NATO is an alliance that must remain strong and capable to meet 21st century challenges, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta emphasized in two European capitals Jan. 15.
In a joint news conference here with Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenes Eulate, and in an earlier event today with Portuguese Defense Minister Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco, the secretary praised NATO allies’ resolve over the past 10-plus years of war, and urged their continued commitment to the transatlantic alliance.
Speaking here, Panetta said Spain is a longtime trusted ally, friend and security partner to the United States. Spain’s leadership in NATO, contributions in Afghanistan and efforts to promote security in the Mediterranean basin, he said, have been critically important over the last decade.
“I believe continued Spanish leadership will be essential to the future success of the transatlantic alliance,” Panetta said. “Spain is extremely important to our ability to maintain and strengthen that very important alliance.”
The secretary also paid tribute to the Spanish service members killed in Afghanistan. “On behalf of my country,” he said, “I want to extend to the people of Spain our deepest condolences on the fact that you buried today, as I understand it, the 100th casualty … killed in action that Spain has endured in that conflict. You’ve paid a high price.”
Because of many such sacrifices on the part of nations with forces in Afghanistan and of the Afghan people, Panetta said, “we are on track to meet the goals that our nations agreed to last year [at the NATO summit] in Chicago.” He added that Afghan forces are set to take over lead security responsibility in the late spring, and full responsibility in 2014.
He pledged continued commitment to develop and sustain Afghan forces past 2014.
“The long-term commitment NATO has made is critical to fulfilling the mission that brave men and women from our two nations have fought and died to carry out,” he said.
Other topics he discussed with Spanish leaders, Panetta said, include countering cyber threats and bolstering maritime security.
“Literally hundreds of thousands of cyber attacks [are] aimed at both the private sector … [and] the governmental sector,” Panetta said. “And for that reason, it is important that we work together to strengthen our capabilities in this wider area.”
The United States already is partnering with Spain to meet the mission of safeguarding the seas, he noted. “The home-porting of four Aegis-equipped destroyers to Rota, which I announced on my first trip to Europe as secretary, is a key U.S. commitment of NATO,” he said. “But more broadly, Rota is a critical gateway for naval and aerial operations into the Mediterranean and beyond.”
The ship-based Aegis ballistic missile defense system incorporates computers, radar, and missiles to detect, track and destroy short- to intermediate-range missiles.
Naval Station Rota, on Spain’s southern coast, is a Spanish base funded by the United States. “As our forces deploy there, we will look to increase our bilateral naval cooperation with Spain,” Panetta said.
Moving ahead with the Aegis deployment to Rota while the United States and many other nations face significant fiscal pressure, the secretary said, “reflects our belief that the transatlantic alliance will remain critical for global security in the 21st century, and we must make investments in order to keep it strong for the future.”
The world’s nations still face a range of challenges, Panetta pointed out.
“That’s reality. That’s the world we live in,” he said. “From terrorism to nuclear proliferation to the destabilizing behavior of regimes like Iran and North Korea, these are challenges that require us to be ever vigilant and ever ready and, above all, to be leaders in helping to forge a safer and more secure future for the 21st century.”
Earlier today in Portugal, the secretary spoke to many of the same themes, and also noted Pentagon officials will alter the pace of the planned drawdown of U.S. forces at Lajes Field in the Azores.
Aguiar-Branco opened the joint news conference in the Portuguese capital. Speaking through a translator, he said the U.S. decision to cut manning at Lajes is a “situation that causes much concern to the Portuguese government.”
“I explained to Mr. Leon Panetta the delicacy and importance to work together in order to mitigate the consequences of this situation and to lessen the impact on — in the region of the Azores. … This meeting was a very important stage in the work as allies and partners in our work to reinforce and strengthen our relationship.”
Panetta responded that while budget pressures force a decrease in operations at Lajes Field, “we will do everything we can to minimize the impact and the hardship to that community and, indeed, we will use this as an opportunity to build an even stronger [military-to-military] relationship between the United States and Portugal.”
The secretary said he made clear to Portuguese leaders that U.S. defense leaders will work with Portuguese officials and the local community to mitigate the impact of the decision.
The United States military is committed to Lajes Field, which has important airlift capabilities, he said.
“It will remain a vital part of our global forward posture. We will need to continue to make use of this important base,” the secretary added.
Recognizing Portuguese concerns, Panetta said, the United States has delayed the transition of that reduction to October 2014. “We will maintain, in addition, a 24/7 fire and emergency services there, and we are committed to a 3-to-1 ratio of employees from the local community,” he added. “For every one that the United States employs, we will employ three of the local community.”
The United States also will explore opportunities to expand trade and business in the Azores, the secretary said, noting that U.S. European Command will host a delegation of business executives next month, which will include a visit to the Azores “that may provide opportunities for expanded economic development there.”
Finally and most critically, Panetta said, the United States is committed to expanding the relationship between the U.S. and Portuguese militaries with a focus on the key security challenges of the future.
A joint team of Pentagon and Portuguese defense officials is working to develop “additional opportunities to improve our relationship, and to renew and to re-emphasize the strong relationship between the United States and Portugal,” he added.
Panetta noted close partnership and cooperation among allied nations is even more important when defense budgets shrink.
“The defense strategy the United States released one year ago this month makes clear that in an era of fiscal constraint, it remains essential for us to invest in our historic alliances with countries like Portugal,” he said, “and for all of us to invest in alliance capabilities.”