Panetta: U.S. Must Maintain Military Might

LOUISVILLE, Ky., March 1, 2012 — Suc­cess in Iraq and the draw­down in Afghanistan does not mean the U.S. mil­i­tary should be dis­man­tled, Defense Sec­re­tary Leon Panet­ta said here today.

Panet­ta spoke to more than 1,200 peo­ple at the McConnell Cen­ter on the cam­pus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville. He spoke of the need for pub­lic ser­vice and how that has played in the suc­cess­es and chal­lenges con­fronting the Defense Depart­ment.

“We have begun to draw­down our forces and tran­si­tion to Afghan-led secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty, and we have seen the lev­el of vio­lence go down,” the sec­re­tary said. “Our goal is that by the end of 2014, the Afghans will have the respon­si­bil­i­ty to gov­ern and secure them­selves.”

Panet­ta addressed the recent spate of killings of Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force troops by Afghans. “Let me be very clear,” he said. “The bru­tal attacks that we have seen on our troops in the last few days will not change or alter our deter­mi­na­tion to see this through.”

The Unit­ed States has suc­cess­ful­ly weak­ened al-Qai­da, and dec­i­mat­ed its lead­er­ship, includ­ing killing Osama bin Laden. “We have demon­strat­ed that we will con­tin­ue to do every­thing pos­si­ble to pro­tect our cit­i­zens and our secu­ri­ty,” he said.

The Unit­ed States remains indis­pen­si­ble to a sta­ble and secure world, the sec­re­tary stressed. The NATO oper­a­tions in sup­port of gov­ern­ment oppo­si­tion forces in Libya last year are an exam­ple, he said.

“I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vis­it Tripoli last Decem­ber, and was deeply moved by the deter­mi­na­tion of the Libyan peo­ple to forge that bet­ter future for them­selves,” he said.

Panet­ta said for­eign lead­ers – from old allies to new part­ners — con­sis­tent­ly tell him they want to increase their part­ner­ships with U.S. mil­i­tary forces.

None of these goals can be achieved with­out U.S. mil­i­tary mem­bers who are “will­ing to serve their nation, will­ing to put their lives on the line, will­ing to die to pro­tect their coun­try,” he said. “We owe it to them to learn the lessons of the past and to build a bet­ter future for them and for their chil­dren. That means that as they return home, we must embrace them and sup­port them in com­mu­ni­ties like this across the coun­try – whether it’s by help­ing them pur­sue an edu­ca­tion at schools like Louisville, or pro­vid­ing assis­tance in find­ing a job or start­ing a busi­ness.”

Main­tain­ing the mil­i­tary is a pri­or­i­ty, but one in dan­ger because of the nation­al debt, Panet­ta said. The Unit­ed States must main­tain the strongest mil­i­tary in the world, must main­tain effec­tive diplo­ma­cy and must build a strong econ­o­my, he said.

“We are still a nation at war in Afghanistan; we still face the threat from ter­ror­ism – ter­ror­ists are still in Soma­lia, still in Yemen, still in North Africa and they still con­tin­ue to plot attacks on this coun­try,” he said.

There still is a dan­ger­ous pro­lif­er­a­tion of lethal weapons and mate­ri­als, the sec­re­tary said. Iran and North Korea still threat­en glob­al sta­bil­i­ty. There still is con­tin­u­ing tur­moil and unrest in the Mid­dle East. Ris­ing pow­ers in Asia con­tin­ue to test inter­na­tion­al rela­tion­ships, and there are increas­ing cyber intru­sions and attacks, he said.

“At the same time, we face an addi­tion­al threat to our nation­al secu­ri­ty which must also be con­front­ed, and that is long-term debt and high deficits,” he said. “As some­one who has spent much of my life in pub­lic ser­vice work­ing on fis­cal pol­i­cy, I believe that if the coun­try doesn’t con­trol and dis­ci­pline its bud­gets, it will inflict severe dam­age on our nation­al secu­ri­ty. It would deprive us of the very resources we require at the Depart­ment of Defense, and it would also hurt the qual­i­ty of life of the Amer­i­can peo­ple, some­thing that is equal­ly impor­tant to our broad­er nation­al secu­ri­ty.”

It is not a choice between nation­al secu­ri­ty and fis­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty, Panet­ta said. “We have to be will­ing to make dif­fi­cult deci­sions about how to reshape our defense strat­e­gy, how to main­tain our mil­i­tary strength for the future while also doing our part to reduce the deficit,” he said.

The depart­ment has done that and is putting in place bud­gets that reduce defense spend­ing by $487 bil­lion over 10 years.

The force will be small­er, but will be more agile and ready to deploy any­where in the world and win, all while build­ing part­ner­ships around the globe, Panet­ta said. “We are going to main­tain and even enhance our pres­ence in vital regions of the world like the Mid­dle East and the Asia-Pacif­ic region,” he said.

“We must con­tin­ue to invest in new capa­bil­i­ties like cyber, and unmanned sys­tems, space and the con­tin­ued growth of spe­cial oper­a­tions forces,” Panet­ta said. He added that those capa­bil­i­ties will be cru­cial for a strong defense in the future, as will main­tain­ing a strong reserve com­po­nent and indus­tri­al base.

Deficit reduc­tion can­not be done soley on the back of the Defense Depart­ment, the sec­re­tary said. “We have done our part,” he said.

“Now it’s time for Con­gress to step up to the plate and make sure that we do not dev­as­tate our nation­al defense by allow­ing this mech­a­nism called sequester to go into effect,” he con­tin­ued. The addi­tion­al $500 bil­lion in auto­mat­ic, across-the-board defense cuts became law when Con­gress passed and the pres­i­dent signed the Deficit Reduc­tion Act last year.

“We still need addi­tion­al deficit reduc­tion, but that must be made through a bal­anced deficit reduc­tion plan, which will involve mak­ing tough deci­sions not just on defense, but every oth­er area of spend­ing and rev­enues,” he said.

The key to break­ing Wash­ing­ton grid­lock, Panet­ta said, “has to rest with peo­ple that are will­ing to exer­cise lead­er­ship, to find com­pro­mis­es, to make sac­ri­fices in order to find answers.”

As pol­i­cy- and law-mak­ers con­front the debt cri­sis, “all of us in Wash­ing­ton need to demon­strate the same lead­er­ship that we count on from our troops in bat­tle,” the sec­re­tary said. “They make sac­ri­fices in order to achieve their mis­sion. Sure­ly those of us in Wash­ing­ton can make sac­ri­fices in order to gov­ern this nation.”

Amer­i­cans have always been able to over­come cri­sis and adver­si­ty, Panet­ta said. “But we can’t just sit back and count on things to work out – it will take lead­er­ship and sac­ri­fice and will­ing­ness to fight to secure that dream for the future,” he said.

“If we can sum­mon that spir­it of lead­er­ship, ser­vice and sac­ri­fice – and fight for what’s right – I believe that we can turn cri­sis into oppor­tu­ni­ty, and demon­strate to the world that this resilient Amer­i­can spir­it will endure for our chil­dren, their chil­dren, and beyond.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)