Panetta Admits There Are ‘Risks’ Associated With Military Cutbacks

By Patrick Goodenough | January 27, 2012 | 4:46 AM EST

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brief the press on the defense budget proposals at the Pentagon on Jan. 26, 2012. (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad McNeeley)

( – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended plans for a “leaner” U.S. military – including the shedding of 100,000 soldiers and Marines within five years – while acknowledging that the proposed cut-back budget will raise the level of risk for the U.S. and its allies.

“What we’ve done is to try to develop the kind of agility and capability so that we can respond to the threats that we’re going to face in the 21st century,” he told a Pentagon press briefing Thursday, previewing the 2013 Defense Department budget request President Obama will deliver to Congress next month.

“I think this is the force for the future,” Panetta continued. “Are there risks going – associated with it? You bet. Can we deal with those risks and make them acceptable? You bet.”

Panetta noted more than once that even after losing 80,000 posts and 20,000 posts respectively, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps will still be bigger than they were before the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

“But obviously, it will be a smaller force [than it is today], and when you have a smaller force, there are risks associated with that in terms of our capability to respond,” he said. “We think we’ve dealt with those risks because the combination of the forces we have in place and the ability, if we have to, to mobilize quickly will give us the capability to deal with any threat.”

He emphasized that an “adaptable and battle-tested Army” will remain “capable of defeating any adversary on land.”

The Pentagon is expected to find $487 billion in cuts over the next ten years (an adjustment of nearly nine percent). Fiscal year 2013’s base budget will be $525 billion, down from $531 billion in the current fiscal year, and the budget for combat operations abroad will be $88 billion, down from $115 in FY2012.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called the adjustments “the most consequential” that the Pentagon has had to make in more than a decade, but described the end result as “a carefully balanced package.”

Among the proposals contained in the budget plan:

--The active Army will be reduced from 570,000 to 490,000 and the active Marine Corps from about 202,000 to 182,000.

--At least eight Army brigade combat teams will be removed from the existing structure.

--Some military bases will be closed – a long and arduous process involving recommendations by a congressional commission.

--Construction of new ships for the U.S. Navy, including a nuclear-powered attack submarine, will slow, and seven cruisers and two amphibious ships will be retired early. The fleet of aircraft carriers will be maintained at 11 vessels and investments will be made in modernizing the submarine fleet.

--Procurement of the advanced F-35 stealth fighter jet will be slowed, and 65 C-130 transport planes (out of 383) will be retired, along with several dozen ageing C-5 transport aircraft.

--Six Air Force tactical air fighter squadrons (out of 60) and one training squadron will be closed down.

--Cyberwarfare, both defensive and offensive, is “one of the few areas” where investment will be increased.

“The problem with these cuts is that America’s enemies can count, and they’ll quickly determine that the United States won’t be able to cover its responsibilities worldwide,” the Heritage Foundation’s Mike Brownfield wrote on the think tank’s blog.

“Fewer troops in all the services will be scrambling in a global shell game to mask the fact that the United States can’t defend all of its interests,” he predicted. “The force will be even more stressed than at the height of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

‘Project power on arrival’

The proposed budget reflects plans to shift the focus from Europe to the Asia-Pacific, with the Middle East remaining a priority area. The aim is to have a force that is “ready, rapidly deployable, and expeditionary such that it can project power on arrival.”

In Europe, two heavy Army combat brigades will be eliminated, but U.S.-based units will be rotated to Europe for training and exercises and ballistic missile defense ships will be forward stationed at the Rota naval base in Spain.

“We will have a significant land force presence in places like Korea and in the Middle East,” Panetta told the press briefing. “But at the same time, we will emphasize special operations forces.”

He pointed to plans for enhanced Marines presence in Australia, the stationing of littoral combat ships in Singapore and opportunities for partnering elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific, like the Philippines.

Other parts of the world receive little mention in the budget proposal, but it does say that the U.S. “will seek to be the security partner of choice, pursuing new partnerships with a growing number of nations including those in Africa and Latin America.”

According to most recent figures released by the Defense Manpower Data Center, dated September 30, 2011, 1,219,995 military personnel were stationed in the U.S. and its territories; 80,718 in Europe; 55,671 in East Asia and the Pacific; 6,270 in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa; 1,965 in Latin America; 654 in sub-Saharan Africa; and 160 in the former Soviet Union.

The figure for the Middle East did not include Iraq and Afghanistan, where at the time 92,200 and 109,200 U.S. personnel were stationed respectively. Since then, U.S. forces have withdrawn completely from Iraq, and the number deployed in Afghanistan has decreased to around 91,000.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow