When President Obama announced in May that Leon Panetta would move from CIA chief to Secretary of Defense, he touted the Washington insider as the man who could rein in defense spending while maintaining U.S. military superiority and keeping the United States safe. Under one worst-case scenario, the defense budget might be slashed by as much as $1 trillion over the coming decade.
Panetta, a former White House Budget Director and House Budget Committee chair, would make “tough budget decisions,” Obama insisted. Overnight, it became conventional wisdom in Washington that if anyone could get a handle on Pentagon spending, it was Panetta.
But just a month after taking the top job at the Pentagon, a grim-faced Panetta warned that Defense budget cuts could have disastrous consequences for the U.S. military. “If it happen[s], and God willing that would not be the case…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 cautioned.
For a while, it looked as if defense spending would become the new budgetary piñata as Obama signaled his intentions to gradually wind down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and congressional policymakers desperately sought ways to address runaway deficits.
The Obama administration had planned about $400 billion in defense cuts over the next decade. However, under the terms of the August debt ceiling deal, if the Congressional 12-member House and Senate super-committee still has to agree to $1.2 trillion in budget savings over the next ten years. Otherwise, an automatic $600 billion in additional cuts to defense would kick in.
Critics have long complained about waste and fat in the Pentagon budget, but the jarring prospects of cuts totaling as much as $1 trillion over the coming decade has abruptly altered the debate and galvanized pro-defense lawmakers and their corporate allies.
As Congress departed for its August recess, there were growing signs that Panetta and other highly influential defense hawks were digging in to block any major defense cuts. Just last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck P. McKeon, R-Calif., and Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, wrote Panetta and White House Budget Director Jacob (“Jack”) Lew, urging the administration not take a math-based approach to defense cuts that might undermine national security.
The lawmakers cautioned that, the $400 billion of proposed defense cuts alone would represent “an unprecedented drawdown in defense while U.S. forces are committed to contingency operations in Afghanistan and Libya, and possibly still in Iraq. Moreover, the cuts would be made before “any substantial analysis of the future role, missions, and capabilities we want our military to perform.”