Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on his confirmation as Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta told Senators his number one job as Secretary of Defense would be to ensure the U.S. has “the best trained, the best equipped, and the strongest military in the world.”   Panetta, who was nominated by President Obama in April to succeed retiring Secretary Robert Gates, pledged to be a strong advocate for the troops and their families.  Secretary Gates is scheduled to retire at the end of the month.

Panetta told Senators he realized that, if confirmed, he will face a “blizzard of challenges,” especially on the budget, that need immediate attention.  He acknowledged that the days of large growth and unlimited defense budgets are over.  He stressed his main budget challenge would be to design defense budgets that eliminate wasteful spending, while protecting the core elements needed for the nation’s defense. 

He said he agreed with Secretary Gates’ “strategy-driven” approach to reviewing the defense budget in order to meet the president’s goal of cutting $400 billion from security budgets.  Panetta told the committee he had been briefed on the process and agrees that such an approach is “essential to ensuring that we preserve a superb defense force to meet national security goals, even under fiscal pressure.” 

Panetta told the committee that to meet the budget goals DoD must make difficult, but disciplined decisions.  He stressed in his answers to questions submitted by the committee before the hearing that his experience (as a member of Congress, Director of OMB, and Director of the CIA) has made him recognize how important it is to balance immediate and future needs. “Decisions on the DoD budget must be carefully made so that none of the listed objectives is compromised,” he said.  He told Senators that, like Gates, he thinks DoD needs to guard against hollowing out the force when cutting the defense budget and should reject the idea of using across-the-board cuts to meet budget goals. 

He said DoD must look at all categories of spending to better manage costs, including health care and military pay.  This includes, he said in answers to advance questions, continuing to explore all possibilities of controlling health care costs and possibly “conducting a comprehensive review of the military pay and benefits structure.” 

When asked by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) about DoD’s inability to audit its financial statements, Panetta said one of his top management priorities would be to achieve auditable financial statements by 2017.  But, he seemed concerned that it should take so long and vowed to try to “improve on this timetable.”

Panetta also underscored his support for improving defense acquisition management.  He said in his answers to advance questions that he supports the acquisition reform requirements included the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 (WSARA).  He told the committee that he thinks DOD has made progress in coordinating the acquisition process with the requirements and budget processes, but more improvement is necessary.  He also said he supports the new “Better Buying Power Initiative” to mandate affordable requirements and full funding at the beginning of the process and a “Fast Lane” approach for buying and fielding systems needed to quickly meet operational needs.

The SASC may vote on Panetta’s confirmation early next week.