Published November 17. 2011 1:24PM Updated November 17. 2011 9:00PM
Groton – U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Electric Boat this afternoon, telling a crowd of shipyard workers that they represent a part of the nation's "industrial base" that must be protected from defense cuts.
The defense secretary said that if U.S. congress and the 12 members of a "super committee" fail to produce a debt reduction plan, the automatic cuts that would result to the military's budget are "going to totally hollow out the force."
"If I have to cut about $500, $600 billion out of defense, it decimates defense," he said from EB's wind-blown dock on the Thames River.
Panetta arrived at the dock at about 1 p.m. and was quickly escorted below the deck of the Virginia-class attack submarine Mississippi, which is to be christened next month.
U.S. House Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd, joined the defense secretary on his tour of the vessel. Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman remained on land after being told by a defense official that she lacked the necessary security clearance to board the vessel.
Panetta spoke before the crowd of about 200 EB workers once he emerged from the Mississippi. Panetta did not say what the consequences would be for submarine production if the automatic cuts happen. Earlier in the week he outlined a potential reduction from 12 to 10 of Ohio-class replacement submarines.
"I can't tell you what an honor it is for me to have a chance to come up here to Groton and recognize that this is the submarine capital of the world," he said. "What you guys are doing -- the work that you're doing -- is absolutely essential to our ability to keep our country safe."
Speaking on the importance to defense of the country's industrial base, Panetta said that the nation's many shipyards and factories were what allowed the United States to ramp up armament production at the outbreak of World War II.
The U.S. should never lose this capability, he said.
"If we face a major crisis, I've gotta mobilize. I can't mobilize without an industrial base," Panetta said. "If I'm going to be able to defend this country, I've got to be able to do it with people who know what the hell they're doing. So one of my efforts is going to be to make sure we protect that base, and that means protecting you."