Washington — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the U.S. military is transforming into a smaller but more flexible and technologically advanced force as it transitions from years of continuous operation in Iraq and Afghanistan and looks ahead to troop reductions and smaller budgets.
In remarks to U.S. military personnel at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait on December 12, Panetta said the United States is at a turning point more than 10 years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which U.S. combat forces plan to leave before the end of 2014.
The past decade has been "the longest ... continuous period of warfare in the history of this country," he said. Along with the transition from a period of war, U.S. lawmakers have instructed the U.S. military to reduce its budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years.
Panetta said there will be some gradual reductions in the number of U.S. military personnel over the next five to 10 years, and the Defense Department will be looking into ways to increase its bureaucratic efficiency and to save money in procuring weapons and other needs.
But the secretary said that even with a reduced size and budget, the United States "will remain the strongest military power in the world," and it will retain the capability to "defeat more than one enemy at a time. "
In the new U.S. defense strategy, "we have to be agile. We have to be flexible. We have to be quickly deployable. We've got to be able to move fast, and we've got to be on the cutting edge of technology," he said.
"Even as we draw down after these many years of war, we still confront real threats in today's world," Panetta said.
The United States will maintain a strong force projection in both the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East in response to security challenges from North Korea and Iran and continued turmoil in the Middle East region, he said.
There will also be a rotational U.S. presence in Latin America, Africa and Europe that Panetta said is designed to help other countries develop their own military competency.
"We'll have people that will go in, help train, exercise with other countries, develop their capabilities, build new alliances, build new partnerships in order to provide security in other parts of the world," he said.
Panetta said the United States will also need to deal with the threat of cyberwarfare, as more countries and individuals develop the capability of deploying tools over the Internet that can take down systems controlling power grids, finances, government operations and other critical services.
"The war of the future is going to involve cyberwar. That's a reality," he said.
"Every day, there are literally hundreds of thousands of attacks that are taking place. Now, a lot of this is exploitive. They basically go into systems. They try to get information. They try to see what's going on -- not only government systems, but private-sector systems," he said.
The secretary urged better cooperation between the government and the private sector in sharing information about attacks.
"What we have to do is ensure that we can defend against those kinds of attacks and, if necessary, be able to go back at those that would attempt to come at us," Panetta said.