WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta urged Congress to undo an automatic $500 billion cut to defense spending due to go into effect next year, and made his case for two new rounds of military base realignments and closures.
Panetta raised the issues as part of his presentation of the proposed fiscal 2013 defense budget to the House Armed Services Committee. He was joined by Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Robert F. Hale, Defense Department comptroller and undersecretary of defense for finance.
The proposal — a $525.4 billion base budget plus $88.5 billion for overseas contingency operations — includes reductions toward $487 billion in defense spending cuts over 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act, which Congress passed last year.
It does not, however, account for more than $500 billion in additional cuts that will go into effect in January if Congress doesn’t act to stop it. Those additional cuts, known as “sequestration,” were written into the Budget Control Act as automatic, across-the-board cuts to the federal budget if members of a congressional “super committee” could not agree on spending cuts by a November deadline. They didn’t.
Panetta said DOD leaders took seriously their responsibility to plan for the $487 billion in cuts in a way that does not hollow out the military. Military and civilian DOD leaders are united in support of the budget proposal that involved careful deliberations based on strategy, he said.
“We need your partnership to do this in a manner that preserves the strongest military in the world,” the secretary told the committee. “This will be a test for all of us: whether reducing the deficit is about talk or about action.
“Let me be very clear,” he continued. “When you take a half a trillion dollars out of the defense budget, it comes with risks.”
Those risks include working with a smaller force, depending on new technologies, needing to mobilize quickly and taking care of the all-volunteer force, Panetta said. “There is very little margin for error in this budget,” he added.
Congress must do everything possible to avoid sequestration, Panetta said, because it would amount to “a meat-ax approach” of cutting at least 8 percent more from each defense budget category. “And that, we are convinced, would hollow out the force and inflict serious damage to the national defense,” he said.
“It would be devastating,” he added. “Another $500 billion and I’d have to throw the strategy I just presented to you out the window.”
Panetta said defense leaders would welcome working with Congress on a way to stop sequestration before it takes effect.
“Whatever we can do on both sides to develop an approach that we detrigger sequestration, we’re certainly willing to work on that,” he said.
The secretary also noted that the administration will make a formal request next month that Congress create base realignment and closure processes for fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2015. Panetta acknowledged that realignments and closures require significant upfront financial costs, but said they are needed in the long term not just for cost-savings, but also as part of rebalancing the force from a drawdown after a decade of war.
As a former Congress member from Monterey, Calif., Panetta said, he knows firsthand how hard it is for representatives to oversee base closures in their districts. He served in the House in the early 1990s when Fort Ord was closed, he noted. The post along the Monterey coast, he added, represented 25 percent of the local economy.
“As somebody who went through the BRAC process in my own district, I recognize how controversial this process is for members and for constituencies,” Panetta said. “And yet, it is the only effective way to achieve needed infrastructure savings.”
The most recent BRAC round, in 2005, resulted in the department closing 14 major military installations and realigning nearly a dozen others. Panetta agreed with some committee members that the 2005 BRAC cost much more than expected and has yet to realize the savings that were planned. But, having been through three rounds of BRAC, he said, there are lessons learned for the next time.
There are only so many areas in the defense budget to find cost savings, the secretary told the House panel, and infrastructure needs to be among them.