Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta cautioned Congress June 13 against dismantling the strategic framework that supports the 2013 defense budget request.
Testifying along with Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, the secretary said some changes to the request could undermine the careful balance department leaders built into military spending projections.
“Some of the [congressional] committees have made changes with regard to our recommendations that we’re concerned about,” Panetta said.
He listed three areas DOD leaders have targeted for cuts, and which some members of Congress have challenged during defense budget consideration.
“Some of the bills seek to reverse the decisions to eliminate aging and lower-priority ships and aircraft,” the secretary noted. “My concern is that if these decisions are totally reversed, then I’ve got to find money somewhere to maintain this old stuff.”
Keeping outdated equipment in service would rob needed funds from other areas, he said. That, he added, would lead to what he has long called a “hollow force” – a military that is not trained, manned or equipped to meet current and future threats.
“We’ve got to be able to retire what is aged and what we can achieve some savings on,” Panetta said.
Some in Congress have also objected to “the measured and gradual reductions in end strength that we’ve proposed for the Army and the Marine Corps,” he added. Panetta noted that under current plans, DOD will reduce the active Army from roughly 560,000 to 490,000, while the Marine Corps will downsize from 202,000 to 182,000 over five years.
“Again, if I have a large force and I don’t have the money to maintain that large force, I’m going to end up hollowing it out, because I can’t provide the training [and] I can’t provide the equipment,” the secretary said. “So that’s why, if we’re going to reduce the force, then I’ve got to be able to do it in a responsible way.”
The third spending area he discussed involves military compensation and health care. The budget request includes some additional fees for retiree health care, and limits active-duty pay raises after 2013. Panetta and Dempsey both emphasized that the department does not plan to cut pay, but that compensation cost growth must be controlled to meet budget constraints.
“If I suddenly wind up with no reductions in that area, I’ve got to reach someplace to find the money to maintain those programs – every low-priority program or overhead cost that is retained will have to be offset by cuts in higher-priority investments in order to comply with the Budget Control Act,” he said.
Panetta noted that act, which mandated the defense spending cuts reflected in the fiscal year 2013 request, also holds a more dire threat to military spending: sequestration. That provision will trigger another $500 billion across-the-board cut in defense spending over the next decade if Congress doesn’t identify an equivalent level of spending cuts by January.
“Obviously, this is a great concern,” he said, calling sequestration a “meat-ax approach.”
“It would guarantee that we hollow out our force and inflict severe damage on our national defense,” the secretary asserted.
Dempsey also spoke about the damage changes to defense spending plans could cause.
The strategy-based budget request, the chairman said, “ensures we retain our conventional overmatch while divesting capabilities not required in the active force – or at all.”
The spending plan reflects choices that maintain a needed balance among force structure, modernization, readiness, pay and benefits, he added.
“Different choices will produce a different balance,” the chairman cautioned. “So before giving us weapons we don’t need or giving up on reforms that we do need, I’d only ask you to make sure it’s the right choice, not for our armed forces but for our nation.”
“Sequestration is absolutely certain to upend this balance,” he continued. “It would lead to further end-strength reductions, the potential cancellation of major weapons systems and the disruption of global operations.”
Dempsey said slashing another half-trillion dollars from defense funding over the next 10 years under sequestration would transform U.S. forces “from being unquestionably powerful everywhere to being less visible globally and presenting less of an overmatch to our adversaries. That transformation would, in turn, change the nation’s deterrent stance and potentially increase the likelihood of conflict, the chairman said.
The general noted that because the law allows defense leaders to cut spending in only certain areas, only three broad areas would be available to service chiefs faced with sequestration: training, maintenance and modernization.
“That’s it. There’s no magic in the budget at that point,” Dempsey said. “And those three accounts will be subjected to all of the cuts mandated by sequestration.”
Panetta appealed to the senators to take action to avert a “potential disaster” by preserving the strategy-based defense spending plan submitted in February.
“I know the members of this committee are committed to working together to stop sequester, and I want you to know that we are prepared to work with you to try to do what is necessary to avoid that crisis,” he said.