By MacKenzie C. Babb
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta presented U.S. lawmakers with the Pentagon’s $614 billion budget request for the year starting October 1, a significant drop from last year’s request, representing cuts across the department intended to help reduce the U.S. deficit.
Panetta said the United States is “at a strategic turning point” during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee February 14.
The budget request, which is $32 billion less than the 2012 budget, would help meet a congressional mandate passed in 2011 to reduce the defense budget by $487 billion over the next decade.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified along with Panetta and said that while the budget tradeoffs were tough and complex, they “will not lead to a military in decline.”
Panetta said cuts were helped by progress made in 2011, including the end of the military mission in Iraq and significant steps taken to reduce violence and transition security in Afghanistan to the country’s own forces.
“But despite what we have been able to achieve, unlike past drawdowns when threats have receded, the United States still faces a very complex array of security challenges across the globe,” Panetta testified.
In addition to being engaged in continued military operations in Afghanistan, Panetta said, the United States faces terrorism threats and the dangerous proliferation of lethal weapons and materials around the world.
“Iran and North Korea continue to threaten global stability. There is continuing turmoil and unrest in the Middle East, from Syria to Egypt to Yemen and beyond. Rising powers in Asia are testing international rules and relationships, and there are growing concerns about cyber intrusions and attacks,” he said.
Panetta said the Defense Department’s challenge is to “meet these threats, to protect our nation and our people and at the same time meet our responsibility to fiscal discipline.”
He said the savings of $259 billion during the next five years will come from several areas, including cutting tens of thousands of troops, reducing the fleet of U.S. warplanes, cutting back on shipbuilding and delaying the purchase of certain weapons systems.
“This is going to be a tough challenge, but it’s what the American people expect of its elected leaders: to be fiscally responsible in developing the force for the future,” Panetta said. Looking ahead, he said funds will be allocated for investing in the latest technologies, international partnership programs and increasing the focus on areas of growing strategic priority, such as the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.
Some lawmakers expressed concerns about increased risks posed by the slimmed-down budget, but Panetta said a thorough review of the request showed the risks to be minimal in light of the need to reduce the nation’s projected $1.3 trillion deficit for 2012.
“It was this Congress that mandated, on a bipartisan basis, that we reduce the defense budget,” Panetta said. “This will be a test of whether reducing the deficit is about talk or action.”
The hearing marked the start of several days of testimony on Capitol Hill focused on the 2013 defense budget.