WASHINGTON – Silent for days amid the Capitol Hill debt standoff, the Pentagon has finally thrown down a marker, vowing to fight against military budget cuts officials say would endanger national security and mean job losses for thousands of Defense Department employees.
In his first public comments on the new deficit-slashing debt ceiling legislation, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that the department will do its part to help get the nation's finances in order. But he said a second round of potentially across-the-board spending cuts later this year would be "completely unacceptable."
"I will do everything I can to ensure that further reductions in defense spending are not pursued in a hasty, ill-conceived way that would undermine the military's ability to protect America and its vital interests around the globe," he said in a message to troops and civilian department employees.
Under the bill signed by President Barack Obama on Tuesday, Pentagon spending over 10 years would be reduced by $350 billion from projected increases. That's pretty much in line with what defense officials expected, Panetta noted, since Obama announced in April that the Pentagon must accept $400 billion in defense cuts over 12 years.
At that time, defense officials warned that such cuts couldn't be made without reducing military forces and setting priorities on what missions the country was willing to do without. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for a Pentagon-wide strategy and budget review, which officials say is continuing.
What has defense officials more worried is the second step in Tuesday's legislation: A 12-member, House-Senate committee must propose as much as $1.5 trillion more in deficit cuts over a decade and do so by year's end. If it deadlocks or Congress rejects its recommendations, the Obama administration would impose $1.2 trillion across-the-board spending cuts, with half hitting the Pentagon.
That "would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families and our ability to protect the nation," Panetta declared Wednesday. "I will fight for you and your families as we face these budget challenges."
It would lead to furloughs of civilian employees, layoffs, destruction of programs and possibly even a reduction in troop levels, a senior defense official told reporters in a Pentagon briefing Wednesday.
It was pretty much the same thing his predecessor Gates had been saying, but the first time Panetta put himself forcefully into the fray.