President Obama announced yesterday that he will formally nominate Leon Panetta to replace Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.  Gates said last summer that he would leave the post in 2011.

The president also announced other changes to his security team.  If confirmed by the Senate, Gen. David Petreus will succeed Panetta as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Gen. John Allen will replace Gen. Petreus as commander of forces in Afghanistan, and Ryan Croker will follow Karl Eikenberry as Ambassador to Afghanistan.

Obama applauded Secretary Gates’ “exemplary service” at DoD.  He commended the secretary’s efforts to wind down the war in Iraq, prepare the military to meet today’s security challenges, and cut unnecessary spending at DoD.  “I am confident that Bob Gates will be remembered as one of the finest Defense Secretaries in American history,” he said.

The selection of Panetta to succeed Gates sends a strong message that the president is serious about achieving further savings in the defense budget.  Earlier this month the president proposed cutting $400 billion from defense and other security budgets and directed DoD to conduct a review of defense missions and capabilities.  Obama said he was confident that Panetta will carry out the reform agenda established by Secretary Gates.

Panetta has wide experience in budget issues, both in the Executive Branch and in Congress.  Before taking charge at CIA, he was the Director of OMB and later Chief of Staff under President Clinton.  Before that he represented California’s 17th District in the House of Representatives and during his tenure served as Chair of the House Budget Committee. 

In thanking the president, Panetta said that his primary job would be to ensure that American prevails in the current conflicts.  But, he also said that success in meeting today’s security challenges “is also about being able to be strong and disciplined in applying our nation’s limited resources to defending America.”  To do this he said it “is time for tough choices.”  He promised the president that he will give him candid advice and “be a faithful advocate” for U.S. servicemembers and their families.  

The Panetta and Petreus nominations drew praise from Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  In a press statement, Levin said both nominations “are strong choices” and have bipartisan support.  He also indicated that their conformation hearings would scrutinize the Administration’s policy and budget goals.  Levin said the hearings would provide an opportunity to have “an in-depth discussion of some vital pressing issues, from Afghanistan and Libya to the size of the defense budget and our force footprint around the world.