Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Thursday of dire consequences if the Pentagon is forced to make cuts to its budget beyond the $400 billion in savings planned for the next decade.
“We’re already taking our share of the discretionary cuts as part of this debt-ceiling agreement, and those are going to be tough enough,” Panetta told reporters in his first news conference as defense secretary. “I think anything beyond that would damage our national defense.”
The initial round of Pentagon cuts is part of a debt-reduction package that would slice about $1 trillion from agency budgets over 10 years. A second round of cuts, totaling as much as $1.5 trillion, will be prepared by a bipartisan congressional panel later this year.
Senior Pentagon officials have launched an offensive over the past two days to convince lawmakers that further reductions in Pentagon spending would imperil the country’s security. Instead of slashing defense, Panetta said, the bipartisan panel should rely on tax increases and cuts to nondiscretionary spending, such as Medicare and Social Security, to provide the necessary savings.
“You cannot deal with the size deficits that this country is confronting by simply cutting the discretionary side of the budget,” Panetta said.
His warning came on a day that the stock market plunged more than 500 points amid fears of a weakening U.S. economy and a global recession.
If a bipartisan congressional panel cannot reach an agreement on $1.5 trillion in savings over the next decade, an automatic trigger would slash an additional $600 billion from the Pentagon budget. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described such deep cuts as “debilitating and capricious.”
“We cannot allow that effort to go so far and cut so deep that it jeopardizes our ability to deal with the other very real and very serious threats we face around the world,” said Mullen, who briefed reporters with Panetta.
Defense spending represents about half of the federal government’s discretionary spending, and the military’s budget has increased by more than 70 percent since 2001. Although the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the Pentagon upward of $1 trillion, nearly half of the growth in defense spending in the past decade has been unrelated to the wars.
Panetta said the $600 billion in cuts “would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation. It is an outcome that would be completely unacceptable to me as secretary of defense, to the president and, I believe, to our nation’s leaders.”
Earlier this week, a senior defense official said thousands of Defense Department civilians would lose their jobs if larger cuts were triggered by a failure of the bipartisan panel to reach an agreement.
Mullen, who just returned from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, said the partisan fight over debt reduction had fueled worries among the troops that they might not be paid on time.
“Our men and women down range have enough to worry about just getting their job done,” Mullen said. “They shouldn’t also be concerned about whether or not they will be paid to do that job or whether or not their families will continue to get the support they need during long absences. We can do better than that, as a military and as a nation.”
Pentagon officials have tried to sound optimistic about the chances of a congressional panel reaching a deal that would spare the Pentagon additional pain. That hasn’t stopped them, however, from citing the dangers should the committee of Democrats and Republicans fail.
Asked whether, given the sharpness of his warning, Panetta thought he would be able to serve as defense secretary if the additional cuts were made, he chuckled.
“I didn’t come into this job to quit,” he said. “I came into this job to fight.”