The shadow of sequestration is being cast over the Defense Department, and members of Congress must act to dissipate it, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said April 16.
Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke about sequestration and the defense budget during a news conference at the Pentagon.
“Sequestration” refers to a mechanism based into the Budget Control Act that would trigger an additional $500 billion cut across the board for defense spending over the next decade if Congress doesn’t find an alternative by January.
“I think … the shadow of sequestration is there,” Panetta said. While the Defense Department has received no guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to begin planning for sequestration, the threat of it is having an impact on the department and on the industries the department depends on, the secretary said.
“In the end, it’s up to Congress,” Panetta said. “In the coming weeks, they will begin considering the defense authorization and appropriations bills. Our hope is that Congress will carefully consider the new defense strategy and the budget decisions that resulted from that strategy.”
Any changes the Congress contemplates will affect other sections of the budget, because it is a zero-sum game, the secretary noted. Because of the Budget Control Act, he added, any change in any one area of the budget and force structure will inevitably require offsetting changes elsewhere.
“That carries the real risk that … if this is not done right, the result could be a hollow, unbalanced or weaker force,” he said. “Our hope is that our strategy will not be picked apart piece by piece.”
Panetta said he hopes Congress will be reasonable. “There isn’t any member [of Congress] I’ve talked to that doesn’t think that sequester is a disaster,” he said. “There isn’t any member who has said to me, ‘Oh, it’ll be great.'” All of them understand that it’s the wrong way to go.
“And I just have to hope that ultimately, they will find the courage and leadership to be able to address that issue, detrigger sequester, deal with the other challenges that are out there and try to do it as soon as possible,” he continued, “because frankly, the longer this drags on, the more of an impact it has in terms of the planning process and in terms of the budget process.”
Dempsey said the department confronted the new fiscal reality last year and developed the new strategy. The fiscal 2013 budget request came from that new strategy, he said.
“It took us every bit of energy we had to get from there to the budget submission in February,” the general said. “So I mean, I would anticipate that we would have to begin doing some planning in the mid to late summer if we have any chance at all of reacting to it should it trigger.”
This is a critical moment for the United States, Panetta said, and while the nation must cut the military, this does not mean threats have disappeared.
“We need to rise to meet the challenges that are facing us in this dangerous and uncertain world, and we can’t afford to have the Congress resort to bitter partisanship or parochialism at this critical time,” Panetta said. “So the message we wanted to send Congress today is that there is very little margin for error with this package.
“That’s the reality that all of us are living with,” he added. “The strategy we developed will maintain, we believe, the strongest military in the world by every measure, and that’s essential because of the nature of the security challenges that we’re facing.”