U.S. troops are likely to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, even as the U.S. reduces its military presence in those countries, CIA head Leon Panetta said today at his nomination hearing for Defense Secretary.
Amid tension between the Pentagon and the White House over how many troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan, starting next month, Panetta refused to take sides, saying only that the drawdown should be "conditions based."
"I agree that they shoud be conditions based and I'm going to leave it up to Secretary Gates, Gen. Petraeus and the president on what that should be," he said.
Iraqis are also likely to request some U.S. military presence after Dec. 31, 2011, the date by which all U.S. forces are to leave the country, under the Status of Forces Agreement.
"It too continues to be a fragile situation and I believe that we should take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that we protect whatever progress we have made there," Panetta said.
The Defense Department's budget has ballooned in recent years, thanks to the two wars and costs of new technology. Nearly a quarter of the U.S. budget is dedicated to defense spending, which, some critics say, is artificially inflated.
As members of Congress look for ways to cut the nation's hefty budget deficit, defense spending has come under increased scrutiny.
Outgoing Secretary Gates said in February that the Pentagon plans to trim $178 billion from its budget over the next five years, although he didn't specify in which areas those cuts would be made. President Obama upped the ante, saying in April that he would like to see $400 billion in cuts from security spending through the 2023 fiscal year.
Lawmakers are divided over the size of the cuts. Democrats say the defense budget needs to be on the line.
"We're going to have to make some tough decisions," Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said today. "A broke country is a weak country."
Republicans argue that a significant cut would compromise U.S. national security.
"Defense spending is not what's taking this country into a fiscal crisis and if the Congress and president act on this flawed assumption, they will face a situation that is truly unaffordable," countered Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services committee.
There is a consensus, however, that there are areas of waste that need to be examined, especially when it comes to weapons spending, which has ballooned in recent years. The cost of owning and operating the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fleet alone would top $1 trillion in more than 50 years, including an additional $385 billion to purchase 2,500 of the stealth planes through 2035, according to a recent report published in the Wall Street Journal.
"We have terribly out-of-control costs for literally every weapons system we've acquired," McCain said. "We're going to have to get our arms around this. ... This is simply not affordable to us to continue business as usual the way we acquire weapons today."
While Panetta agreed with that assessment, he was careful not to venture too deeply into the debate, only to say that the comprehensive review Gates has ordered will help him determine which areas can afford budget cuts.
"There's no question in my mind that the size of the deficit ... threatens our security," he said. "Obviously, defense needs to play a role but when you're facing that size of a deficit, everything's got to play a role."
Bipartisan Support for Panetta
"The days of large growth and unlimited defense budgets are over," he added. "I do not believe, based on my long experience in government and working with budgets, that we have to choose between strong fiscal discipline and strong national defense."
Public opposition to the war in Afghanistan -- the longest in U.S. history -- has eased from its peak, likely because of the killing of Osama bin Laden. But a majority of Americans -- 54 percent -- continue to say the war has not been worth fighting, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday. Nearly three-quarters -- 73 percent of Americans -- favor a substantial withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, slated to start in July. But only 43 percent think that it will happen.
Panetta is likely to be confirmed on a bipartisan basis as new Defense secretary. Unlike his predecessor, Panetta is considered a seasoned Washington insider who, observers say, is likely to be more sensitive to Beltway politics and liberals' increasingly discontent with the prolonged war in Afghanistan.
"He definitely is more of a Democratic party insider, so he's got more of a commitment to the Democratic base and more of a sensibility for Democratic politics and is probably more sensitive to that certainly than Secretary Gates," said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department policy planning staff member.
ABC News' Luis Martinez contributed to this report.