Secretary Panetta is continuing what has become a steady drumbeat of warnings of the dire consequences of a $1.2 trillion automatic cut (sequestration) should the so-called “supercommittee” fail to achieve agreement to reduce the deficit.  Speaking before students and faculty at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, CA, Panetta called the automatic cuts that may be triggered a “doomsday mechanism” that could produce $500 to $600 billion in defense cuts over 10 years, twice the amount DoD is currently implementing under the president’s guidelines.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 cuts total federal budgets by $1 trillion over 10 years, from which $350 billion would come from security budgets (predominately defense).  This roughly matches the president’s direction to reduce DoD budgets by $400 billion over 12 years.  Panetta said he and his staff are currently working with the military services and the Joint Staff to plan for this reduction “in a way that will protect the best military for the future, in a way that will protect our core security interests in the future, and in a way that will protect faith with those that serve.”  He said that achieving these reductions “is doable.” 

But, it is the second part of the Act that has Panetta and the military services extremely concerned.  The Act set up a Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, dubbed “supercommittee” by many, to come up with another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction (discretionary and mandatory spending and revenues) by Thanksgiving.  If the committee cannot reach agreement, or Congress does not approve an agreement, the Act requires an automatic cut of $1.2 trillion from federal discretionary (funding provided by appropriations action budgets) through FY2021.  Up to $600 billion would come from defense.

Panetta said the defense cuts necessary under this scenario would be “devastating to the defense budget.”  He predicted that additional cuts caused by sequestration would “hollow out the force,” reduce the effectiveness of US alliances worldwide, and “break faith with the troops and their families.”

Panetta has repeated this warning message many times since the Budget Control Act of 2011 was passed.  In his first news conference after he was confirmed as secretary, he told reporters if the automatic cuts were triggered, they would “do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation,”

In a letter sent to all DoD personnel, the secretary said if the sequestration mechanism were implemented it “could trigger a round of dangerous across-the-board defense cuts that would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation.”

Last week, appearing at the National Defense University with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Panetta said $500 to $600 billion in automatic cuts to security budgets “would literally double the number of cuts that we’re confronting, [and] that would have devastating effects on our national defense.”  Panetta also warned of the potential damage that sequestration would do to the State Department and other federal programs when thinking of security in a broader sense.  “Education plays a role,” he said, and “other elements of the discretionary budget in terms of the quality of life in this country play a role in terms of our national security.”