YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan, Oct. 24, 2011 — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta todayï¿½cited the importance of America’s alliance with Japan in maintaining peace and security across the Pacific region.
During a town hall meeting withï¿½some 200 U.S. and Japanese troops gathered in the 459th Airlift Squadron hangar, Panetta said the U.S.-Japan alliance stretches more than 50 years and is, in many ways, the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific. “And it will be for the next 50 years as well,” he added.
In line with President Barack Obama’s strategic guidance, U.S. defense forces will maintain and build on regional relationships with Japan and other countries, the secretary said.
“I just had the opportunity to be in Indonesia and meet with the [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] defense ministers,” he noted. “And I conveyed the same message to them: the United States will continue to work with all of them to improve our cooperation, to improve our assistance, and to make sure that we strengthen security for all nations in the Pacific region.”
Panetta commended Japanese and U.S. forces for their “extraordinary” efforts following the magnitude 8.9 earthquake that struck the island nation in March. Japanese forces rapidly mobilized, organized and brought relief to their fellow citizens at a time of great crisis and peril, the secretary said.
“The world witnessed the strength, the character, and the resilience of the Japanese people, and I pay tribute to Japan,” he said.
The U.S. military’s “great work” in bringing relief to the Japanese people suffering following the earthquake also is a source of pride, Panetta said.
America’s strength, he said, lies in its people serving in uniform at home or in Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere around the globe. “After nearly a decade of war on terrorism, we have significantly weakened al-Qaida and its militant allies,” Panetta said.
The nation’s military and intelligence communities are responsible for that success, Panetta said, but he warned they must keep up the pressure on terrorists.
“Make sure they never have anyplace to hide — whether it’s Pakistan, whether it’s Yemen, whether Somalia, whether it’s the Maghreb in North Africa,” the secretary said. “We have to keep the pressure on and do what the president said we must do, which is to dismantle, disrupt and defeat al-Qaida and its militant allies. And we will do that.”
With the announced withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the end of this year, Panetta said, the world must understand the United States will continue to have both a lasting security relationship with Iraq and a troop presence in the Middle East.
“We will continue to work with [Iraq] to establish a normal relationship,” he said, that will provide training and assistance to Iraqi forces. And Panetta emphasized that America will maintain a presence in the Middle East.
“At the same time, for Iran and anybody else who has any other ideas, the United States maintains 40,000 troops in that region,” he noted.
Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, International Security Assistance Force commander, is successfully planning and conducting the gradual reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan leading up to the transfer to Afghan-led security in 2014, Panetta said.
“I believe that we have made great progress there as well, in weakening the Taliban, in building up the Afghan army and police, and in giving the capacity … to secure their country,” he said.
Turning to Libya, Panetta said he commends NATO forces and their partner militaries for the successful conclusion of the mission there. The Libyan people now have a chance to establish a new country that represents all of its people and also represents their hopes for freedom and self-government, he said.
“All of us can take a great deal of pride in the work that was done to achieve that mission,” he said.
Panetta pointed out all of the progress he noted could not have happened without “the sacrifices of those who were willing to serve.”
“Work remains,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to confront terrorism, … nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, … [and] a whole new battlefield of the future, called ‘cyber.’ ”
Those challenges, along with rising powers and continued unrest in the Middle East, will be met by an American military that is capable, agile and responsive to threats, the secretary said.
“Most importantly, we have the opportunity to strengthen our presence in the Pacific — and we will,” he said. “This is an important region. The security of the world, in many ways, is dependent on the security of the Pacific.”
Panetta said his main purpose in visiting the troops was to thank them.
“You are the long arm of American military power,” he said. “You do a tough and a vital job. … I thank you for your service, because America’s strength is in people like you.”
The new greatest generation in America, the one that has gone to war over the last 10 years, includes more than 6,200 who have died and 46,000 who have been wounded in the nation’s service, Panetta said.
“You have done everything you have been asked to do,” he added.
Panetta told the U.S. troops that his duty is “to watch your back,” pledging his support as budget cuts loom.
“As all of you know,” he said, “we’re going to be facing some very challenging fiscal issues in America.”
Panetta said his goals for the defense budget include cutting defense spending without creating a hollow force.
“Most importantly, I am not going to break faith with the people who serve in uniform, who put their lives on the line time and time and time again,” the secretary said. “I commit to you that I will do everything I can to protect the benefits that were promised to you and to your families. That’s essential to our commitment to you, for what you have done for America.”
The secretary shook hands and presented a commemorative coin to each American and Japanese service member present.
This is Panetta’s first trip to Asia as defense secretary. He is in Japan after a visit to Indonesia, and he will travel to South Korea later this week. The Japan leg of his trip will continue with scheduled meetings with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Foreign Affairs Minister Koichiro Gemba and Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa.
En route to Japan, a senior defense official told reporters traveling with the secretary that the topics of discussion for those meetings will range from arms exports and ballistic missile defense to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology and U.S. troop basing in Japan.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)