By Karen Parrish
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta spent today discussing NATO capabilities and readiness during the two-day alliance defense ministers gathering under way here.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, who is traveling with Panetta, said the secretary also took part in one-on-one meetings with the Italian and Afghan defense ministers.
A key theme of Panetta’s meeting with Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, Little said, was that Afghan forces are quickly increasing capability and strength, while assuming greater responsibility across a wide range of security missions.
“The secretary expressed confidence in what the Afghans themselves are doing to build a sustainable framework for growing their own capacity to tackle ongoing challenges in their own country,” Little said.
Panetta also met with Italian Defense Minister Giampaolo Di Paola and discussed the NATO International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan along with budget concerns closer to home, Little said.
The two defense leaders had “a productive and warm meeting” that followed up on Panetta’s visit to Rome in January, Little said.
“They discussed the transition process in Afghanistan, this year’s fighting season, and the path to an enduring presence beyond 2014,” he added. “The secretary noted Italy’s strong participation in ISAF.”
Panetta and di Paola also discussed NATO capabilities, budget pressures in Europe and the United States, and the looming prospect of sequestration, Little said. “The secretary emphasized how devastating sequestration would be for U.S. defense and national security,” he added.
Panetta also attended a meeting of the NATO North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s political decision-making body. In an opening statement before the session, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance must maintain a high level of capability and readiness.
“These have been the hallmarks of our alliance for over six decades,” he said. “To retain them in the years to come, we need to maintain our political, military and economic investment in defense.”
NATO must hold the line on defense spending, work together “to make the best of what we have,” and consider what more the alliance needs to and can do as member nations’ economies recover, Rasmussen said.
During a news conference following the council meeting, the secretary general said a NATO “connected forces” initiative will join the “smart defense” program NATO adopted at its Chicago summit last year. Smart defense aims to pool countries’ buying power to equip the alliance with shared capabilities, he said, while the newer initiative will “be at the forefront of delivering the modern, tightly connected, high readiness forces we need.”
Rasmussen elaborated on the concept during a briefing for reporters this afternoon. The connected forces initiative aims at using NATO’s common funds in specific areas such as improving multinational deployability, interoperability and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies, he said.
Improving interoperability among NATO nations’ militaries will mean greater focus on training, exercises and education, he said.
“Exercises will still be a national responsibility, financed by member states,” Rasmussen noted. “But we can facilitate NATO exercises by using common funding for some parts of it.”
The defense ministers will meet again tomorrow, when the focus of discussions is scheduled to be the mission in Afghanistan.
Source: American Forces Press Service