
At his final press conference of the Oct. 5-6 NATO defense ministerial, Panetta summarized key issues, praised the alliance and its success in Afghanistan and Libya, and detailed work that is needed to fill gaps in the alliance’s military capabilities.
„Security in the 21st century will not be achieved by each nation marching to its own drummer,“ the secretary said.
„The fiscal austerity our nations are facing and the pressure these budget constraints are putting on defense spending,“ he added, „make it all the more essential that we have alliances like NATO.“
Joining Panetta in NATO Headquarters‘ Luns Auditorium were Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, supreme allied commander Europe.
In a morning session, the secretary participated in a meeting of ISAF representatives and those of troop-contributing nations to ISAF to discuss the war in Afghanistan.
„General Allen presented a briefing of the situation in Afghanistan to that group, and reviewed the significant progress we’ve made in NATO’s largest effort“ and the transition from the coalition to Afghan-led security there, Panetta said.
„It was amazing to look around that room and see all the nations that have contributed,“ he added. “ … It’s one of the largest coalitions that has come together in this kind of effort.“
Allen’s briefing, Panetta said, made clear that although hard fighting lies ahead before all combat troops are withdrawn from the country by the end of 2014, last year’s surge in forces has created the right conditions for transition.
„And we continue to make great strides in developing and strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces,“ the secretary said.
Panetta sent a strong message to the other ministers, he said, that despite the drawdown, the United States will maintain important enablers in northern and western Afghanistan — including medevac teams, helicopters and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support — that are needed to complete the mission.
„In listening to my fellow ministers, I was struck by their shared commitment to carry forward this mission and to build on the significant progress we’ve made,“ he said.
„There is also consensus that we are on the right path, we’ve made good progress, [and] there are hard times ahead,“ the secretary added, „but we remain unified in the goal of achieving a stable Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future.“
Another session today focused on the effort in Libya, he said, a „remarkable achievement“ that is nearing its conclusion with the fall of the Gadhafi regime.
After the ministerial, Panetta travels to Naples, home of the Allied Joint Forces Command, to meet with NATO commanders involved in Libya operations and receive briefings on that effort.
„While this campaign has achieved its goals and demonstrated NATO’s effectiveness,“ Panetta said, „we all must come away from this experience determined to build on these successes and address some of the shortcomings in military capability that were exposed.“
A major theme of the ministerial was the need to ensure that NATO has the military capabilities it needs to successfully operate in the 21st century, even in a time of growing budget constraints, the secretary said.
In advance of the NATO Summit in Chicago in May, Panetta said, the alliance must identify, protect and strengthen the core capabilities NATO needs to meet the kind of missions it is most likely to have over the next decade.
An example of such a capability is missile defense, he said.
Yesterday at the ministerial, Panetta and Spanish Prime Minister Josï¿½uis Rodrï¿½ez Zapatero announced that Spain agreed to port four U.S. Aegis ships at Naval Station Rota to support NATO’s missile defense system, among other things.
„Alongside important agreements recently concluded with Romania, Poland and Turkey,“ the secretary said, „this agreement represents a critical step in implementing NATO missile defense.“
The Netherlands agreed on Sept. 29 to upgrade radars on four air defense and commando frigates in support of the missile defense effort.
Another effort addresses the need to bolster NATO capabilities in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, he said.
The Alliance Ground Surveillance program, or AGS, will allow NATO troops to use advanced radar sensors to perform persistent surveillance over wide areas from high-altitude unmanned air platforms.
„Although we have not resolved the issue of how to fund infrastructure and operations costs, I will leave Brussels hopeful that we can reach an agreement to proceed with the program,“ Panetta said.
Steps have been put in place, he added, that will help the alliance reach an agreement.
„Solving this kind of issue is important not only so that we can move ahead with AGS, but also because it is a crucial symbol of alliance cooperation,“ he said.
Failure to reach agreement „could hurt the drive for similar cost-effective, multinational approaches — the kind of smart defense that Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wants to implement for NATO, he said.
„I appreciate the willingness of my fellow ministers,“ the secretary said, „to fight together [and] defend our common security interests.“
Together, he added, „I believe … we can build a stronger and more effective alliance for the future.“
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)