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November 10 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - November 10, 2011

             SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Good afternoon. 

            This is General Dempsey's first press briefing with the secretary, serving now as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.  And so I welcome him to this press briefing and just would inform him that there's a tradition that he gets all the tough questions.  (Laughter.)  So get him used to this job. 

            Let me begin also by wishing a very happy birthday to the United States Marine Corps.  I'll be attending their ball this Saturday and look forward to that event. 

            As you know, General Dempsey and I have been working with the entire senior leadership of the department, including the service chiefs, the service secretaries, the combatant commanders and the undersecretaries of defense, to implement the more than 450 billion (dollars) in savings that we've been required to do over 10 years.  That translates into around 260 billion (dollars) over five years as part of the budget that will be submitted in February. 

            This process -- and I've required this from the beginning -- has to be driven by strategy.  It has to be strategy-driven.  And it also has to be a team effort.  My hope is that, you know, as we work through this, that we will put the entire leadership of the department, both military and civilian, in the same place so that we can finalize this effort within the coming weeks. 

            So as we move ahead with this process within the department, all of us are obviously watching closely what happens on Capitol Hill and with the congressional supercommittee.  And we watch it, obviously, with great concern.  As you know, if the supercommittee fails to reach an agreement with regards to additional budget savings, the penalty for that is sequester.  And this sequester approach would virtually double the size of the cuts that we face here at the Defense Department.  And it would also force us to cut across the board.  All of these cuts would occur -- I think this takes effect in January of 2013 so that, obviously, we would have a year where sequester would hang as a shadow over this department. 

            I've learned that by cutting in excess of 20 percent in every area, sequester will lead to a hollow force.  And let me explain just exactly what we're talking about when we talk about a hollow force.  Obviously, that which is hollow retains a shell but lacks a core.  A hollow military has the organizational structure but lacks the people, the training and the equipment it needs to actually get the job done. 

            It's a ship without sailors.  It's a brigade without bullets.  It's an air wing without enough trained pilots.  It's a paper tiger, an Army of barracks, buildings and bombs without enough trained soldiers able to accomplish the mission.  It's a force that suffers low morale, poor readiness and is unable to keep up with potential adversaries.  In effect, it invites aggression. 

            A hollow military doesn't happen by accident.  It comes from poor stewardship and poor leadership.  I guess my message to the Congress is that it must show the necessary leadership by doing the job that they've been asked to do.  That means identifying savings in the two-thirds of the federal budget that still has yet to be considered for deficit reduction, along, in my view, with additional revenues. 

            In my conversations with the members of Congress and with members of the committee, I have told them that if this -- if this nation has brave young men and women who are willing to die and put their lives on the line in order to sacrifice for this country, it really shouldn't be too much to ask our leaders to sacrifice just a little, to provide the leadership essential to solving the problems facing this country. 

            This is a fundamental responsibility we have.  It's also an obligation that we owe to our service members and their families and one that the entire country should reflect on tomorrow as we observe Veterans Day. 

            On Monday I travel [SIC "“ traveled] to New York to meet with leaders in the business arena, to meet with those in government and nonprofit sector, and talk about how important it is to try to help our returning veterans find jobs in these very difficult economic times.  I should also mention, as we move into these next few years, as we begin a drawdown process, we are going to be adding to that burden. 

            These are men and women with extraordinary skill, proven leadership.  And yet the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since 9/11 now stands at 12.1 percent.  That's unacceptable.  We can do better as a country, and we are making it a priority here at the department to ensure that our departing service members are given the support they need to pursue higher education, to find a job and to start a business. 

            These profound obligations to service members continue at every stage, to include ensuring the recovery and dignified return of our fallen heroes.  This is one of the department's most sacred responsibilities.  And that's why all Americans, including myself, are justifiably disturbed by the reports of mismanagement at Dover Port Mortuary that came to light this week. 

            When I came into this office in July, in one of the first meetings I had as secretary of defense, I was briefed by Secretary Donley and General Schwartz on their investigation into Dover.  They were forthcoming with me.  It was clear that they took these allegations seriously and that they were committed to strengthening the department's handling of this most sacred and solemn task. 

            Still, none of us will be satisfied until we have proven to the families of our fallen heroes that we have taken every step possible to protect the honor and dignity that their loved ones richly deserve.  That's why I've directed, at the request of the Air Force, an independent review of overall current operations at Dover to evaluate the changes and the procedures that must be implemented.  Vice Admiral Dr. Richard Carmona, who's the former surgeon general, 17th surgeon general of the United States, along with a distinguished panel, will conduct that review. 

            As you know, the United States Office of Special Counsel produced its own report on this matter, which I received and reviewed in just the last 48 hours.  In light of the concerns that were raised in that report, I've asked the Secretary of the Air Force, Mike Donley, to ensure that the disciplinary action taken was appropriate and to provide me with the results of that review.            

            In addition, as the OSC confirmed in its report, it is conducting an additional investigation to determine whether there are management reprisals that have been taken at Dover against the whistleblowers.  This is a serious issue.  And as someone who voted for the whistleblower legislation, I directed Secretary Donley to report back to me once the OSC investigation is complete to ensure that all appropriate action has been taken in light of that report. 

            This department has to be fully accountable in what we intend to deliver on this matter.  We have to be fully accountable on how we treat its service members.  Full accountability is what we intend to deliver. 

            Having been to Dover, I consider this a sacred place with a sacred responsibility.  And it is a place that must meet the highest standards for caring for the remains of our fallen heroes.  We can do no less. 

            General. 

            GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY:  Thanks, Mr. Secretary. 

            I'd like to also begin by wishing the Marine Corps a happy 236th birthday, and also all veterans around the world.  I've been to several very moving Veterans Day events over the last 48 hours -- a few more to go -- but couldn't be prouder of their service. 

            Just to highlight a couple of things the secretary mentioned, as some of you know, we are involved in a -- in a -- in a strategy review.  We're looking out to 2020 to determine what does our joint force, what do the armed forces of the United States need to be to ensure we provide the nation with the capabilities it needs, provide our leaders -- our senior leaders options in the environment we anticipate.  And part of the environment we anticipate, of course, is some resource constraints that we haven't had to deal with here before.  So that's all working, and as the secretary said, he's got us -- he's led us through a process, continues to lead us through a process that ensures we have a collaborative effort.  This isn't two or three folks in a room trying to dream this thing up by themselves.  So we're well on our way to answering some of those questions.  

            And I'll just end by echoing what the secretary said about the events at Dover.  They're just very distressing to us.  And we intend, as the Air Force intends, to get to the bottom of it and to ensure that we continue to improve processes that may not have been executed properly and to hold folks accountable where appropriate to hold them accountable. 

            And with that, I'll turn it back to you, sir. 

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, the other day you issued a statement saying that you thought the Air Force investigation was thorough and that you supported their disciplinary actions, and today you're asking for them to take another look at that.  What changed? 

            And do you think -- was the Air Force not as up-front with you about some of the general counsel criticisms that may have been made that you're now aware of? 

            And General Dempsey, there's been a lot of discussion about possibly increasing troop strength in Kuwait.  Can you talk a little bit about how important you think that may be for security in the region and what possibly would be the missions and the capabilities that you think would be necessary there? 

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