Panetta: Coming Budget Cuts Demand Careful Balance 


By: Karen Parrish


(Washington) – January 6, 2012 - The coming round of defense budget cuts will differ from previous drawdowns, “where the threat kind of went away,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said yesterday.

Terrorism remains a danger, and Iran, North Korea, China and the Middle East pose key defense concerns, Panetta told Jeffrey Brown on the PBS “Newshour” program. DOD must retain the power to counter these and other pressures while reducing redundant structures, trimming its force size, scaling back weapons modernization and adjusting compensation, the secretary noted.

The interview followed yesterday’s budget strategy announcement, during which Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey joined President Barack Obama in an unprecedented Pentagon briefing.

“We are at a strategic turning point,” the secretary told PBS. “We just ended the war in Iraq. We're in a transition course … in Afghanistan. We just completed the NATO mission in Libya. We've made significant progress against terrorism, particularly al-Qaida.”

Given the remaining threats, the change in war footing, and the mandate to slash spending, “what we've got to do is … have a flexible, adaptable, agile force that can deal with a myriad of challenges in today's world. That's what we've got to be able to develop,” Panetta said.

The secretary added some detail to two topics emphasized during the strategy guidance rollout: increased emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region, and the acknowledgement that some risk comes with deep defense cuts.

“What are the risks? When you're smaller and leaner, you're not going to have that large a presence throughout the world,” he noted. An effective smaller force will need to mobilize quickly, bring advanced technology to bear, and rely on partnerships, the secretary said.

Mobilization demands both a strong logistics framework and a robust reserve component, Panetta said. But advanced technology demands ongoing research, innovation and implementation, all of which are costly, he added, and partner relationships require matching efforts from other nations, which also are resource-constrained.

“So you can see the risks that are out there,” Panetta said. “We think they're acceptable, but they are risks.”

But there is no risk that the U.S. military will become a one-front force, he emphasized.

“The United States has to have the capability to deal with more than one enemy … and win,” the secretary said.

The Asia-Pacific region calls for increased U.S. military attention because many factors there could develop into challenges, Panetta said: possible instability on the Korean peninsula, free movement of maritime commerce, nuclear proliferation, humanitarian crises and disasters are all issues that could trigger U.S. power being invoked.

“That's the reason we have got to focus an emphasis on the Pacific region,” he added.

The secretary said that emphasis includes maintaining a strong naval presence in the Pacific, maintaining a military presence in South Korea, pursuing the rotational Marine deployment to Australia the president announced in November, and looking for other, similar opportunities “to enhance our presence, to … indicate that we are a Pacific power and we are there to work with the countries in that area to try to maintain the peace.”

The 2013 defense budget request to be announced in the coming weeks reflects “a lot of hard choices,” Panetta said.

“When you cut a half trillion dollars from the defense budget, it affects almost every area in the defense budget,” he noted.

During the strategic spending review leading up to yesterday’s announcement, department leaders examined operations, modernization and procurement, compensation and force structure for possible savings, the secretary said.

Panetta did not discuss the effects that could result from an additional half-trillion-dollar reduction in defense spending, as the Budget Control Act’s sequestration provision requires.

“What I would ask people to do is … hold your judgment as to whether or not we ought to cut the defense budget a lot deeper, until … you see the decisions we are going to have to make in order to be able to achieve $500 billion in defense savings,” he said.

As a former California congressman, Panetta said, he understands that some current members of Congress will be concerned about how the 2013 defense budget request might affect their constituents and districts.

“I urge them to take a look at our larger strategy here, what we've released today, and hopefully be able to work with us to achieve the same kind of balance we're trying to achieve here,” the secretary said.