Washington The Pentagon got nearly everything it asked for during a decade of two wars shadowed by the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the rise of al-Qaida. No more.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen acknowledged that reality Thursday, saying the military is resigned to budget cuts of around $350 billion over a decade to meet the public clamor for reducing the nation’s debt. But they quickly warned that more than doubling those cuts along the lines of the “doomsday mechanism” spelled out in the new debt-limit law would undermine the military.
“If it happened — and, God willing, that would not be the case — but if it did happen, it would result in a further round of very dangerous cuts across the board, defense cuts that I believe would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation,” Panetta told reporters at his first Pentagon news conference.
Mullen, who has said repeatedly that the debt is the greatest national security threat, said any cut on that order “jeopardizes our ability to deal with the other very real and very serious threats we face around the world.”
Reflecting the widespread demand for fiscal austerity, the compromise debt deal struck by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders this week will slice $350 billion from projected military spending over the next 10 years, and it leaves open the possibility of more than $500 billion in additional reductions.
Defense spending, which has nearly doubled in the last decade, is no longer untouchable in Washington.
Tea partyers and fierce fiscal conservatives in Congress are more willing to include Pentagon dollars in their mix of budget cuts despite opposition from veteran defense hawks. The death of Osama bin Laden, the diminished role of al-Qaida and the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have prompted some lawmakers to question the need for such robust military spending.
Among the things that could be on the block: A troubled new jet fighter, expensive plans to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal and perhaps some of the gold-plated benefits now guaranteed to military retirees.
“I think programs that can’t meet schedule, that can’t meet cost ... requirements are very much in jeopardy and will be very much under scrutiny,” Mullen said.
The prospect of nearly $1 trillion in cuts unnerves military leaders, troubles lawmakers protective of the Pentagon and has touched off a scramble in the defense industry as contractors look to spare their multibillion-dollar weapons programs.
In sounding an alarm, Panetta is pressuring Democrats and Republicans to consider making concessions on their core priorities — entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security defended by Democrats, and increases in taxes resisted by Republicans — before taking a sharper knife to defense. The former Democratic congressman and budget chief in the Clinton administration delivered a clear message to leaders of both parties.
“You cannot deal with the size deficits that this country is confronting by simply cutting the discretionary side of the budget,” said Panetta. “If you’re going to deal with those size deficits, you’ve got to look at the mandatory side of the budget, which is two-thirds of the federal budget, and you also have to look at revenues as part of that answer.”
Just back from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, Mullen faced repeated questions from troops worried that their pay and benefits would be cut.
“Our men and women downrange have enough to worry about just getting the job done,” Mullen said Thursday. “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.”