NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told the Airmen and Soldiers based at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station today their service is critical to the defense strategy.
Panetta said New York was the cradle of the United States military, and that its critical role for the armed forces continues today.
"New York's Air National Guard is the largest Air Guard in the nation, with tremendous cutting-edge capabilities," he said. "And many New York installations, including Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, are making a very important contribution to our nation's defense."
Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station is the largest employer in Niagara County. The base is home to the Air Force Reserve's 914th Airlift Wing and the Air National Guard's 107th Airlift Wing.
Together, more than 2,700 service members and civilians are assigned to the units.
Soldiers from Alpha Company, 865th Combat Support Hospital and the 1982nd Forward Surgical Team were also present for Panetta's visit. The units are among several Army Reserve and National Guard tenant units at the base.
The spirit of public service exemplified by the Reserve and National Guard is essential to democracy, Panetta said. It demonstrates a commitment to securing the nation and providing better futures for the nation's children, he added.
"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," Panetta said.
That turning point is the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the resulting cuts in defense spending, he explained.
Budget cuts must be responsible, Panetta said, and undertaken in a way that allows the U.S. military to maintain its position as the strongest in the world, while not hollowing out the force.
"In the past, as 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," Panetta said. "It weakened every element of our defense establishment. I am not going to repeat that mistake."
The best plan would create a defense strategy not just for today, but for the future, he said.
"We're going to be smaller, we're going to be leaner, but we have to be agile," he said. "We have to be deployable, we have to be flexible and we have to be on the cutting edge of technology," Panetta said.
Additionally, the defense strategy has to take into account potential trouble spots, such as the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, and it must allow the United States to maintain a worldwide presence, the secretary said. It also has to enable the military to defeat more than one enemy at a time, he added.
The final consideration has to be investing in the future, Panetta said - not just in military systems and units, but also in companies that service the military.
"I do not want to outsource our national defense to other countries," he said.
The reductions will come at a cost. "Let me be frank with you: I can't reduce the defense budget by $487 billion and not create some pain," he said.
The National Guard and Reserve hold a key role in the defense strategy, he said, and the Defense Department is committed to protecting the New York Air National Guard.
"It's the largest in the country. I think it's one of the best, and I also want to make clear that we are committed to maintaining this base for the future," Panetta said. "We're counting on this base. It's important geographically. It's important to the mission that we need to look forward to."
Panetta said investment in the base will continue and that he plans to look for additional roles for the base as the defense mission evolves.
"We're going to upgrade eight C-130s and replace them over five years with the C-130H3s," he said. "We're going to invest $6.1 million in order to create a C-130 flight simulator here."
The base now has 12 C-130H2 Hercules aircraft. They are assigned to the 914th Airlift Wing, but are operated jointly along with the 107th Airlift Wing.
Panetta also discussed potential effects on communities if Congress allows budget sequestration to take effect in January. The measure would add about $500 billion in across-the-board defense spending reductions over the next decade in addition to the $487 billion cut that's already coming.
"We have to be part of the same team, not only protecting our defense, but meeting our responsibility to our fiscal needs," he said. "Frankly, 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 the fact that for some crazy reason, we may walk off of that cliff."
While he expressed confidence that sequestration could still be avoided, Panetta said that if it happened, "incredible damage" to the nation's defense would result.
"It's a formula that cuts across the board," he said. "It's mindless, and it will hollow out our military. 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 to fight for what's right.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we bless ourselves with the hope that everything is going to be OK in this country," he continued, "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 brought my parents to this country, to fight for a strong America, [for] the future, and to fight for, most importantly, a government of, by and for all people."