"Suck it up," defense chief tells Congress

GROTON, Connecticut Thu Nov 17, 2011 8:40pm EST

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GROTON, Connecticut (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday urged Congress to "suck it up" and strike a deficit-reduction deal by next week, saying during a visit to a submarine plant that America's defense industrial base was at stake.

The 12-member congressional "super committee" is struggling to reach an agreement by a November 23 deadline to cut the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.

If the panel fails, automatic, across-the-board cuts would kick in forcing the Pentagon to slash another $600 billion over the next decade, on top of the $450 billion in spending cuts already approved by Congress.

"It decimates defense," Panetta told a group of plant workers at General Dynamics Electric Boat who appeared worried about their jobs because of gridlock in Washington.

"I really urge the leaders of Congress - I urge this committee: Suck it up. Do what's right for the country. I think the country wants these people to govern - that's why we elect people, is to govern, not to just survive in office."

Panetta had just toured the USS Minnesota, which, when delivered early next year, will be the latest addition to America's fleet of nuclear-powered, Virginia-class attack submarines.

The Navy has plans to build at least 21 more of them at two plants in the United States, including the one run by General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. Spreading out the work is aimed at safeguarding America's shipbuilding industry.

Panetta tried to reassure Electric Boat workers, anxious over the future at a moment of defense spending cuts.

"We cannot have a strong defense for the United States without protecting this industrial base," Panetta said.

"I need to be able in this country to produce our ships, to produce our submarines, to produce our planes, to produce our fighter planes, to produce our tanks - to produce what we need (for our) military."

"I don't need to rely on another country. We've got to rely on the United States to do that," he said to applause.

Still, the Pentagon chief has also warned across-the-board cuts would make it impossible for him to safeguard the defense industrial base.

Panetta, in a letter to Congress released earlier this week, warned that cuts of nearly $100 billion a year would leave the United States with its smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest air force in its history.

Over the longer run, the Pentagon would have to impose cuts that could lead to termination of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the military's largest procurement program, which aims to buy 2,447 of the radar-evading fighter jets in the coming decades.

Panetta said the spending limits could also force the Pentagon to delay its next-generation ballistic missile submarine.

"We can't afford to do that ... I've urged them: Please confront the challenges," Panetta said. (Editing by Eric Beech)

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