Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today that navigating the Defense Department through $450 billion of cuts is the “defining challenge” he faces.
“The changing international security landscape and the new fiscal constraints, are framing my defining challenge as Secretary of Defense,” Panetta said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “How do we build the military of the 21st century, the military that we need, in order to confront a wide range of threats, and at the same time, how do we responsibly reduce deficits in order to protect our economy?”
He called on Congress to work together to agree on budget cuts and avoid “sequestration” — where if Congress does not agree on what cuts should be made, the Department of Defense would have to make double the $450 billion in cuts it has already been asked to make.
“This must be a partnership, Republican and Democrat alike,” Panetta said. “They must be a responsible partner in supporting a strong defense strategy, that may not always include their favorite base or their favorite weapon system. Congress in particular must prevent disastrous cuts from taking effect, particularly with the mechanism that was built into the Budget Control Act known as sequester.”
Panetta echoed Army leaders’ comments during the ongoing Association of the United States Army convention in Washington, D.C., saying sequestration would be “catastrophic” and “wrong.”
“This mechanism would force defense cuts that would do catastrophic damage to our military and its ability to protect the country. It would double the number of cuts that we confront and it would damage our interests not only here, but around the world,” he said.
Panetta said he was working closely with the chiefs of the services and the president to achieve a “roadmap for the military we need for the future as the wars begin to wind down.”
“There are, without question, things that we know we are going to have to see as we go through this process. We know that the military of the 21st century will be smaller. But even if smaller, it must be supremely capable and effective as a force to deal with a range of security challenges, a military that, as President Obama has said, and I quote, ‘will remain the greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known,’ unquote,” Panetta said.
Panetta said the department was looking at four different areas to save money: eliminating overhead infrastructure, waste and duplication; force structure and the size of the ground forces after Iraq and Afghanistan; modernization and procurement reforms; and personnel costs.
“The fiscal reality facing us means that we must also look at the growth of personnel costs, which are a major driver of budget growth and are, simply put, on an unsustainable course,” Panetta said.
“Just since 2001, costs for military compensation and health care have risen by about 80 percent, while military end strength has increased less than 5 percent,” he said. “This will be an area of extreme challenge because my highest priority is obviously to maintain the vitality of our all-volunteer force and keep faith with the men and women who have put their lives on the line to defend this country and been deployed time and time and time again.”
But, he added, “The 1 percent of the country that has served in uniform, and their families, have borne the heavy costs of war for 10 years. They cannot be expected to bear the full cost of fiscal austerity as well. We need to make sure our men and women in uniform are fairly compensated, that they get the benefits they have earned, but at the same time we must recognize that the growth in personnel costs must be addressed. If we fail to address it, then we will not be able to afford the training and equipment our troops need in order to succeed on the battlefield.
“There’s a trade-off here. My approach will be to try to grandfather benefits when I can in order to try to implement future reforms in these areas,” he said.
Panetta repeatedly warned against significant force reductions.
“Given the nature of today’s security landscape, we cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of past reductions in force that followed World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the fall of the Iron Curtain, which to varying degrees, as a result of across-the-board cuts, weakened our military,” he said.
“We must avoid at all costs a hollow military, one that lacks sufficient training and equipment to adapt to surprises and uncertainty, a defining feature of the security environment we confront.”