Gates, for all of his brass in confronting the profligate status quo, was still handicapped by his long service as a DOD official. The peculiar tautology that defense spending is essential because it is spending on defense can only be distilled by someone for whom the dogma of defense budgets is not preordained. Mr. Panetta, having served both as the House Budget Committee Chairman and as a White House budget official, has the perspective and, hopefully the mettle, to rebuff this reverence that has allowed Pentagon budgets to balloon, unscrutinized, for too long.

In one of his last addresses as the head of the Pentagon, Secretary Gates warned “there will be a dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

Foreign policy and fiscal advocates have warned that the United States cannot expect to maintain both its solvency and its position as the world’s policeman. Gates’s recognition that tax dollars, especially to spend on defense, are a finite resource, will allow Panetta the opportunity to do what something Pentagon officials have never attempted: prioritize spending.

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How the National Defense Authorization played out in the House is informative of what kind of battle Panetta faces. Attuned to the appetite for spending cuts but still lacking the will to enact them in defense, lawmakers drafted an authorization bill that inserted many creative placeholders for shiny defense programs with which they still couldn’t bear to part.

Such is the case with an antiquated missile system Congress continues to fund, despite testimony from Pentagon officials who have shown no desire to procure the system once it is developed. The fifteen year old Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) has long been outpaced in cost and capabilities by improvements to the Patriot missile program, but continues to receive funding. Instead, Congress allowed the Secretary to renegotiate its contract before more funds are committed. 

This nascent promise of thrift in defense accounts is not enough, but it provides an unprecedented opportunity. The pressure to find savings in every corner of the federal budget, coupled with a Defense Secretary willing and able to champion those savings in his department, should prove a winning combination for taxpayers. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee, not generally known to flex fiscal muscle over military concerns, was even more aggressive, cutting all the funds for MEADS and requesting the Pentagon find more cost-efficient means to ending the program. With budget-cutting friends like these, the ex-budget officio Panetta should see an easier road than his predecessors to finding $400 billion in military cuts.

Mr. Panetta has already proved his national security bona fides as the head of the CIA. The true strength of his leadership will come in the Pentagon budget wars; the country’s spending problem now proving far more dangerous than traditional thinking about Pentagon budgets would have taxpayers believe.

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Mattie Corrao is the Government Affairs Manager at Americans for Tax Reform and its Center for Fiscal Accountability’s Executive Director.