SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: Thank you. Thank you so very much — at ease guys. Thank you very much for that kind introduction — Colonel Higgins. I also want to thank Colonel Al Swartzmiller — for a very good briefing on the whole base here, and also Mac McCready for also providing an outstanding briefing.
It’s a pleasure. It’s a pleasure for me to be able to be here at Niagara Falls, and to be joined this morning by members of the New York delegation, the congressional delegation. I’d like to thank Kathy Hochul for suggesting — it was a strong suggestion — that I come up here and visit. And I’d also like to thank my buddy and former roommate, Chuck Schumer, and also Congressman Brian Higgins for being here, as well.
I’m also honored by having Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy here, as well, representing the state. And I also want to thank all members of the community here for being here. These bases depend a great deal on the support of the local community. And you’ve got a great community. It is strongly supportive of this base, and I deeply appreciate that.
So thank you for being here this morning, and thank you all for your strong support of the Department of Defense our men and women in uniform and their families. I have — as Chuck knows — I have a special connection to New York. Like millions of others –my Italian parents came here as immigrants –in the early 30’s through Ellis Island. And actually, my grandfather came before them and bought some property in Brooklyn. Chuck, I think I told you that. I don’t know what the hell happened to that property by the way (laughter).
And — (Chuckles.) — in addition to that, I served as executive assistant to the Mayor of New York City. You guys probable don’t remember him but his name was John Lindsay, at the time, and served as executive assistant for legislative affairs. I had a great time in that job. And also worked very closely with the New York delegation through all of my different capacities. The New York delegation has always been a great representative of the state.
And also, when I left Washington I came back and served on the board of the New York Stock Exchange for about six years. So a lot of connections to New York and particularly a connection with this guy behind me, Chuck Schumer. We were roommates together when I was in the Congress, and you can’t live with this guy and learn about New York. He lives and breathes New York. When we went to bed at night I taught him how to say the Hail Mary and he taught me how to say the Shema. We both have been through a lot together, and I deeply appreciate his friendship and his support.
It’s an honor to be here. It’s a personal honor for me to be here, to have a chance to visit these bases and to have a chance to say a thank you to all of you — New York is in many ways the cradle of the United States military. It’s one of the birthplaces of the U.S. Navy, and it is, as we all know, the home of West Point, which was the oldest post in the nation.
New York’s critical role for our armed forces continues to this day. Fort Drum serves as the home for the 10th Mountain Division, New York’s Air National Guard is the largest air guard in our nation, with tremendous cutting edge capabilities. And — many New York installations including — Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station are making contributions to our nation’s defense.
My main purpose in being here was to, first and foremost, say thank you. Thank you for your service to this country. Thanks to the men and women of the 914th Airlift Wing and the 107th Airlift Wing, I really do appreciate the service you provide this country. I believe in public service. I think it’s essential to what our democracy is all about.
I used to ask my immigrant parents, why they would travel all that distance to come up to this — this country, thousands of miles, not knowing where they were going, no money, no language skills, no capabilities. Why would you do that? And although they came from a poor area in Italy they had the comfort of home. Why would you pick up and travel all that distance?
And my father said the reason was because your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life. And that is the American dream. And that is what all of us are committed to. That’s why we’re involved in public service, because we care about giving our children a more secure and a better life for the future.
You are doing that by stepping forward and serving this country in uniform, and I deeply appreciate your service. This is an historic time to be serving the nation. It’s an historic time to be an American. We’re at a strategic turning point when it comes to our national security. We’ve ended the war in Iraq. We’ve given Iraq to the Iraqis to secure and govern itself. That was the fundamental mission of and we’ve done it. There is no question there are some bumps in the road, but the fact is, the fundamental mission was to give Iraq the ability to secure and govern itself, and we did that.
We’re doing the same thing in Afghanistan. We’ve developed a strong plan — General Allen has developed a strong plan, supported by NATO, and that plan is aimed at doing the same thing, transitioning so that the Afghans can govern and secure themselves and making sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for Al Qaida.
We successfully did the mission in Libya, working with NATO, a complicated mission, but it was well coordinated. We put targets together working as a team and ultimately brought Gadhafi down, and gave Libya back to the Libyan people.
And we have gone after those who attacked us on 9/11. We have gone after Al Qaida wherever they are. One of my proudest moments as the former director of the CIA was heading up the operation that went after bin Laden The whole purpose of the effort there was to send a very clear message, a message that nobody, nobody attacks this country and gets away with it. (Applause.)
So we are at a turning point, after 10 years of war. And at the same time, we are facing constrictions in this country because of budget deficits, record budget deficits, record budget debt that is impacting our resources. That’s the biggest price you pay for running those huge debts it’s regardless of what your priority is, you don’t have the resources to invest in the future.
And so Congress, working together in a bipartisan basis, passed a Budget Control Act and said we’ve got to reduce the defense budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years. And having worked on budgets when I was in the Congress, you know, my approach to that was to roll up my sleeves and say, OK, how can we best accomplish that in a way that makes sure we protect the strongest defense in the country?
And that — that was critical to me. And there were several guidelines I was operating by. Number one, we are strongest military power, and we will protect the strongest military power in the world. Number two, I do not want to hollow out the force. In the past we’ve come out of wars, whether it was World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, when we cut the defense budget, it was cut across the board and it hollowed out the force. It weakened every element of our defense establishment. I am not going to repeat that mistake.
So for that reason, we have to look at all of the areas in the budget. We have to look at efficiencies. How can we better improve the way we operate? We have to look at our whole procurement program. How can we get savings there? Have to look at force structure. We have to look at compensation, all areas that we’ve got to focus on, if we going to do this in a responsible way that does not hollow out the force.
Working together with the service chiefs, working together with our civilian heads we developed a defense strategy, a defense strategy not just for today, but for the future, so develop the defense force we need for the 21st century.
And what are the key elements of that defense strategy? Number one, we know we’re going to be smaller and leaner. That was probably going to happen under any circumstances, particularly as a result of drawing down in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re going to be smaller, we’re going to be leaner, but we have to be agile, we have to be deployable, we have to be flexible, and we have to be on the cutting edge of technology.
Secondly, we knew we would have to focus on where the principal problems were in the world. And so we have a major focus and a major force protection in the Asia Pacific region and in the Middle East. In Asia Pacific, because of the threats emanating from North Korea, the challenges we face from China. And in Middle East, the challenges we face from Iran and the turmoil we’ve seen as a result of the Arab Spring. So those are where your potential problems are. That’s where we’re going to project our — our strongest force.
At the same time, number three, we have to maintain a presence elsewhere in the world. And so what was developed was a great idea created by DoD to develop a rotational presence where we would deploy our forces to other countries to train them, to assist them, to guide them, to develop alliances, to develop partnerships, to develop their capabilities so we could provide better security in the world. We do that with special forces. We do that with the Marines. We’re going to do that with the Army. And we need to have a presence in Latin America, in Africa, in Europe. And we will do that.
Fourthly, we’ve got to be able to defeat more than one enemy at a time. If we get bogged down in a war in Korea, and suddenly the Straits of Hormuz are closed, we’ve got to deal with both of those. We’ve got to deploy enough force to be able to not only — weakend that enemy, but defeat that enemy, and we have that.
And lastly, this isn’t just about cutting. It has to be about investing, as well, investing in the future, investing in the future investing in space, investing in unmanned systems, investing in cyber, investing in special forces, investing in the ability to mobilize quickly, investing in a strong Reserve and National Guard.
The Reserve and National Guard have performed in an outstanding fashion these last ten years — you’ve been out there. You’ve been deployed. You’ve been fighting on the front line. I go to the war zone, I can’t tell the difference between active duty and Reserve. They’re both doing the same thing. And that’s the way it should be and I want be able to rely on that experience for the future.
But I also want to protect our industrial base for the future. I do not want to outsource our national defense to other countries. I want to protect that industrial base in this country.
So those are all elements of the strategy that we developed. And the key — one of the keys to that, as I said, is a strong Guard and a strong Reserve. During the strategy review, I made clear that I don’t want to lose those capabilities. We need you continue to be operational, to be ready. You critical to our strategy.
My toughest job was how to — how to achieve the goals of that strategy and at the same time achieve the savings that we have to achieve. And so we had to look at areas, we had to look across the board, as I said, so that we wouldn’t hollow out the force. And we made proposals, some impacting this community let me be frank with you: I can’t reduce the defense budget by $487 billion and not create some pain. It’s the nature of it. But we tried to do it in a responsible way, to look for, you know, reductions that made sense, to look for the kind of shifts that made sense. And that’s — that’s what we did here.
But let me be very clear. Let me be very clear. The Department of Defense is committed to protecting New York’s Air National Guard. It’s the largest in the country, I think it is one of the best. And I also want to make clear that we are committed to maintaining this base for the future.
We’re counting on this base. It’s important geographically, it’s important to the mission that we need to forward to. One of the things we’re going to be doing is making investments here. We’re going to upgrade eight C-130s and replace them over five years with the C-130H3s. We’re going invest 6.1 million dollars, in order to create a C-130 flight simulator here.
Our goal is to maintain, obviously, a — strong reserve force here. Our goal is to work with Niagara Falls and the community to do everything possible to try to support this base, including lowering energy usage facility costs and investing in infrastructure and education. You have kept strong retention and recruiting numbers high and that’s important, and you want to continue to do that.
And as I discussed in a meeting I had before coming here, I also want to look to the future, look at some of the missions that you’re going to have to have for the future, whether it’s ISR, whether it’s intelligence, whether it’s working with new technologies. And I’m committed to exploring those new missions for this base for the future.
All of us have to work together. That’s the bottom line. We’ve all got to work together at a time of crisis.
The good news for the community is that it has great people representing this area in the Congress. We are going to continue to work with members of Congress, both in the House and the Senate, in order to make sure that we make the right decisions that impact this area for the future.
All of this, as you know, at the moment is on hold. We are looking forward to the results of the commission that will review all the results. But let me make clear, I am going to work with the congressional delegation and with the community leaders to make sure we make the right decisions for this base. I need your cooperation. I need your help as we try to achieve savings for the future. We have to be part of the same team, not only protecting our defense, but meeting our responsibility to our fiscal needs.
Frankly, as the delegation knows, one of my biggest concerns right now for communities like Niagara Falls is not the budget that I’m working on. It’s the danger of sequestration and, in fact, that, for some crazy reason, we may walk off of that cliff. I don’t think it’s going to happen. You know, I believe strongly that — that Congress ultimately will deal with that issue.
But it is of concern, because if it happens, it will take another $500 billion across the board on defense, and it’s a formula that cuts across the board, it’s — it’s mindless, and it will hollow out our military, and it will do incredible damage to our national defense.
So it’s absolutely essential that the leaders in the Congress and members of the Congress work together to avoid sequestration. And I’m confident that ultimately they will do that.
Look, I have men and women in the military, in uniform, that put their lives on the line every day, that fight and, yes, die for this country to keep it safe and to protect it. And so, I would just hopefully ask that Congress develops some of that courage to confront the challenges that face this country and solve some of the problems that have to be solved in order to maintain our security for the future. I’m confident they’ll do that — and I will work with them in that effort.
I know that many of you and many members of this community obviously are concerned about the future and obviously are concerned about yourselves and your families for the future. But I want you to know that I am committed to do everything I can to fight for your interests. And I want you to join me in fighting for what’s right.
Chuck’s heard this before, but there’s a story of the rabbi and the priest who decided they would get to know each other a little better, so one evening they went to a boxing match, hoping that they would talk about each other’s religion. And just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross. The rabbi nudged the priest, and he said, "What does that mean?" The priest said, "It doesn’t mean a damn thing if he can’t fight." (Laughter.)
Ladies and gentlemen, we bless ourselves with the hope that everything’s gonna be OK in this country. But, frankly, it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless we’re willing to fight for it. The fact that you’re here tells me that you are willing to fight; to fight for that dream that — that brought my parents to this country, to fight for a strong America in the future, and to fight, most importantly, for a government of, by and for all people.
Best of luck to all of you. Thank you. (Applause.)