Panetta says cuts will not weaken military

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday defended President Obama’s proposed cuts to the military, and reminded lawmakers that the $487 billion reduction in Pentagon spending is their own handiwork.

Panetta backed the 2013 defense spending plan that the president released Monday, calling it a balanced plan that maintains the nation’s military strength. He pointed out the debt-limit deal Congress passed in August set in motion the 10-year, $487 billion cut to the Pentagon that Obama is now implementing.

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“It was this Congress that mandated, on a bipartisan basis, that we reduce the defense budget, and we need your partnership to do this in a manner that preserves the strongest military in the world,” Panetta said in prepared testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This will be a test of whether reducing the deficit is about talk or action.”

Panetta’s testimony Tuesday is the first leg of a three-day swing through committee rooms that he will undertake with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

The Defense secretary urged lawmakers to take stock of the reductions the military is making and understand the critical need to avoid another $500 billion in defense cuts through sequestration. 

“My hope is that now that we see the sacrifice involved in reducing the defense budget by almost half a trillion dollars, Congress will be convinced of its important responsibility to make sure that we avoid sequestration,” Panetta said. “That would be a doubling of the cuts, another roughly $500 billion in additional cuts that would be required to take place through a meat-ax approach, and that we are convinced would hollow out the force and inflict severe damage on our national defense.”

Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain (Ariz.), have criticized Panetta and Obama for not taking sequestration into account in the 2013 budget plan.

The Pentagon said it is not planning for sequestration, which would begin in January 2013 if Congress does not change it. The president’s budget produced the deficit savings necessary to undo sequestration, but Republicans in Congress said the president’s budget is a non-starter.

Panetta also preemptively tried to justify another two rounds of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) — a request that was included in the president’s budget — by citing his own experience.

“As someone who went through BRAC, I realize how controversial this process can be for members and constituencies,” Panetta said. “And yet, it is the only effective way to achieve infrastructure savings.”

Dempsey said the strategy accepts some risks as it addresses new fiscal constraints, but that it is successfully “marrying versatility with affordability.”

“The primary risks lie not in what we can do, but in how much we can do and how fast we can do it,” Dempsey said in prepared remarks. “The risks are in time and capacity. We have fully considered these risks, and I am convinced we can properly manage them by ensuring we keep the force in balance, investing in new capabilities and preserving a strong reserve component.”

Panetta suggested that the budget should be considered as a whole in order to achieve the necessary savings, although he acknowledged it was not the end of the budget process.

“The bottom line is that I believe there is little room for modification to preserve the force and capabilities we believe are needed to protect the country and fulfill assigned missions,” Panetta said.

“As you take a look at the individual parts of this plan, I encourage you to do what the department has done: to bear in mind the strategic trade-offs inherent in any particular budget decision, and the need to balance competing strategic objectives in a resource-constrained environment,” he said.

— This post was updated at 10:25 a.m.

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