By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 2011 – Budget cuts create more risk for the military in a time of war, but the risk can be reduced by making decisions strategically and protecting core national security interests, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today.
“While we will continue to focus on reducing overhead and duplication, make no mistake,” Panetta told reporters during a Pentagon news briefing, “these reductions will force us to take on greater risk in our mission to protect the country in time of war and in the face of growing security challenges.”
The nation must think and act smartly as it makes difficult but necessary fiscal decisions about force structure, personnel and operations, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Panetta at the briefing, said.
“It is because I believe that our national debt is our greatest national security threat that I also believe we must do our part to reduce it, to limit its harm,” he added.
The department, Panetta said, is undergoing a strategy-driven process to prepare to implement the more than $450 billion in savings that will be required over 10 years as a result of the debt-limit agreement.
“This review is still ongoing,” he said. “No decisions have been made, but I am committed to making these decisions based on the best advice that I receive from the service secretaries and from the service chiefs, as well as the combatant commanders.”
The following principles will guide such decisions, he said. The nation must:
-- Maintain the world’s best military, a force capable of deterring conflict, projecting power and winning wars;
-- Avoid a hollow force and maintain a military that, even if smaller, is ready, agile and deployable;
-- Take a balanced approach to the entire budget for potential savings -- from trimming duplication and bureaucratic overhead to improving competition and management in operating and investment programs, to tightening personnel costs and developing a smaller, more agile and flexible future force; and
-- Keep faith with the men and women in uniform because the volunteer force is central to a strong future military.
Panetta said that the budget-cutting environment “can be used as an opportunity to shape the very best defense we can for this country as we approach the next 10 years.”
Achieving the mandated savings “will be very hard and require extremely difficult tradeoffs,” Panetta said. He added that an automatic trigger in the nation's debt-reduction law to take more cuts out of federal spending if Congress fails to agree on reductions by Nov. 24 would be potentially devastating.
For the Defense Department, that means another $500 billion from defense spending over 10 years, on top of more than $450 billion in cuts already identified over the same period.
“The roughly $1 trillion in cuts forced by sequester would leave us with a military that would be unable to protect this nation from the range of security threats we face,” the secretary said.
Such sequestration would hollow out the force, reducing military and economic strength, he added.
“Cancellation of weapon systems, construction projects [and] research activity would seriously cripple our industrial base,” Panetta said, “which would be unacceptable not only to me as secretary of defense, but to our ability to be able to maintain the best defense system.”
Mullen said the department must begin with a clear-eyed assessment of things the joint force must continue to do for the nation and the options it must be able to provide the president.
“And [we must] be willing to curtail or even end those missions and capabilities which do not comport with that strategy,” the chairman said.
The United States must consider the world as it is, the threats as we see them, he added.
“Programs that are behind schedule or woefully over budget should be considered for elimination. The personnel accounts, which make up the vast majority of our allocation, should be scrubbed for inefficiencies and overhead,” Mullen said.
Exercises and operations that do not directly contribute to essential security commitments should be recalibrated, he added.
“We ought to make sure that the military is the right one for the future: flexible and adaptable enough to fight wars both big and small, near and far,” the chairman said, “a force that can secure our national interests, and not by its size and shape define those interests.”
Mullen said he is convinced the effort to find more than $450 billion dollars in cuts over the next 10 years is achievable, but agreed with Panetta that possible sequestration cuts puts “at risk the very security we are charged to provide.”
Ten years of war have not broken the all-volunteer force, the chairman said, “but drastic budget measures that adversely affect the lives and livelihoods of our people very well might. We can afford to lose some things, but we cannot to lose them.”
The budget environment presents difficult choices for our armed forces, Panetta said.
“I believe that if we can avoid further cuts, we will have an opportunity to set priorities and make the hard choices needed to build a stronger force for the future,” he said, “and to keep faith with our men and women in uniform.