Secretary, Chairman Offer Glimpse into Budget Strategy
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 13, 2011 Troop locations, benefits, future equipment and the role of reserve component forces are under scrutiny as military services prepare to trim spending and reshape for future missions, the Defense Department’s senior leaders told Congress members here today.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fielded questions on all those topics as they testified before the House Armed Services Committee.
DOD officials and service chiefs are reviewing all defense programs seeking a strategic approach to the $450 billion-plus cuts the defense budget will see over the next 10 years, Panetta said.
The secretary emphasized no cuts have yet been identified, but offered an example of the strategy that will drive them.
“If we decide that we've got to maintain our force structure presence in the Pacific in order to deal with China and China's expanding role in that part of the world … and if we decide that the Middle East is also a very important area where we have to maintain a presence as well, then just by virtue of the numbers that we're dealing with, we will probably have to reduce our presence elsewhere,” Panetta said. “Perhaps in Latin America … [or] Africa.”
The military presence in Africa represents a partnered approach to fighting terrorists, Dempsey explained.
While violent extremist organizations or terrorists are syndicated, decentralized and globally networked, the chairman said, there are places where they “sit.”
“One of the places they sit is Pakistan. One of the places they sit, or sat, is Afghanistan. One of the places they sit is the African continent,” he said. “And so our presence on the African continent is part of our network of building partners, of gaining intelligence. And then when targeting … reaches the level of refinement, we can act on it.”
Panetta responded to congressional questions on possible changes to the military retirement system with a promise to safeguard the benefits of those now serving.
The secretary acknowledged that retirement may take a different form in the future, but added, “We made a promise to people who are on duty that we're going to provide a certain level of retirement. We're not going to back away from that.”
Those now serving have deployed “time and time again … and we're not going to pull the rug out from under them,” Panetta said.
Dempsey said while military retirement is likely to change, he rejects the view that it’s an extravagant benefit.
Service members who stay in uniform for 20 years or more put themselves in harm's way, may move 10 or 15 times, frequently can’t buy a house, and often have spouses who cannot find employment “because we tell them to go where the nation needs them,” Dempsey said.
“That retirement program needs to be fundamentally different than anything you find in the civilian sector, in my view,” he added.
Both men said in response to questions that they support the F-35B, a short-takeoff, vertical-lift, radar-evading, supersonic multi-role fighter aircraft now in testing.
“This is the fifth-generation fighter,” the secretary said. “It's something we absolutely need. It's a remarkable plane, and it really does the job well.”
Dempsey said he supports a fifth-generation fighter “without caveat.”
“I am concerned about the three variants and whether, as we go forward in this fiscal environment, whether we can afford all three,” he added. “That's something we have to keep an eye on. Three variants … creates some fiscal challenges for us.”
Both men also agreed that reserve component forces have a vital role in the future force.
National Guard and Reserve troops have performed “in an outstanding fashion” in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Panetta said.
“They've gotten battle experience. They're better; they're more capable; they're more experienced,” he said. “I don't want to lose that.”
The secretary added that reserve component forces act as a link between the military and communities throughout the nation.
“[That] is something that I want to assure you we are not only going to maintain, but strengthen,” he said.
The reserve component brings needed flexibility to military structure and contingency planning, the chairman added.
“As we develop this strategy, we might find things that we decide we don't need immediately. They can be placed into the reserve component,” Dempsey said. “And things that were in the reserve component that we now realize we need immediately, we might migrate them into the active.”
A responsive industrial base also is essential to strong national defense, Panetta said.
“If we have to mobilize quickly, if we have to weaponize quickly, I've got to have that industrial base in place,” he said. “And if we cripple that, we will cripple our national defense.”
Panetta said he anticipates briefing Congress early in 2012 about proposed defense cuts now under strategic review.
“This isn't just numbers-driven,” the secretary said. “It's not budget-driven. It's driven by a strategy that we can shape, that tells us … what kind of force we need.”