By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
BRUSSELS, Feb. 20, 2013 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived here today and will spend the rest of the week at NATO headquarters, attending defense meetings and engaging his counterparts in one-on-one discussions.
The secretary also will attend the NATO-Ukraine Commission and a meeting with representatives of NATO International Security Assistance Force troop-contributing nations.
Little said this week’s meetings will focus largely on the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. He noted Panetta will also meet here with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who assumed command of ISAF and U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Feb. 12 and will attend the NATO meetings.
Following President Barack Obama’s announcement that 34,000 U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan over the next year, Little added, the secretary is looking forward to discussing the follow-on issues with partners: the war effort, the transition to Afghan security lead, the “glide slope” that troop withdrawals will follow, and the enduring presence NATO will maintain in Afghanistan after 2014.
Little noted that Panetta remains hopeful senators will expeditiously confirm his nominated replacement, former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, when they return to the Hill next week. Panetta -- who landed here the same day he issued a warning to the defense civilian workforce about possible budget-related short-term layoffs, or “furloughs” -- remains deeply concerned about the U.S. deficit and the government operating on continuing resolutions instead of an approved budget, Little said.
The spokesman said the threat of major across-the-board spending cuts that will take effect March 1 unless Congress agrees on an alternative has implications for U.S. contributions to the NATO alliance. He noted that Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have repeatedly warned that the cuts would damage U.S. military readiness, and that the alliance shares the same danger.
“We would not be able to train bilaterally, and bilateral training equals input to alliance readiness,” Little said. “We're also talking about the prospect of not being able to engage in rotational deployments in Europe.”
The Navy already has canceled the deployment of one carrier group, Little said. “That is a direct result of budget uncertainty in Washington,” he added. “So, you put all of this together: U.S. lack of readiness equals NATO lack of readiness.”
Although the looming spending cuts are a disturbing agenda item for a gathering of defense ministers, Little said, Panetta “is definitely going to talk about the prospect of sequestration and what it might mean for our forces … and the alliance.”