WASHINGTON, Aug. 4, 2011 – The „sequestration“ mechanism in the nation’s new debt-reduction law is unacceptable given the multitude of threats facing America, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said here today.
The mechanism automatically would kick in extensive spending cuts — $500 billion from defense spending over 10 years on top of $350 billion in spending reduction already identified over that period — if Congress fails to take further deficit-reduction action.
„This kind of ‚doomsday‘ mechanism that was built into the agreement is designed so that it would only take effect if Congress fails to enact further measures to reduce the deficit,“ Panetta said, speaking at his first Pentagon news conference since taking office July 1. „But if it happened – and, God willing, that would not be the case – but if it did happen, it would result in a further round of very dangerous cuts across the board — defense cuts that I believe would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation.“
He said sequestration would produce an outcome „that would be completely unacceptable to me as secretary of defense, to the president, and to our nation’s leaders.“
The American people also would reject such an action, the secretary added. „They expect us to protect our core national security interests while meeting reasonable savings targets,“ he said.
Reductions in defense spending must be made „based on sound strategy and policy, and with the best advice of our service chiefs and service secretaries on how to proceed,“ Panetta said.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said all the service chiefs agree with Panetta’s assessment of the legislation. The chairman has long maintained that an unchecked and rising national debt is the greatest threat to national security, and that he understands defense spending must be controlled.
„But [the Joint Chiefs] also – to a one – share your concerns about the devastating impact of further automatic cuts should the Congress fail to enact additional deficit reduction measures,“ Mullen said during the news conference. „The Defense Department may represent 50 percent of the discretionary budget in this country, but there is nothing discretionary about the things we do every day for our fellow citizens.“
Panetta said the first round of cuts called for in the new law – some $350 billion over 10 years –largely are in line with what DOD leaders were expecting and preparing to implement.
„Make no mistake about it, we will face some very tough challenges here as we try to meet those numbers,“ Panetta said, „but those numbers are within the ballpark that we were discussing with both the president as well as with [the Office of Management and Budget].“
Across-the-board cuts imposed in the 1970s and 1990s resulted in a force left undersized and underfunded relative to its missions and responsibilities, Panetta said. The process „hollowed out“ the military, he added, and the nation cannot accept this because the United States is at war.
„We face a broad and growing range of security threats and challenges that our military must be prepared to confront – from terrorist networks to rogue nations to rising powers waiting to see if we have lost our edge,“ the secretary said.
The Pentagon will do its part to fight the deficit, Panetta said, acknowledging that the United States is facing tough economic times. But these times cannot impinge on the country’s need to protect itself, he added.
„We also have to always remember those who are doing their part in the defense of this nation: our men and women in uniform and their families,“ he said. „Throughout this process, I will be working closely with the leaders of this department … to ensure that we do not break faith with our troops or their families. I have no higher responsibility as secretary of defense than to do everything I can to protect and support them.“
Panetta stressed that the military is an all-volunteer force and that this is what makes the American military the best in the world. „I have no higher responsibility as secretary of defense but to do everything I can to protect and support them,“ he said. „Every decision I make will be made with them in mind. They put their lives on the line, [and] too many have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of this country. We owe it to them to do this right and to do this responsibly.“
Mullen said the department already has started looking for efficiencies, noting that a comprehensive review is under way to assess the impact of budget reductions on force structure and capability, and ultimately, on missions and America’s role in the world. „The cuts required by this agreement over the next 10 years are certainly in keeping with the president’s previous budgetary direction, and we are already hard at work inside the comprehensive review process to find the requisite savings,“ he said.
The U.S. military is involved in two wars and a number of other actions in the world. American service members have had to be ready for a range of missions from earthquake relief in Haiti to providing support to NATO over Libya, Mullen said.
„The U.S. military remains a lynchpin to defending our national interests,“ the chairman said. „To loosen that pin unnecessarily through debilitating and capricious cuts nearly double to those already in the offing puts at grave risk not only our ability to accomplish the missions we have been assigned, but those we have yet to be assigned as well.“
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)