The potential automatic cuts to defense included in the debt ceiling agreement would, if triggered, “do real damage to our security , our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation,” according to an assessment by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.  Discussing the agreement at his first formal news conference since he was sworn in last month, Panetta told reporters such an outcome “would be completely unacceptable.”

The Budget Control Act of 2011, which implements the debt ceiling deal, includes a $350 billion reduction to defense budgets over 10 years, out of the total $1 trillion cut to total federal spending.  That part of the deal closely matches what the Pentagon is using in its current budget planning to implement the president’s directions (to cut $400 billion over 12 years) , Panetta said.  

But, it is the second part of the deal that has Panetta (and ADM Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who appears with him) very worried.  The bill sets up a Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (six Republicans and six Democrats) to find another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by Thanksgiving.  If the committee cannot come to agreement and propose legislation to implement this reduction, the bill provides procedures to cut $1.2 trillion from federal discretionary (funding provided by appropriations action budgets) through FY2021.  Of this amount, security budgets would be cut automatically, across the board, by $6 billion.  Panetta said that if this procedure had to be put into effect, “it would result in a further round of very dangerous cuts”  

Panetta pointed out to reporters that sequestration (automatic cuts) has been tried before in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislation (Balanced Budget and Control Act of 1985) and it was found lacking.  He told reporters that the legislation, with which he was involved, was supposed to force “the right decisions,” but it didn’t work.    He said this process was later rejected because “the results would be so damaging.”

Panetta said DoD recognizes that it must play a part in reducing the federal deficit.  But, he said his responsibility as secretary of defense requires that he do “everything he can to protect and support” the men and women in uniform and their families.  In making any cuts to defense, Panetta told reporters that he will protect three areas in his decisionmaking:  the core national security interests; the capabilities of “the best military in the world;” and support for servicemembers and their families.

The Secretary made these same points in a letter sent to to all DoD Personnel

ADM Mullen echoed Panetta.  He said that he and the other military chiefs “have no issue with the military budgets being held to account in these challenging time.”  He said the $350 billion cut is “in keeping with the president’s previous budgetary direction.”  But, Mullen said the potential additional automatic “debilitating and capricious cuts…put at grave risk not only our ability to accomplish the missions we have been assigned and those we have yet to be assigned.” 

Mullen reiterated what he has said on numerous occasions, that the “growing debt remains the biggest threat to our national security.”  He said he and the other military chiefs want a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with “sensible cuts” that do not jeopardize the military’s ability to deal with the threats to the U.S.