At his confirmation hearing today, Defense Secretary nominee Leon Panetta argued that the Cold War of the 20th century had been replaced by a “blizzard” of threats in the 21st. Remarking that “for our troops, there has been no shortage of war,” Panetta will likely concentrate on winding down American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as completing a comprehensive review of military roles and missions to inform the President’s stated goal of a $400 billion reduction in security spending over the next decade.
Panetta left unanswered, however, where these cuts might come from and which programs and capabilities might be affected.
Much of the hearing dealt with the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. With regard to Iraq, Panetta spoke to the possibility of a sustained American presence past the expiration date of 2011 proscribed by the Iraqi–American Status of Forces Agreement. Panetta argued that the President should “seriously consider” the continued deployment of American troops if requested by the Iraqi government.
On Afghanistan, Panetta argued that “fragile and reversible” gains have been made in security as well as with the training and equipping of local police and military forces. The real problem lies in the slow progress of creating just and responsive government—a process that lags behind improving the security situation.
Bearing in mind the fragile nature of gains in Iraq and Afghanistan, Panetta would do well to heed his own advice that the most costly course of action would be to fail. Throughout the hearing, Panetta refused to go on the record agreeing with outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that any troop reductions in July should be modest, leaving open the possibility of a more accelerated withdrawal than many military planners had originally envisioned.
Panetta also pledged to ensure that the United States has the “best-trained, best-equipped” military in the world; however, he sent mixed messages regarding his views on defense spending cuts. Saying that America needs the “very best” fighter planes available, he quickly pivoted to concerns over the rising costs of the F–35 Joint Strike Fighter. With F–22 production ending, the F–35 remains the only fifth-generation fighter to replace the rapidly aging and heavily used tactical fighter jets.
The central long-term, unanswered question was the President’s plan to cut $400 billion from national security budgets. Panetta stated that he would await an official study on the subject before determining the pace, areas, and scope of these cuts, but he presupposed the outcome when he said that he didn’t think the review would show additional risk to the military. That doesn’t fully square with his comments that hollowing out the force would be a terrible mistake, as would across-the-board defense cuts—which is true.
Unfortunately, it does not take a “hollow army,” as Senator John McCain (R–AZ) said, to harm national security. Even comparatively small cuts in defense—if applied to the wrong area—can harm America’s capacity to project power abroad, guarantee the defense of our allies, or to meet international commitments.
As Senator McCain put it, “defense spending is not what is sinking this country into fiscal crisis.” It is unclear whether Panetta’s words about conditions-based withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, or a sober and unbiased look at military needs, capabilities, and budgets, will translate into actions that align with his words today.
Panetta is correct that there is a blizzard coming, but it is too early to say whether it will bury the military.