The year-old defense strategy Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta helped put in place last January faces two major risks, he said Tuesday: stress on the force, and a political system "that is depriving the department of the budget certainty we need … to plan for the future."
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. the secretary reminded the audience of five key strategy elements:
- A smaller, leaner but agile and technologically capable force
- Maintaining military presence and force-projection capability in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific
- Building partnerships and partner capacity around the world through innovative rotational deployments
- Remaining capable of confronting and defeating any adversary
- Protecting and prioritizing key investments in technology and new capabilities.
"The goal of our new defense strategy is to help shape the force of the 21st century," the secretary said, "to … adapt our forces and operating concepts so that we are better prepared for an unpredictable and dangerous future, even in an era of constrained resources."
Panetta said the strategy has taken root over 2012, even as the department ended combat operations in Iraq, supported the NATO-led mission in Libya and transitioned more of Afghanistan to Afghan-led security efforts.
But 2012's multiple missions offer a clue to the first risk Panetta identified. As he noted, the nation's military force "is still operating at a very high tempo more than 11 years after September 11th."
For example, the U.S. military remains "at war in Afghanistan," the secretary said, adding that U.S. forces "have been on a crisis posture in the Middle East and North Africa for the past year. And we will continue to maintain a strong presence in that region even as we rebalance to the Asia Pacific area."
DOD's "outstanding men and women in uniform," Panetta said, "are the foundation of everything we do. … We need to ensure that service members and their families have the support that they have earned in areas like health and education and employment … so that they can … go back home and re-establish their ties to their communities."
The second risk, which looms 15 days away, is that the sequestration mechanism built into the Budget Control Act will take effect. If Congress and the president don't agree on a plan to reduce the federal deficit before Jan. 2, 2013, sequestration will trigger across-the-board cuts in federal spending, including an additional $500 billion cut in defense.
"For more than a year, this department has been operating under the shadow of sequestration," Panetta said. "… Because of political gridlock, this department still faces the possibility of another round of across-the-board cuts … that will inflict lasting damage on our national defense and hurt the very men and women who protect this country."
The secretary noted that he is asked about sequestration every time he speaks to troops. "It is unacceptable to me that men and women who put their lives on the line every day in distant lands have to worry about whether those here in Washington can effectively support them," he added.
Panetta said the Defense Department is "down to the wire now," and that Congress must act to avoid "the fiscal disaster that awaits us."
Failure to reach a bipartisan consensus on deficit reduction and future defense spending, the secretary warned, "will weaken this nation in the minds of our allies, our partners, and our potential adversaries and undermine the work and the sacrifices that our troops are making every single day."