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American Forces Press Service

Panetta, Defense Leaders Celebrate Naval Aviation

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2011 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta commemorated the 100th anniversary of naval aviation last night, praising military aviators’ boldness and courage and expressing hope that Congress will draw inspiration from it in tackling the nation’s financial challenges.

Speaking at the Naval Aviation Centennial Gala here, the secretary expressed concern about additional, automatic across-the-board cuts the Defense Department could face if Congress doesn't take action in the next year.

Those cuts, if implemented, would undercut all of the department's strategy-driven efforts, he said, and he called on Congress to draw inspiration from the aviation community and put partisanship aside to find a solution to the country's fiscal problems.

"If our aviators, if our men and women in uniform, are willing to put their lives on the line, are willing to fight and to die for this country, then surely our elected leaders should be able to take a small risk in order to do what's right for this country," he said.

Panetta joined a long list of aviation luminaries and military and defense leaders in paying tribute to the achievements naval aviators have made since aviation pioneer Eugene Ely first launched from the bow of the Navy test ship Pennsylvania in 1911.

“Boldness has been at the heart of our aviators ever since,” he said, and remains critical as aviation assets provide a capability “absolutely essential to projecting power overseas.”

While providing “an unrivaled force” on the seas, the secretary noted, their contribution also extends inland. “In Afghanistan, hundreds of miles from the nearest sea, carrier aviation assets account for fully half of all air combat missions and one-third of close air support for our troops in contact with the enemy,” he said.

Meanwhile, aviation assets provide critical relief in times of crisis, he added, recalling his visit last month to USS Blue Ridge, which dispatched helicopters loaded with food, water and supplies via helicopter after Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.

“All this takes a talented team of more than just pilots,” Panetta said. He recognized the forward air controllers, logistics specialists, maintainers, rescue swimmers, crew chiefs and weapons system specialist who are integral parts of the naval aviation community.

“They, too, are the heroes we celebrate tonight,” he said.

That boldness will remain critical to maintaining air superiority into the future, he told the group. “We need the entire military to be bold – to take the offensive, to innovate, to embrace risk,” he said.

That, Panetta said, includes adapting -- not only to a changing strategic environment, but also to a new period of fiscal constraint.

As the department focuses on building a strong military for the future while meeting its fiscal responsibilities, Panetta offered assurance that it will remain the world’s best military while keeping faith with troops and their families.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. all joined Panetta last night in paying tribute to a century of naval aviation.

Mabus noted the vision that has guided naval aviation for the past century. "[It] has adapted, grown and evolved over the past 100 years," he said. "It is continuing to do so, and due to the courage, skill and professionalism of every sailor and marine, naval aviation will remain an integral part of the most formidable expeditionary fighting force the world has ever known."

Greenert recognized that people – not equipment or technology – are the heart of naval aviation. "As we turn our focus to the future, it is important that we remain focused on winning today and in the future, always work together to provide offshore options for our nation, and utilize our diverse and talented force responsibly when employing our resources," he said.

Dunford, who said he has witnessed aviators flying into harm's way to support troops under attack or provide lifesaving medical evacuation support, thanked the community for its strict code of honor to its comrades.

Papp recognized the commitment aviators repeatedly demonstrate as they put themselves into harm’s way to protect or save others.

Winnefeld, a career aviator, congratulated the aviation community for its first century of successes and looked to the future with a live video feed from USS George H.W. Bush as it transits home after its first deployment.

“You are the best,” Panetta summarized in his address to the aviation community. “You are great citizens. You are great warriors. You are great patriots.”

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