Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Thursday that deeper cuts in the defense budget risked hollowing out the military and would hamper Pentagon efforts to deal with rising powers such as China, North Korea and Iran.
It was the second day in a row that Panetta issued a public warning to Congress not to go beyond the roughly $400 billion in defense cuts required over the next decade under the debt reduction bill signed this week by President Obama.
Speaking to reporters at his first Pentagon news conference, Panetta called on Congress to raise tax revenue and cut mandatory spending programs, which include Medicare and Social Security, rather than slash defense further.
"You cannot deal with the size deficits the country is confronting by simply cutting the discretionary side of the budget," he said, referring to defense and other portions of the budget that Congress appropriates annually. "You have got to look at the mandatory side of the budget, which is two-thirds of the federal budget, and you also have to look at revenue."
After taking office last month with troops or aircraft in combat fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, Panetta has faced an unexpected threat to the Pentagon budget from Congress, which has been forced into considering deep cuts in military spending to deal with the nation's fiscal woes.
The situation has put the former Clinton administration budget director and chairman of the House Budget Committee into an awkward position. Though Panetta has long been identified as a leading Democratic Party voice for reducing the federal deficit, he has been forced to take a hard-line stance against further cuts in his department's budget.
Panetta said that the roughly half a trillion in additional cuts in Defense Department spending that would go into effect if Congress fails to enact a separate savings package by the end of the year would be "unacceptable." Any further defense cuts "is going to damage national security."
Last month, Panetta declared that Al Qaeda was on the verge of "strategic defeat" after the death of Osama bin Laden and the killing of many of his top operatives in Pakistan and elsewhere. But Thursday he warned that "terrorism and terrorism network" remain dangerous and that Al Qaeda off-shoots still pose threats to the U.S. from Yemen. He also warned that efforts by Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear weapons argued against cutting defense.
"We need to continue to watch them closely," Panetta said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who appeared with Panetta, echoed many of his comments about the danger of further slashing defense. Noting that he had recently returned from a trip to China, Mullen said that Chinese military officers claim that their military buildup in recent years is "defensive" in nature.
"We certainly see other capabilities that are not necessarily defensive," Mullen said, referring to China.