WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned against a “devastating” second round of defense cuts on Thursday as the Pentagon stepped up its campaign to convince Congress to look elsewhere for savings as it works to trim the $1.4 trillion deficit.
Panetta, at his first Pentagon news conference, said the initial $350 billion cut in security spending signed into law this week was tough but manageable. He urged Congress to raise revenues or look at cutting other areas of the budget before taking anything more from defense.
“We’re already taking our share of ... cuts as part of this debt ceiling agreement. And those (cuts) are going to be tough enough,” Panetta said. “But I think anything beyond that would damage our national defense.”
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Panetta’s concerns, saying “debilitating and capricious cuts nearly double to those already in the offing puts at grave risk” the military’s ability to accomplish its current and future missions.
The remarks by the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership came just days after Congress approved and President Barack Obama signed an agreement to begin to address the U.S. budget deficit and its $14.3 trillion debt.
The deal calls for an estimated $350 billion in cuts to national security spending over 10 years, most of which would be borne by the Pentagon. It also calls for further deficit reduction by the end of the year. Failure to reach an agreement would trigger another $600 billion in cuts to national security spending.
The procedure, which also targets domestic discretionary spending, was devised to be draconian enough to force Democrats and Republicans to find a less severe alternative upon which they can agree.
Panetta called the trigger for additional defense cuts a “doomsday mechanism” and said “anything that doubles that would be disastrous to the defense budget.”
But budget analysts dispute that assessment, noting that the initial $350 billion can largely be achieved by holding growth in the defense budget to the rate of inflation. Some have called for the Pentagon to reduce spending by $800 billion to $1 trillion in the next decade.
The Pentagon’s budget has doubled since 2001, primarily as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also due to significantly higher costs for personnel, weapons development and procurement and operations.
Obama’s defense budget request for the 2012 fiscal year, including war costs, was about $690 billion. The 2001 defense budget was about $330 billion.
The Pentagon already had been planning for cuts in the $400 billion range, spread over 12 years, at Obama’s direction in April.
Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in a recent report that the U.S. military essentially has the same size, force structure and capabilities as it did a decade ago but costs 35 percent more in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Pentagon spending on personnel is about $121,600 per individual, a figure that includes base pay, allowances, medical, retirement and other benefits, he said.
Gordon Adams, a senior White House official for national security and foreign policy budgets from 1993 to 1997, said Thursday that he considered an $800 billion to $1 trillion cut in defense spending over 10 years “doable.”
That would amount to a decline of 13 percent to 15 percent, he said, less than half the 36 percent in constant dollars cut from projected defense outlays from 1985 to 1998, during the previous U.S. defense “build-down,” he said at a forum on Capitol Hill.
“You won’t hear any of this because there’s a lot of talk about how terrible this may be,” said Adams, now a professor at American University’s School of International Service. “But you know there it is. Those are the numbers.”
Additional reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Bill Trott