U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talks to reporters during the first leg of his trip to Europe. (Marcus Weisgerber / Staff)
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sees ways to expand military-to-military relations with some of Washington’s strongest European allies even though defense spending is projected to decline on both sides of the Atlantic.
Panetta on Jan 14 began a weeklong trip to Europe where he is scheduled to meet with defense leaders in Portugal, Spain, Italy and United Kingdom.
“I think in each of these countries there are elements of military assistance that we can provide that I think will be helpful to them to be able to be effective partners in NATO,” he said during a briefing with reporters on a flight to Lisbon.
While he did not get into specifics, the defense secretary said he is looking for greater cooperation with Spain on cybersecurity issues.
“The goal of this trip … is to try to strengthen and reaffirm the trans-Atlantic alliance, a relationship with NATO,” Panetta said.
Panetta’s visit to Portugal is the first by a U.S. defense secretary in more than 30 years.
The U.S. plans to scale back its presence at Portugal’s Lajes Field, a military base in the Azores, due to budget constraints. The airfield there at times has served as a hub for U.S. Air Force tankers and other aircraft.
“My goal is to tell them how we hope to broaden and transform our defense relationship through trying to increase mil-to-mil engagement and exercises and try to focus on the challenges that we all have, like maritime security,” Panetta said of his visit to Portugal.
The U.S. has deep defense partnerships across Europe and the vast majority of countries in the region operate American-made weapons.
Currently, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a key part of planned U.S. foreign sales in Europe. The British military has purchased several F-35s and Italy also plans to acquire the stealthy jet. The quantity of Rome’s F-35 purchase remains up in the air due to government funding issues.
Panetta hopes to lay the groundwork for future cooperation with these countries and “follow up with our closest allies on a range of topics.”
Panetta plans to discuss with European defense leaders his talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week and the drawdown of NATO combat operations in Afghanistan. Portugal, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom all have troops based in Afghanistan.
A Traveling Man
Panetta’s visit to Europe this week marks his 18th international trip since becoming defense secretary in July 2011. During that time, he has visited more than 30 countries. Many of his trips have been to the Asia-Pacific region, an area of heavy focus in the Pentagon’s year-old military strategy.
This week marks the first time he has visited European capitals to meet with defense leaders. Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants, called himself a “son of Europe.”