April 16 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - April 16, 2012

            SECRETARY LEON E. PANETTA:  Good afternoon.  

            It's been an interesting few weeks since we last met, and I am sure you'll have some interesting questions, but before I do that, let me -- let me summarize some key points.  

            On Afghanistan, last week we held extensive consultations with Afghan Minister of Defense Wardak and Minister of Interior Mohammadi. With the two MOUs that we signed on detention operations and special operations, I believe this relationship is on the right path.  And we are continuing to make progress on the strategic partnership agreement as well.     

            There will be challenges, continuing challenges, as we saw over the weekend, but our partnership remains strong, the Afghans are providing greater security, and the strategy that General Allen has put in place is succeeding.  

            On the Middle East, we hosted Prince Salman, the Saudi minister of defense.  We had a productive discussion on security challenges emanating from the Middle East, where Iran's nuclear program remains a pressing concern and where in Syria, the Assad regime's violence is increasingly intolerable.  And obviously, they continue to raise questions about their adherence to the cease-fire agreement.  

            On North Korea, we have been in very close contact with our counterparts in South Korea and Japan as we monitored the provocative, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt by the North Korean government to conduct a missile launch.  We will continue to be fully prepared for any future provocations should they occur.  We hope that won't be the case, but we continue to be prepared in the event that that happens.  

            On NATO, I'm leaving tomorrow morning for a joint NATO ministerial with Secretary Clinton in Brussels, the last high-level meeting that will take place before the Chicago summit in May.  We're at a pivotal point for the alliance as we build on the gains that have been made in Afghanistan and try to chart the course for the future in that -- in that area.  

            We'll also be working to ensure that NATO itself has the right military capabilities that will be needed for the future in order for NATO to assume the responsibilities that it must as we proceed.  

            But even as we deal with these global security challenges, we have another great challenge here at home, which is working with the Congress to implement our new defense strategy.  Let me just give you a quick update on where I think things stand at this point.  

            Since the president's budget request was released on February 13th, the budget and strategy that we've developed have been subject to intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill.  Chairman Dempsey and I went up to the Hill to testify five times before the key committees as many of you know.  But there have been more than 50 additional congressional hearings with the service secretaries, the service chiefs, the combatant commanders and other senior civilian and military leaders. A lot of tough questions were asked, but I believe that both our strategy and our budget proposals have held up very well under this very intense scrutiny.  As a result, we continue to strongly believe that this is the right strategy and the right budget to meet our responsibilities to a strong national security and to tough fiscal requirements.    

            Military and civilian leaders here at the department all stand unified behind our strategy and our budget because, I think, we believe we've developed that strategy and the budget together as a team.  In a word, the key elements of the strategy -- I think they're familiar with -- to all of you -- but let me just quickly summarize those key points.    

            First, the force will be smaller and leaner, but it must be agile and flexible and deployable and technologically advanced.  Second, we will rebalance our global posture, emphasizing the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.  Third, we'll strengthen key alliances and partnerships through rotational deployments and other innovative ways to sustain our presence elsewhere.    

            Fourth, we'll ensure our military can confront aggression and defeat any opponent anytime, anywhere.  And lastly, we will protect investments in new technologies such as ISR, space, cyberspace, global strike, special ops and the capacity to quickly mobilize.  

            Of course, in the end, it's up to Congress.  In the coming weeks they will begin considering the defense authorization and appropriations bills.  Our hope is that Congress will carefully consider the new defense strategy and the budget decisions that resulted from that strategy.  

            The key is that this is a zero-sum game.  Because of the Budget Control Act, any change in any one area of the budget and force structure will inevitably require offsetting changes elsewhere.  And that carries the real risk that this is -- if this is not done right, the result could be a hollow, unbalanced or weaker force.  Our hope is that our strategy will not be picked apart piece by piece.  

            If, for example, we're prevented from carrying out all of the six major weapons terminations that we have proposed, the result will be a need to find as much as $9.6 billion in savings from other areas over five years.  And that could mean less money to buy high-priority ships or acquire the next-generation aircraft.  If Congress rejects all of the modest changes we've proposed in TRICARE fees and copays for retirees, than almost $13 billion in savings over the next five years will have to be found in other areas such as readiness, or we could be forced to further reduce our troop strength.  

            So the message we wanted to send Congress today is that there is very little margin for error with this package.  That's the reality that all of us are living with.  The strategy we developed will maintain, we believe, the strongest military in the world by every measure, and that's essential because of the nature of the security challenges that we're facing.  

            I believe we're at a critical point in our nation's history.  We need to rise to meet the challenges that are facing us in this dangerous and uncertain world, and we can't afford to have the Congress resort to bitter partisanship or parochialism at this critical time.  

            We owe it to the American people to ensure that the right decisions are made to protect our nation and our national security from the full scope of modern threats, including the threat of our debt and our deficits.  

            Above all, we owe it to the American people to find a way to avoid sequester.  The clock is ticking.  It's been 121 days since the supercommittee failed, and Congress has yet to find a way to avoid the threat of sequester.  

            I still remain optimistic that we can hopefully find a way to avoid this disaster.  But it's going to take Congress and all of us working together to find consensus and provide strong bipartisan leadership to protect our economy, our quality of life and our national security.  

            That's what the American people expect of their leaders.  It's what we at the Department of Defense have made in an -- in an -- in the effort to do this with the defense strategy that we put in place for the future.  

            And let me just close by noting that in the spirit of that partnership between DOD and Congress, General Dempsey and I will be meeting tonight with members of Congress, the Caucus on Women in the Military and the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, to discuss the next series of steps that the department will be taking with regards to sexual assault.  

            As I've said before, sexual assault has no place in the military, and we have made it a top priority to combat this crime.  We will continue to develop our strategies; we'll continue to devote our energy and our intention to enforcing our department's zero tolerance policy on sexual assault, and building a zero tolerance culture in the military for sexual assault.  

            My goal is to do everything possible -- I think our goal has been to do everything possible to open up the military to everyone who wants to serve this country.  To do that, we must effectively deal with this kind of threat.  


            GENERAL MARTIN E. DEMPSEY:  Thanks, Mr. Secretary.  

            Good afternoon.  Secretary Panetta rightly observes that the past several weeks have been pretty remarkable, actually.  These last seven days alone remind us yet again that we live in an extraordinarily complex and increasingly competitive world.  

            In fact, today we face a security paradox:  a time that may appear, on the surface, to be less dangerous but that underneath the surface is actually more dangerous.  Levels of violence are by some accounts at an evolutionary low point.  But destructive technologies are also proliferating down and out, to groups and individuals as well as formerly middleweight powers.  As a consequence, there simply are more actors with more potential to do us harm.   

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