The Pentagon's Biggest Threat In Years? Budget Cuts

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testified about the defense budget on Capitol Hill Wednesday.


The Pentagon says it's trying to fend off one of the biggest threats to national security in decades - budget cuts. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, Pentagon officials are warning members of Congress to find a way out of a budget stalemate or risk undercutting the effectiveness of the nation's military.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: After more than a decade of fighting, Pentagon warriors are bracing for years of austerity. But Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says a leaner military does not have to be weaker.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I don't think we have to choose between our national security and our fiscal security. But at the same time, this is not an easy task.

ABRAMSON: Don't have to choose, but in fact Panetta says Congress is forcing him to pick one or the other, national security or a lower deficit. Panetta has put together a budget that envisions a smaller military with fewer troops, planes and ships. He's cut what he considers aging equipment, but members of Congress have voted to reverse a lot of those cuts because in many cases they represent programs beloved in their home districts.

PANETTA: My concern is that if these decisions are totally reversed, then I've got to find money somewhere in order to maintain this old stuff, which has me literally in a situation where I've got to hollow out the force in order to do that.

ABRAMSON: In other words, Panetta says he might have to pay for a bigger force demanded by Congress by cutting back on training and equipment. Meanwhile, Panetta told a Senate appropriations hearing the stuff he did request for 2012 is getting more expensive. He says he needs more money to cover $3 billion in higher fuel costs. And you may also have heard about a spat with Pakistan that has led that country to close transit routes to Afghanistan.

Panetta says he needs more money to cover the extra costs of sending equipment to the war zone over a much longer route through other countries.

PANETTA: I think the amount is about $100 million a day...


PANETTA: A hundred million dollars a month because of the closure.

ABRAMSON: If the budget for this year is tight, in the near future, the Pentagon may have to wear a very tight corset. The budget gridlock in Congress could well lead to an additional $500 billion in required cuts over the next decade. That's on top of the 500 billion the Pentagon has already found. And those additional savings would have to be across the board. Every program would get hit.

That dismal prospect goes under the awful name of sequestration. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina agreed with Panetta - this would be defense Armageddon.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Okay. And your message about sequestration is I'm doing my best to handle 450 to 500 billion. If you want to double that, you're going to destroy the best military we've ever had. Is that simply put?

PANETTA: That's right.

ABRAMSON: In fact, many in Congress agree that sequestration would be a disaster, but that has not loosened up budget gridlock. The Pentagon says the S-word is so terrible, so impossible to deal with, the military simply cannot prepare for it. They have not released any numbers on where those cuts would fall. That's despite the fact that this is an organization that prides itself on preparing for all eventualities.

Once again, Senator Lindsey Graham helped Panetta illustrate the consequences.

GRAHAM: If we do not change the sequestration dilemma, if we don't do something about it before the election as a Congress, when can we expect layoff notices to hit?

ABRAMSON: Graham is alluding to recent announcements by defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin. If the Pentagon faces major across-the-board cuts, these companies say the law requires they issue layoff notices at least two months in advance. Panetta indicated he might have to do the same for Pentagon workers. That creates the prospect of big layoff notices coming in the fall right around election time.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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