Pentagon wary of spending cuts 'trigger'

The Pentagon is on board with the $350 billion in cuts the White House claims the new debt plan will bring, but larger cuts that could be triggered in November would be “dangerous” for national security, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.

The debt-ceiling legislation signed into law on Tuesday contains no firm figure for how deeply Pentagon and national security agency budgets will shrink over the next decade. But the White House and senior Democratic lawmakers say it’ll be $350 billion.

That is a win for those agencies, the defense sector and hawkish Republican lawmakers because it is $50 billion less than decade-spanning cuts ordered in April by President Obama. The Defense Department has been leading a soup-to-nuts strategy review to inform decisions on the Obama-ordered cuts — work now being done to inform decisions about how the congressionally mandated $350 billion in reductions will be implemented.

But the Pentagon and the rest of the national security sector did not come out unscathed. If a yet-to-be-formed “supercommittee” of House and Senate members fails to come up with a deficit-reduction plan by late November, the debt-ceiling law requires massive cuts to several troughs of federal spending – including national security agencies.

Those cuts could total up to an additional $500 billion over a decade.

On Thursday, Panetta dubbed what others have called a spending-cut “trigger” the “Doomsday Mechanism.”

The trigger would set off a second round of large defense spending cuts that would be “very dangerous,” Panetta said during a Pentagon news conference.

During past post-conflict military “build downs,” overall personnel numbers for each of the military services were slashed, developmental weapon programs were terminated and equipment fleets were reduced, creating what Pentagon brass call “a hollow force.”

“That approach would be harmful because we are a nation at war,” the Defense secretary said, noting America still faces “a broad range” of threats that the military must be sized, trained and equipped to take on.

Panetta, on the job for about a month, says due to the soup-to-nuts strategy review that is already under way, this build-down is progressing differently.

“We do not have to choose between fiscal responsibility and national security,” Panetta said.

Pentagon officials say they are not drawing up worst-case scenario plans in case the “Doomsday Mechanism” is enacted. But that doesn’t mean talks about how they would handle an additional $500 billion in cuts are not occurring at the highest levels, Panetta noted.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen said during the same press briefing that the four-star military chiefs are in agreement with the White House and Congress that the DOD budget — which saw enormous growth after the 9/11 attacks — needs to come down to help improve America’s finances.

But, he said, the chiefs “expect sensible cuts” — not ones that would make the military too small, too poorly equipped or unable to pay for troops’ salaries and benefits.

Mullen talked of taking a “balanced” approach to implement the $350 billion in reductions, meaning taking pounds of budgetary flesh from across the department’s accounts. He made clear that will include major weapons programs, saying those that are the furthest behind and most over-cost will be in “jeopardy.”

Earlier Thursday, several former national security officials agreed with Mullen’s assessment.

In past Defense build-downs, major weapons programs were “stretched out and slowed down” — but many were preserved, said former Pentagon official David Berteau. That is unlikely this time, he said during a forum on Capitol Hill, because killing a program would spawn savings immediately.

Gordon Adams, who oversaw Defense budgeting during the Clinton administration, called the build-down that White House oversaw the “best managed” in U.S. history. “So this can be done,” Adams said.

Both Berteau and Adams said the coming $350 billion cuts over 10 years are manageable, and should be implemented after Washington establishes a new national security strategy. That way,  the duo said, officials will know just what kinds — and how many — of expensive, big-ticket platforms the Pentagon will need in the future.

Adams poured cold water on the trigger cuts, saying they are purely political and subject to change.

“Anyone with half a brain knows” the debt law’s provisions “won’t last 10 years,” Adams said, saying elections and global events will quickly render them forgotten or replaced.

“The whole thing,” Adams said, “is set up to fail.”