The nation’s military has logged historic achievements in the past 12 months, but faces a future clouded by financial threat, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said June 29.
The secretary and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both spoke about the topic of sequestration during a briefing with Pentagon reporters.
Panetta summed up the department’s main activities since he became Defense Secretary last summer, noting that the Iraq War has ended, a “responsible drawdown” of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has begun, and the NATO mission in Libya concluded alongside the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
The department has also “maintained a relentless focus on al-Qaida,” and put in place a new defense strategy and a budget request focused on the future force and rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, the secretary said.
DOD has also maintained faith with troops by protecting pay and benefits, and has increased employment opportunities for veterans and spouses, he noted.
“We implemented the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Panetta said. “We’ve also opened up 14,000 military positions to women, and we’ve put in place enhanced measures to prevent sexual assault.”
The biggest threat to all of those accomplishments and initiatives is sequestration, he said.
Sequestration is a mechanism built into the Budget Control Act that will trigger an additional half-trillion-dollar cut to defense spending over the next 10 years if Congress doesn’t otherwise identify spending reductions the act requires.
Panetta said the uniformed men and women he’s met in war zones, and the wounded warriors he’s visited in military hospitals and rehabilitation centers, “deserve better than the threat of sequestration.”
“Too often today, the nation’s problems are held hostage to the unwillingness to find consensus and compromise,” the secretary said.
Next week on the Fourth of July Americans will celebrate their nation’s birth, he noted.
“It is a time for our leaders and for every American to recognize that the blessings of freedom are not free,” Panetta said. “They come from a legacy of sacrifice, of courage and of leadership. That legacy is now our responsibility to fulfill, so that hopefully our children can enjoy a better life in the future.”
Panetta said the defense industry leaders he has consulted with also face an uncertain future which could include widespread layoffs and lasting damage to the nation’s military modernization programs.
“We are very much a team,” he said. ” … [Defense] companies, as well as the Defense Department, are making very clear to Capitol Hill that this is a matter that ought not to be postponed.”
The department and the nation’s defense industries seek assurance from Congress that sequestration won’t happen and that “we can proceed with the budget as we’ve outlined [it], as opposed to facing … the possibility of another drastic defense cut,” the secretary said.
Dempsey said his travels in recent weeks, as well as over the past year, have brought him into contact with a wide range of service members.
“At every stop … I was struck by their tremendous sense of pride and commitment,” the chairman said. He praised service members’ courage, selflessness, intelligence, and dedication to the mission.
“They’ll do anything to take care of this country,” he said.
Dempsey said he was also struck by troops’ concern over the budget.
“I find it encouraging, on the one hand, that our military family is informed and interested,” he said. “But it’s unfortunate that it weighs so heavily on their minds. Frankly, they have enough to worry about.”
The chairman noted, “We have to remember, too, that the force of the future — that is, America’s sons and daughters who may be out there contemplating a military career — are also watching.”
Dempsey said as Panetta has made clear, “We simply have to come together to prevent this across-the-board, unbalanced cut that could jeopardize our ability to deal with the very real and serious threats that we face.”
The chairman said he and the service chiefs have no issue with military budgets facing scrutiny in the current challenging budget climate, or with the need to make tough program decisions.
“That’s why our strategy and the budget that supports it constitute a carefully balanced set of choices,” Dempsey said. “These choices make sure we have the right talent and the right tools to keep our country immune from coercion.”
Dempsey said he, the secretary and the joint chiefs seek a balanced approach.
“A sensible way forward is what we expect,” the chairman said. “That’s the only way we can honor our commitment to our military family and to the American people.”