The Army must maintain its counterterrorism expertise and rebuild its ability to go toe to toe with another large ground force — all while facing deep budget cuts, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.
For a second day in a row, Panetta took a hard line against deeper military budget cuts than the $350 billion called for under the August debt deal. He called it "nuts" if $600 billion more in cuts were to be triggered if the congressional supercommittee fails to reach a deal on at least $1.2 trillion in cuts.
That second round of cuts would be a “doomsday mechanism” that would hinder national security, Panetta said.
“We must never make that mistake again,” a passionate Panetta said to applause from the audience at the Association of the U.S. Army conference. “And it will not happen under my watch.”
The Pentagon contends the debt-deal agreement reached by the White House and congressional leaders would cut deeper than $350 billion, putting the total impact at around $460 billion.
Defense Department officials say the cuts must be measured against funding plans included in the military’s last long-term budget blueprint. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget used a different baseline to come up with the $350 billion figure, a DOD official said.
Some GOP congressional aides say the debt-deal legislation does not mandate anything. But Democratic sources say spending caps mean Pentagon cuts are necessary, and that White House and congressional negotiators agreed to the $350 billion figure, which will be enacted over a decade.
While Panetta and other Pentagon leaders say that first round of cuts will force the military to shed people, weapon programs and missions, they feel national security will not take a major hit.
“There is no question” that the military will have to get smaller to cut costs, Panetta said.
At the same forum a few hours after Panetta departed, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, also addressed coming budget reductions.
Dempsey acknowledged he "will be the chairman who [oversees] the move from bigger budgets to smaller budgets."
Some Republican lawmakers and industry executives are lobbying hard against any military budget cuts. But Dempsey struck an upbeat tone.
"I actually think we're going to be okay," Dempsey said. "We can get through it. But we can get through it only if we together."
Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno told the same conference on Monday that he expects the service will dip from its current size of over 560,000 active-duty troops to below 520,000 troops as budgets shrink and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars wind down.
And on Tuesday, a top general said the Army’s weapons program and training accounts will likely be hit hardest.
“We can expect cuts of about $12 [billion] to $14 billion a year for the Army,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Lennox, deputy Army chief of staff.
With the ground service still heavily involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “you can’t draw down people fast enough to offset those cuts,” Lennox said.
“We have to do our part,” Panetta said, urging the military services to avoid infighting and “parochialism” to preserve their respective budgets and favorite programs.
The Defense secretary called the Army the best fighting force in the world, and applauded the Army audience for making the service the best counterinsurgency force in U.S. history over the last 10 years.
The Army must keep those relatively new skills “because it’s likely we will be fighting terrorism … for a long time to come.”
But Panetta then fired a shot across the bow of nations like Iran and North Korea, which are pursuing nuclear weapons.
He also noted “rising powers” are building up their militaries, and that means the Army must get back to training for a large-scale conventional ground war.
The Defense chief called on the Army to revitalize training facilities to ensure it is ready for a fight against another big ground force.
Although Panetta never referred to a specific nation, the one most often associated in defense and foreign policy circles with the term “rising power” is China. The Asian giant is in the midst of a massive, yet secretive, military expansion.
The Defense secretary, his voice rising and echoing through a Washington Convention Center ballroom, said he wants an Army that can “decisively overwhelm any land force” that it might face down the road.
In describing the kind of Army he wants, Panetta quoted the famous Gen. George Patton: “An Army … that can hold an enemy by the nose and kick them in the ass.”
The audience, many wearing combat fatigues or Army dress uniforms, applauded loudly.
This story was updated at 1:48 p.m.