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Panetta promises defense cuts will not leave Pentagon with 'hollow force'

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta took over at the Pentagon on Friday and immediately promised the budget cuts he will oversee will not produce a “hollow force.”

Panetta acknowledged the Defense Department will be forced to make “tough budget choices,” but called it a “false choice” that fiscal discipline means weakening national security.

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“Even as the United States addresses fiscal challenges at home, there will be no hollow force on my watch,” Panetta said in a statement released after he was sworn in at 8:48 a.m. in his new Pentagon office. “That will require us all to be disciplined in how we manage taxpayer resources.

“Throughout my career in public service ... I have focused on achieving that balance,” Panetta said. “I will continue that approach at the Pentagon.”

The statement touched on a number of issues, from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to the meaning of Independence Day, but the inclusion of his budget vow was his first shot back at critics — many pro-defense GOP House members — who have speculated that he was sent to the Pentagon to usher in deep budget cuts.

Those critics have pointed to Panetta’s background as House Budget Committee chairman and Office of Management and Budget director as evidence President Obama was sending him across the Potomac River to do a deep dive into the Defense budget. What’s more, they note he was White House chief of staff in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration slashed Defense spending.

“Mr. Panetta's tenure begins just as President Obama and bipartisan majorities in Congress are insisting on deep cuts to defense spending,” former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote Friday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “It will be tempting to accede to the White House's proposal to carve out $400 billion, if not more, from the national security budget by 2023. It would also be a grievous mistake.”

Rumsfeld urged Panetta to avoid terminating weapons programs, arguing savings today could hinder military operations down the line.

“With no immediate outward signs of negligence, the political penalties for cutting weapons systems and delaying reinvestment in equipment and infrastructure are close to zero for those in office today,” Rumsfeld wrote. “But the penalty for being ill-prepared tomorrow when the unforeseen occurs — whether another terrorist attack at home or a major crisis abroad — can be measured in American lives lost.”

The former Defense chief said big savings can be found by resisting billions annually injected by way of congressional earmarks; repositioning U.S. forces from Cold War era bases; and military healthcare and personnel system reforms.

For his part, Panetta sounded a tone Friday that suggested he will take Rumsfeld’s advice to spend time “fending off White House and congressional raids on national security spending.”

“We must preserve the excellence and superiority of our military while looking for ways to identify savings,” Panetta said. “While tough budget choices will need to be made, I do not believe in the false choice between fiscal discipline and a strong national defense. We will all work together to achieve both.”

The new Defense secretary also addressed the Afghanistan war and the situation in Iraq, saying, “We must prevail against our enemies.”

“We will persist in our efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al Qaeda,” he said, repeating Obama’s often-used line.

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Panetta, who was CIA chief and played a big role in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, called that mission “a major step toward that goal.”

On Iraq, Panetta said Washington must “cement a strategic relationship with the Iraqi government, one based not solely on our military footprint there but on a real and lasting partnership.

“It is in America's interests to help Iraq realize its potential to become a stable democracy in a vitally important region in the world, and to reinforce that responsibility for the future security of Iraq must belong to the Iraqis themselves,” Panetta said.

During his confirmation hearing last month, Panetta was the first Obama administration official to publicly predict that the Iraqi government will ask Obama to keep U.S. forces there beyond this year.

Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 9 that "it is clear to me" that a request from Iraqi officials to keep some U.S. Forces there beyond this year "will be forthcoming."

Under an existing U.S.-Iraqi pact, all American military forces must be removed by Dec. 31.