WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 2011 -- The services must work together to face mounting budget pressures and determine the nation's future military needs, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today.
Speaking with hundreds of service members at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army here, the secretary entered to a standing ovation and in his remarks praised the men and women of the Army and discussed a range of challenges.
Over 10 years of war, he said, "we've become the best counterinsurgency force in the world and we've also become the most adaptive, the most expeditionary and the most joint force in our country's history."
Panetta said the services have to weather the present budget storms as a team, putting the needs of all before the needs of one.
"We can't do anything less," he added. "The stakes are too high right now, and if we don't tackle these challenges together, we will not be able to see our way clear to remaining the best military in the world."
Tough decisions lie ahead, the secretary said.
"No one really knows exactly what lies ahead in 10 or 20 or 30 years from now," he added, "but one thing we know for sure: this country, our fellow citizens and, indeed, people around the world are going to continue to look to America for leadership and to American military power for partnership and for leadership in the world."
The past 10 years have shaped the Army into the finest fighting force in the world, Panetta said.
Since 9/11, more than 1 million Soldiers have deployed to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. More than 70,000 Soldiers serve in Afghanistan, nearly 40,000 still serve in Iraq, and thousands more serve around the globe.
"This burden has not come lightly," Panetta said. "More than 4,500 Soldiers have given the last full measure of devotion since 9/11, and another 32,000 Soldiers have been wounded."
From Iraq's city streets to the mountains of Afghanistan, the secretary added, "America's Soldiers --- active, Guard, Reserve -- have been serving and sacrificing, fighting and dying in order to protect our freedoms, our liberties and our values. That is the enduring story of the American Soldier."
Today's Army is unmatched by any in the world, the secretary said, and yet the military services, and the Army in particular, have reached an important inflection point.
The United States is bringing the war in Iraq to a responsible end, Panetta said, "and that country now has a chance to emerge as a sovereign, stable, self-reliant nation and a positive force for stability in a vital region of the world."
Afghanistan still is a tough fight, he added, but conditions are being set for a responsible transition to Afghan security by the end of 2014.
"As we draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army will gain finally some much-needed strategic breathing space --- already, combat deployments are being shortened from 12 months to nine months," the secretary said.
"We must use this time well and wisely," he added, "because as welcome as it is, it comes as we face an extraordinary fiscal pressure on the military, on the Defense [Department] and, for that matter, on the country. This department faces the imperative of cutting more than $450 billion over the next 10 years."
The department is willing to do its part, he said, but "there are some who continue propose even deeper cuts in defense, arguing that the draconian cuts that are part of this crazy doomsday mechanism called sequester -- a $1 trillion cut if it takes effect -- somehow won't impact on our national security."
Sequestration would force across-the-board, "salami-slicing" cuts of the worst kind, he said.
"It would hollow out the force," he added. "It would leave our military deficient in people, in training and [in] equipment, and unable to adapt when the next security challenge comes along."
The same mistake was made after World War I, after World War II, after Korea, after Vietnam and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he said.
"We must never make that mistake again," Panetta added. "And it will not happen under my watch."
The international security environment is growing in complexity and uncertainty, he said, and the nation and the world must continue to deal with terrorism and the threat of violent extremism.
"My job is to make sure we're ready for that role," the secretary said, "across a complex group of missions, to ensure that our armed forces remain the very best in the world and that our Army remains the finest strategic land force in the world."
The nation's future military will be smaller, but must be able to address such future challenges, which likely will come from "state and nonstate actors arming with high-tech weaponry that is easier both to buy and to operate -- weapons that frustrate our traditional advantage and freedom of movement," Panetta said.
"Coming up with new ideas, with new operating principles to defeat these kind of enemies," the secretary said, "is a challenge that I pose to this battle-hardened generation of American Soldiers."
Today's men and women in uniform are as creative and mentally agile on the battlefield as are their contemporaries in high-tech idea labs in Silicon Valley, Panetta said.
"The excellence of our greatest asset, our Soldiers," the secretary added, "gives me confidence that we can craft an Army organized, trained and equipped to prevail in the future."