The Hampton Roads area of Virginia has played a vital role in the history of the United States, and of the military in particular, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said in Norfolk, Va., Oct. 19.
Since the Civil War and the first battle between two ironclad ships, the area has been on the leading edge of American military innovation, with its shipyards serving as the backbone of American naval power, Panetta said in remarks to members of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.
The broad challenges now faced by the military also face the Hampton Roads region, he said.
After a decade of war, the U.S. is at a strategic turning point, the defense secretary said. Congressionally mandated budget cuts come at a time when the nation still faces a dangerous and unpredictable world, he said.
“I am not one who believes that you have to choose between fiscal security and national security,” he said.
Violent extremism, weapons proliferation, international instability and the rise of new powers across Asia are just some of the challenges facing the country, Panetta said.
“And now we confront a whole new threat of warfare in cyber [space]” he said. “I think this is an area we have got to pay close attention to. This is the battle front of the future. As I speak, there are cyberattacks going on in this country.”
“And now they’re developing the capability to be able to go after our grid – our power grid, our financial systems, our government systems – and virtually paralyze this country,” Panetta said.
“We are confronting a series of threats to our national security,” he said. “I’ve got to do everything I can to make sure we protect this country.”
To address those challenges while meeting America’s fiscal responsibilities, he said, the Defense Department undertook a review of the defense strategy. As part of that review, it established new defense priorities and focused on designing a force that would carry the U.S. into the future.
The five elements of the new defense strategy are, Panetta said, a smaller, more agile force; a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and Middle East; building international partnerships and alliances; ensuring the nation can confront and defeat aggression, even when it occurs on multiple fronts; and making key investments in defense technologies and capabilities.
As part of that strategy, the defense secretary said, “We will continue to invest in the unique capabilities and the military and industrial facilities like those in Hampton Roads.”
“I also want to maintain our industrial base,” Panetta said. I’ll be damned if I’m going to contract out to any other country to be able to protect … this country.”
For example, he said, despite budget pressures, the Defense Department elected to retain the Navy’s full fleet of aircraft carriers.
“Similarly, we are investing in the Virginia-class submarine and upgrading this important capability for the future,” he said.
“And finally,” Panetta said, “we are investing in the cutting-edge unmanned systems and cyber warfare capabilities that are so important in our mission at Langley Air Force Base.”
“This community has strongly positioned itself to help us achieve our strategy,” he said. “But … we are jeopardized if Congress does not act to prevent sequester from taking effect in January,” he added.
The additional cuts would be devastating to the nation’s defense, Panetta said.
“There’s still time to prevent sequestration,” he said. “Let me be clear, no one wants this to happen … but, for God’s sake, don’t just kick this can down the road.”
“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,” the defense secretary said.
The decisions made in Washington have a lasting and real impact on American communities, Panetta said.
“As we emerge out of this decade of war, the new greatest generation of Americans is going to be returning home to communities like this. They need our support in order to transition back into civilian life,” the defense secretary said.
“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,” Panetta said. “But do you know what makes the United States strong? It is the men and women in uniform who serve this country.”