Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce

By:  Leon Panetta
Date: Oct. 19, 2012
Location: Hampton Roads, VA

Thank you very much.

I really am honored to have a chance be here, to be able to come down to this great place that's so important to our national security, and important to our effort to do everything we can to protect our country.

I'm honored to be here with [Senator] Mark [Warner]. Mark's a great friend, somebody that I had the opportunity to work with in various capacities, whether it was in the Administration as Chief of Staff or Director of OMB, and a bit more recently as the Director of the CIA. I've had a chance to have Mark come out and brief him at the CIA and then done the same as the Secretary of Defense. So, I really do commend him for his leadership -- his bipartisan leadership, which is so important, as Governor and now as United States Senator.

He's in a critical role, where he could play a very important part of trying to bring together the kind of consensus that's absolutely essential if we are going to be able to resolve this issue.

I agree with Mark that obviously the debt is a huge national security challenge, but I have to add one other thing in terms of the greatest concern I have. It isn't just the debt. It's also the ability for elected leaders to come together to solve the problems facing this country. That is critical in terms of our national security.

Whatever I do in my job, whatever we do on national debt, if we don't have elected leaders who are willing to come together and solve the problems facing this country, our national security is in jeopardy.

So I appreciate everything you do to try to work on those very difficult issues.

I also want to recognize and thank Bobby Scott. Congressman Bobby Scott is and friend and someone I've had the opportunity to work with.

And obviously the mayor.

Mr. Mayor, it's good to see you. Norfolk is critical for us and you've been a real partner in working on veterans' reintegration.

I'm honored also by the presence of so many civic leaders and elected officials, Republicans and Democrats, and senior military leaders and a lot of my friends in the military installations across the region.

I'm also honored to be here with you, members of this Chamber. As a congressman, I had the opportunity to speak honestly to Chambers in my district on a regular basis. And the reason I did that is because the Chamber represents the heart and soul of communities. You're in business. You're the business partners of our global economy.

And your willingness to be engaged, to be involved in whatever business you're a part of, to work hard, try to serve the public, that is what keeps our communities strong. And so I pay tribute to you.

My dad ran a restaurant back in Monterey. I know what the sacrifices are. I know how hard he had to work at it and really dedicate himself to the day-to-day job of serving the public.

And so, I commend you for your leadership. The spirit that you represent, is what, frankly, keeps our country strong, and I thank you for that.

I'm also honored to be here because of the entire Hampton Roads community. You have provided unflinching support to the thousands of men and women in uniform who are stationed here -- and I thank you for that -- whether it's at Norfolk Naval Station, whether it's at the Joint Base Langley-Eustis, whether it's at Naval Air Station Oceana, or the more than two dozen other military facilities that are located throughout the region.

Hampton Roads is a powerful testament to the unrivaled strength of America's armed forces.

Simply put, this region houses perhaps the greatest concentration of military might in the world. And the support offered by this community to its servicemembers, its veterans, to their families, is an incredibly important part of what makes this area the strategic national asset that it is. Your dedication, your commitment, your service, your patriotism, is critical to the military and, very frankly, critical to our national security.

So let me be clear: As Secretary of Defense, I want to do everything I can to keep this community strong in terms of its military future.

It is essential for me, as Secretary of Defense, to have communities like this, who are dedicated to ensuring that we do everything possible to keep the United States of America safe and keep our military strong. I know what it means -- believe me, I know what it means -- to have a community that's devoted to the military, because I come from one. I was born and raised in Monterey, California, a community that, when I was a boy was home to a major training base at Fort Ord. We also have the Naval Postgraduate School located in that area. As well as the Defense Language Institute, along with some other installations. So I know -- believe me I know -- the importance of the military to the local economy.

And I also know the impact when a facility is lost. I went through BRAC, they closed Fort Ord, in one of the BRAC rounds. Fort Ord represented 25 percent of my local economy, so you can imagine the trauma of going through that.

And yet we pulled together as a community and were able to develop a reuse plan that established a university at Fort Ord. It's the university where my wife and I built our Institute for Public Service that we have now.

But, having gone through that, Sylvia and I appreciate what it means to have a community that relies on the military, and a community where the military relies on people.

And I saw it as a young boy growing up in Monterey. My parents, as I mentioned, ran a restaurant. I'm the son of Italian immigrants that came to this country like millions of others. Didn't have money in their pocket. They had no language skills, no abilities. But they were willing to travel thousands of miles to come to this country.

I often tell a story of asking my father, "Why would you do that? Why would you travel all that distance?" they came from a poor area of Italy, but they had the comfort of family, "Why would you pick up, go all those thousands of miles to come to a strange country and take that risk?" And my father said the reason for this is because my mother and he believed that they could give their children a better life in this country.

That is the American dream. That's exactly what we want for our children, hopefully what they want for their children as well.

As I said, my dad came to this country and eventually wound up in Monterey, thank God, opened a restaurant in the downtown area during the war years. My earliest recollection with that restaurant was serving all of these young men who were trained there and who were going to war. I can remember my parents inviting a lot of these soldiers to our house for dinner, and giving them a taste of Italian food and some good company before they went off to war.

I also recall as a boy washing dishes in the back of that restaurant. I was just a kid, and I used to get on a chair to wash the dishes. My parents believed that child labor was a requirement.

They later in life sold that restaurant and bought a farm in Carmel Valley and planted a walnut orchard. And -- this is another great story -- I was again working in that orchard with my dad, laying irrigation pipes and working each of the trees. When the trees grew, my dad used to go around and pull a hook to shake the branches, and my brother and I used be underneath picking up the walnuts. When I got elected to Congress, my father said, "You know, you've been well-trained to go to Washington, because you've been dodging nuts all your life."

It's true.

It's great to have the opportunity to be here, and to spend a day in this area, as I intend to do. And again I'm keenly aware of the vital role that this region has played in the story of our country, and the story of our military in particular.

This year, as I understand it, marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Hampton Roads. And that clash between the Monitor and the Merrimack signaled a new area in naval warfare: the first clash between two ironclad ships.

Ever since, this area has been on the leading edge of American military innovation: the shipyards of Norfolk and Newport News, where for more than a hundred years workers built powerful vessels on behalf of the United States, from wood, from iron, from steel. Those shipyards are national treasures. And they are the backbone of this country's naval power.

Norfolk Naval Shipyard produced our Navy's first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, in 1920. And even as we speak, as Mark mentioned, workers at Newport News are constructing the lead ship of the Gerald Ford-class supercarrier, the most powerful, the most flexible, and the most technologically advanced naval platform the world has ever known.

This ship will help ensure that we remain the strongest military in the world. That is my overriding priority as Secretary of Defense, a priority that I know you share as civic leaders.

With that common focus in mind, let me offer some thoughts on the broad challenges facing our country and the Department of Defense, and our strategy to try to meet those challenges.

The United States is in many ways at a turning point after a decade of war. We've been at war for the longest period in our history, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

And in terms of the Defense Department, we have been given relatively blank check in terms of the funding that was available as we fought those wars, which was OK, because we needed it in order to make sure that we were successful.

Now we are coming at a turning point. The fact is that we have brought the war in Iraq to a responsible conclusion. The whole purpose of that is to give the Iraqis the opportunity to be secure and govern themselves. It's going to be tough, they're going to face some bumps in the road, but the fact is that they determine what happens in terms of their security and their governance. And that's what we wanted.

We've decimated Al Qaida's leadership, we confronted the terrorists who attacked this country on 9/11, and we've put incredible pressure on them to make sure that they would never again have command and control, have the organizational capability to put together that type of attack plan. We've gone after their leadership. It was one of the great honors in my career to have the opportunity to have worked on the operation that went after bin Laden, because we sent a very clear message that nobody attacks the United States of America and gets away with it.

We were able to work with NATO in an operation that brought together a number of countries, to go in in a coordinated way -- and I have to tell you, I was at the operational center in Naples -- to bring those targets together, to then divide those targets up among the series of nations to go in and get those targets, was a remarkable example of coordination between our countries. And they were successful in bringing Gadhafi down and returning Libya back to the Libyan people.

And in Afghanistan we continue, obviously, to face challenges, but we are steadily moving towards a transition there. General Allen has put into play a very aggressive campaign plan that provides a transition of various -- again -- Afghan security and Afghan governance.

It's not going to be easy. It is a war. We are going to continue to confront challenges because it is a war. But we have a successful plan, and we're going to stick to it.

I was at a NATO ministers meeting a couple weeks ago and everybody came together and said, "We had a successful plan. Yes we face threats. We're going to continue to confront those threats. But our goal is to complete this mission, and we will."

As we come to the end of this decade of war, our country also faces, as Mark pointed out, some very serious debt and deficit problems. I never imagined frankly that this would be the case because when I left Washington after serving as the President's Chief of Staff, and we had put in place and I'd participated in every budget summit that had existed. I did it with President Reagan, President Bush, worked on a Clinton plan. All of those plans put in place--ultimately produced a balanced budget for this country.

Now we have a budget with a surplus and I never thought that I would come back to a Washington that was incurring record deficits. But that is the case. And to deal with this problem, all of us again have to work together.

Congress mandated on a bipartisan basis -- let me make clear, Congress has mandated on a bipartisan basis -- that we would cut $487 billion from the Defense budget over the next 10 years, as part of the Budget Control Act. So, as someone who's had a long experience working on budget issues, I am not one who believes that we have to choose between fiscal security and national security.

I believe it is important for the Department of Defense to play its role in helping this country confront these trying fiscal problems.

But unlike past drawdowns, when the threats that we were confronting have gone away and appeared to diminish, after World War II, after Vietnam, after Korea, after the Cold War, the problem is that we continue to confront a dangerous, unpredictable world.

We're continuing to fight a war. We're continuing to face the threat of terrorism, whether it's Yemen, Somalia or North Africa. And we've got to do everything we can to ensure that we defeat that enemy.

We continue to have a surge of weapons proliferation. We have unpredictability in countries like North Korea and Iran, that are engaging in destabilizing activities in their regions.

We have the issue of rising powers across the world, in Asia as well as elsewhere.

We have continued instability in the Middle East -- turmoil in the Middle East, in Syria and elsewhere.

And now we confront a whole new threat of warfare in cyber. This is an area we gotta pay close attention to. This is the battlefront of the future. As I speak there are attacks going on in this country -- cyber attacks. On financial institutions, our banks. We literally have hundreds of thousands of attacks in Washington every day. And now they're developing the capability to be able to go after our power grid, our financial systems, our government systems, and virtually paralyze this country.

So, we are confronting a series of threats to our national security that if I am true to my oath I've got to do everything I can to protect this country.

So, what I did was say to our service chiefs, to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, "Look, I cannot take $487 -- almost a half a trillion dollars and cut it across the board. I don't want to do what we did in the past. That's a good way to hollow out the force, to weaken everything. So let's develop a strategy. What kind of defense do we need, not just today, but in the future, in the 21st century?"

And we've worked together to do that and came up with a key strategy that everyone supported and that became the basis for the budget that we submitted to the Congress. What are the elements of that strategy?

First of all, we know we are going to be smaller and leaner. As we draw down from these wars, we are going to be smaller as a force. But we must remain agile, we must be flexible, we must be quickly deployable, and we must be on the cutting edge of technology for the future.

Secondly, we continue to confront major problems in the Pacific and in the Middle East. Because of that, we have to have force projection into those areas. So, we are doing major rebalances to the Pacific in order to deal with threats from North Korea, in order to deal with the issues that we're going to confront in that part large region.

We are a Pacific power. We are going to remain a Pacific power.

We also, we have to project force in the Middle East. I have a significant force now deployed in the Middle East. We've got two carriers in the Middle East, we've got two carriers in the Pacific along with a significant troop deployment.

Why? Because in the Middle East, I've got to be prepared to respond to any contingency from Iran. I've got to be prepared to respond as a result of the turmoil we're confronting in the Middle East.

So, we have to maintain strong force projection in those two areas.

Thirdly, we've got to maintain a presence elsewhere as well. We can't walk away from other parts of the world.

And to do that, I pay tribute to our military. It came up with an innovative way to do this, establishing rotational deployments, where we go in to these countries, we work with these countries, we exercise with them. We build new alliances, we build partnerships, we build their capacity and capability to be able to defend and provide their own security.

So we're gonna do that. We're gonna do that in Latin America. We're gonna do that in Africa. We're gonna do that in Europe. We're doing it in the Pacific. Just have a rotational deployment of Marines going into Darwin. We're gonna develop the same capability in the Philippines. Gonna do the same thing in Vietnam. Gonna do the same thing elsewhere.

Just came from Latin America, talked to Peru, talked to Brazil, talked to Colombia. The ability to be able to have troops to go into those areas, work with those countries, develop their capabilities, is gonna be a major key to our ability have security in the future.

But we gotta be sure that we can defeat more than one enemy at a time. If I face a land war in Korea at the same time somebody closes the Straits of Hormuz, I've got to be able to deal with both of those threats. Thank God we have the military capability to be able to do that. We need to retain that.

And lastly, we can't just be about cutting. We've got to invest in the future and invest in cyber and invest in unmanned, invest in our ability to mobilize, invest in Special Forces, invest in space. These are the areas that we've got to be strong in if we're going to be on technological edge of the future.

And we've got to have a strong ability to mobilize. I need a strong Reserve and a strong National Guard. They've been key to our efforts fighting the wars over these last 10 years and they're great. They've got great experience. They've been out there on the battlefield and I want to retain that for the future.

And I also want to retain our industrial base. I'll be damned if I'm gonna contract out to any other country to be able to protect our defense in this country.

So, I've got to protect our shipyards, I've got to protect our manufacturing base. I've got to be able to rely on an American industrial base if we have to go to war and deal with a serious crisis.

So those are the key elements of the strategy that we've put in place. And we built a budget proposal to try to implement that strategy. And as part of that, we will continue to invest in the unique capabilities of military and industrial facilities like those in Hampton Roads.

As I said, facilities here help us protect the strongest military in the world.

For example, despite the budget pressure we're facing, we made the decision to retain our full fleet of aircraft carriers. And similarly, we are investing in the Virginia-class submarine and upgrading this important capability for the future.

And, finally, we are investing in cutting-edge unmanned systems and cyber warfare capability that are so important in our mission at Langley Air Force Base.

This community has strongly positioned itself to help us achieve our strategy by working collaboratively with us, whether through partnership with industry, and partners in dealing with encroachment issues at Naval Air Station Oceana. You've been working with us, and I thank you for that.

But one thing I have made clear, and Mark just mentioned this -- we are jeopardized if Congress does not act to prevent sequester from taking effect in January.

And as I've time and time and time again, these additional half trillion dollars in cuts would be devastating for our defense.

By design it wasn't intended to implemented, as Mark pointed out. Sequester was put into the Budget Control Act, it's a goofy mechanism. It was basically designed to force people to do what they're supposed to do, so they put a gun to their head and said, "If we don't do what's right, we'll blow our heads off."

And they didn't do what's right, and now the damn gun is cocked to go off in January.

I have urged the Congress -- Members of both sides -- nobody wants this to happen, but they have got to come together to make the tough decisions in order to ensure that it doesn't happen. And so we continue to need to bring pressure on the Congress to prevent these defense cuts, but more importantly, to deal with the larger fiscal cliff concern that this country is facing.

There's still time to prevent sequestration. I know the Virginia Congressional delegation, and particularly Senator Warner, as I said, are working hard to try to ensure that that does not happen.

Let me be clear: No one wants this to happen and I truly believe that it ultimately will be prevented. But for God's sake, don't just kick this can down the road. Because if you do, it continues a cloud over our budget.

And the last thing I need, having put this strategy in place, is not to know where I'm headed in the future in terms of a stable budget.

I know too well that the decisions we make in Washington have a real and lasting impact on defense communities across this country. I do . And I also understand the real and tangible benefits that strong communities bring to our mission, especially when it comes to supporting our servicemembers and their families.

And that brings me to my final point. As we emerge out of this decade of war, the new greatest generation of Americans are gonna be returning home to communities like this. They need our support in order to transition back into civilian life.

I've got some great weapons systems. I've got some great tanks. I've got some great ships. I've got the best in terms of bombers and fighters. But you know what makes the United States strong? It is the men and women in uniform who serve this country.

I know this audience recognizes that these servicemembers are a tremendous asset to our communities. They've got leadership, experience. They've got discipline. They've got skills that can help the Hampton Roads area. And that is an important investment for the future.

I challenge you to think of what more you can do to help them succeed and continue this model for communities across the country.

The next great generation of men and women in uniform have, as I said, put their lives on the line to protect our country. They deserve nothing short of our full support in the years ahead. And to achieve that, all of us have to work together to make that happen.

There's a great story I often tell of the rabbi and the priest who decided to get to know each other a little better, and so one night they went to a boxing match and thought that if they went to events like that and talked that they could learn about each other's religion. Just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross, and the rabbi nudged the priest, he said, "What does that mean?"

The priest said, "It doesn't mean a damn thing if he can't fight."

Ladies and gentlemen we bless ourselves that going to be fine in this country. But very frankly, it doesn't mean a damned thing if we aren't willing to fight for it.

I know that this community is willing to fight. That's why I'm here: to fight for that American dream, to fight to make sure that America is the strongest military power in the world. But most importantly, to fight for a government of, by, and for all people.

Thank you very much for having me.