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US Defense Chief Says Painful Changes Coming

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta after speaking to the Association of the US Army in Washington, Oct. 12, 2011
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta after speaking to the Association of the US Army in Washington, Oct. 12, 2011
Luis Ramirez

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says painful changes are coming to the U.S. military, as the Pentagon looks for ways to cut $450 billion from its budget in the next 10 years.  

The Obama administration has called on the Pentagon to reduce spending that rose dramatically during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.  With operations in both places drawing down and the U.S. economy still in trouble, cuts are coming.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a soldiers’ advocacy group in Washington Wednesday the future U.S. military will have to deal with the reality of being smaller.

“Tough decisions await us all," he said.

He said the nation needs an army strong enough to deal with conventional threats.

“If an enemy does challenge us in a conventional land war, we need an army that can, as General George Patton used to say, ‘hold the enemy by the nose and kick them in the ass,'" said Panetta.

At the same time, he said it the military must be smarter and more versatile to deal with terrorist threats that he says are not going away.

“Still, the reality is there are not a lot of countries out there building massive tank armies," he said. "It is unlikely that we will be fighting Desert Storm in the future. Instead, I see both state and non-state actors arming with high-tech weaponry that is easier both to buy and to operate, weapons that frustrate our traditional advantage.”

The U.S. Army alone may reduce its force by nearly 50,000 in the next five years.   

But U.S. Defense officials say no decisions have been made on where to cut. Secretary Panetta last month called in combat commanders to start discussing places where they believe reductions can be made.

In the 10 years since the September 11 attacks, the United States has doubled its military budget to about $700 billion a year.

A defense policy expert at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, Winslow Wheeler, believes the cuts could result in a corrective process that will eliminate what he says has been wasteful spending.

“After 9/11, for very understandable reasons, everybody in the political system in our country wanted to do everything they could to assist our armed forces," said Wheeler. "But some of them fell over themselves in terms of trying to just throw money at the issue rather than selectively and smartly.”

Defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen at the Heritage Foundation, a research organization, says cuts of $450 billion, even if they target wasteful projects, inevitably will result in the loss of essential capabilities.

“The challenge with the ‘there’s so much waste therefore you can cut defense’ argument is that defense cuts don’t work like that," said Eaglen. "This isn’t a laser where we are taking out the fat that is marbled inside a piece of meat, for example. These tend to be salami-sliced, budget axe, across-the-board cuts that don’t have targeted focus.”

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