Panetta Urges Congress to Avert Doubling of Defense Cutbacks

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Photographer: Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Congress today to abandon automatic defense budget cuts of about $500 billion over 10 years that he said would cause “severe damage” to the military.

While defending the Obama administration’s $525 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2013 and its plan to trim future defense spending by 8.5 percent in the coming decade, Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that deeper cuts that would be imposed starting in January would trigger a “meat-axe approach” to military programs “inflicting severe damage to our national defense.”

Arizona Senator John McCain, the panel’s top Republican, said the Obama administration is at fault for failing to work with Congress on a plan to avoid the automatic cuts, which were mandated after a congressional supercommittee failed to agree on an alternative plan under a deficit-reduction law passed last year.

“Unfortunately, this defense budget continues the administration’s habit of putting short-term political considerations over our long-term national security interests,” McCain said.

Panetta will hear more such criticism tomorrow, when he appears before the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee. That panel’s chairman, California Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, said in a statement yesterday that the budget would “reduce resources for our struggling armed forces, and redirect them to exploding domestic bureaucracies.”

Base Closings

Some of the Democrats who control the Senate committee expressed reservations with some provisions of the budget.

The panel’s chairman, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, signaled resistance to the administration’s call for two new rounds of domestic military base closings. Levin said reducing the U.S. presence in Europe should be the “first priority” before closing any domestic bases.

Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent, joined some Republicans who said Panetta’s budget reduces military programs too deeply even without additional automatic cuts.

“I consider this budget to represent unacceptable risk to our national security, and I hope members of this committee across party lines will work together to reduce that risk in a fiscally responsible way,” Lieberman said.

Graham Disagrees

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina broke ranks with his Republican colleagues to express support for the thrust of Panetta’s effort at budget cutting.

“I do believe it’s appropriate to reduce defense spending, and I do believe it’s appropriate to consider another round” of base closings, Graham said.

When combined with $88.5 billion to fund war costs in Afghanistan and Iraq, the total Pentagon request for next year comes to $613.9 billion, down $31.8 billion from the amount enacted by Congress for this year.

Panetta outlined in his testimony the Pentagon’s proposal to cut $259 billion through 2017 from previous plans that had called for steady growth in annual spending. Over five years, the Pentagon would cut $94 billion in weapons procurement, $69 billion in military personnel, $60 billion in operations and maintenance, $19 billion in military construction and $17 billion in research and development.

Among the single largest savings is a reduction in troop strength.

Military personnel, including Reserve and National Guard forces, would be cut by 123,900 troops by 2017, according to Pentagon budget documents. That reduction, leaving a force of 2.15 million, would save about $50 billion over five years, Panetta said.

‘Agile Force’

“The strategy review recognized that a smaller, ready and agile force is preferable to a larger force that is poorly trained and ill-equipped,” Panetta said.

The budget would save $75 billion over five years by canceling or restructuring weapons programs, including $15.1 billion by slowing procurement of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

An additional $4.3 billion would be saved by delaying for two years the development of the next generation of ballistic missile submarines.

Pentagon Priorities

Offsetting some of the cuts are investments in Pentagon priorities, including $6.3 billion over five years for a new Air Force bomber, $3.4 billion for cybersecurity, and $10.4 billion for the Special Operations Forces whose commando unit killed Osama bin Laden last year.

Committee members questioned Panetta about a proposal to transfer five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar, as part of an effort to negotiate a reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“Such a significant step strikes me as premature,” Levin said.

Panetta said no decision has been made and that he would need to convinced that the detainees wouldn’t return to the battlefield before he would agree to certify any transfer.

McCain, signaling the election-year battle to come over military spending levels, said the administration’s plan would lead to “the hollowing out of the U.S. military and the decline of U.S. military power.”

Panetta said “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.”

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