Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta blasted the supercommittee mechanism that would trigger across-the-board spending cuts to the Department of Defense, calling it “mindless” and saying it had the potential to do “catastrophic damage” to national security.
Panetta said Congress shares responsibility for the country’s defense strategy with the executive branch, and that to allow the blanket cuts would be an abdication of its responsibility.
“We must prevent the disastrous cuts from the mechanism built into the Budget Control Act, known as sequester,” Panetta said in a speech Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Under the debt-ceiling deal approved by Congress in August, the Defense Department is to reduce its budget by $460 billion over the next 10 years. However, if Congress’s Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — the so-called supercommittee –— doesn’t reach an agreement on $1.2 trillion in budget cuts by Nov. 23, the sequester mechanism will trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts, with $600 billion of that coming from the Pentagon’s budget.
Panetta previously referred to this as the “Doomsday Mechanism,” and said it could add an additional 1 percent to the already-high unemployment rate. On Tuesday, he added that cuts to other agencies could also adversely affect U.S. national security.
“This would be wrong for both defense and domestic discretionary spending. Why? Because both areas are important to our national security interests,” he said.
“Quality of life is important to national security. Investing in education is important to our national security … cuts at the Department of State will impact our ability to promote our interests around the world. National security is a word we oftentimes use when it comes to the military, but it’s also dependent on strong diplomacy, our ability to help other countries, and our ability to do what we can to inspire development. A strong way to undermine al Qaeda is to reach out to the Muslim world and give them a chance to find a better quality of life.”
Without getting into specifics, Panetta outlined how he planned to reach the initial $460 billion in budget reductions.
He said the Defense Department will “ruthlessly pursue” efficiencies to streamline and eliminate waste, duplication and overhead; will address the “unsustainable course” of personnel costs, which could include restructuring service member healthcare and benefit plans; will re-size ground forces into a smaller, more highly-capable force, which he said is preferable to a “larger, hollow force;” and will analyze every government contract, facility and procurement agreement for potential savings.
“My defining challenge as Secretary will be to build a military of the 21st century, a military we need to confront a wide range of threats, and at the same time responsibly reduce deficits to protect the economy,” Panetta said. “I do not believe we have to choose between national and fiscal security.”
Panetta said a leaner military that is the product of thoughtful budget cuts could be agile, more easily deployed, and equally able to engage in major combat operations anywhere in the world, but he cautioned that the Defense Department’s concerns stretch beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He cited the need for continued pressure on al Qaeda affiliates in regions such as Yemen, Somalia and North Africa; the “volatile and fragile” situation in Pakistan; the dangers of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran; the growing threat of cyber attacks; and the rapid rise of China’s military and economy.
“We need to preserve the intellectual and battlefield capital of the military, and those innovative leaders who pushed the force to adapt to changing circumstances and enemies,” Panetta said. “Maintaining that quality and experience of force, that’s an invaluable asset. In the face of budget constraints and declining operational demands this will be a challenge, but it’s essential.”