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Media Availability with Secretary Panetta

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - May 10, 2012

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Good afternoon.  Let me -- let me begin with some comments on the defense budget.    

            I have spent much of this week, including two hours this morning on Capitol Hill, dinner last night here at the Pentagon, reaching out to members of Congress and to senators to talk about where things stand as Congress begins to debate, mark up and consider the defense budget in earnest. 

             My message to congressional leaders remains the same.  Congress passed the Budget Control Act.  It requires a reduction of defense spending of $487 billion over the next 10 years.    

            As I've said, we do not have to choose between national security and fiscal security, but that does not mean that we do not have to make tough choices.  We do.  And defense should not be exempt from doing its share to reduce the deficit.    

            What that means is we have to make very difficult decisions -- difficult decisions that are tied to a strategy that achieves necessary and real savings, and at the same time protects the strongest military in the world.    

            As you know, the military and civilian leaders of this department -- service secretaries, service chiefs, combatant commanders -- spent months developing a new defense strategy to meet our national security priorities and address our future security challenges.  

            We then crafted a balanced plan that met the requirements of that strategy as well as met the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act.  My concern is that if Congress now tries to reverse many of the tough decisions that we reached by adding several billion dollars to the president's budget request, then they risk not only potential gridlock, because it's not likely that the Senate will go along with what the House did, and if they did, they could force the kind of trade-offs that could jeopardize our national defense.  

            The Department of Defense -- and, I believe, the administration -- are not going to support additional funds that come at the expense of other critical national security priorities.  And if members try to restore their favorite programs without regard to an overall strategy, the cuts will have to come from areas that could impact overall readiness.    

            There's no free lunch here.  There is no free lunch here.  Every dollar that is added will have to be offset by cuts in national security.  And if for some reason they do not want to comply with the Budget Control Act, then they would certainly be adding to the deficit, which only puts our national security further at risk. 

            When Congress restores funds to protect particular constituencies that may not be critical to our national defense capabilities, then they risk upending the kind of careful balance that we've worked very hard to achieve, and it could harm our ability to pursue the high-priority investments that we think are essential to the force that we need for the 21st century.  

            Some examples -- I mean, if we're prevented from retiring aging ships and aircraft that no longer fit strategic requirements, then Congress would be forcing us to have to look elsewhere for these savings, areas like reducing modernization investments and burdening the services with excess force structure that would risk hollowing out the force. 

             If we're restricted from gradually drawing down the size of the ground forces in the years beyond 2013, Congress would be forcing us to reduce readiness.  We would have to cut training; we'd have to cut equipment, all of that very needed to support the force.  And again, it would guarantee a hollow force.  

            If we're limited in our ability to put military health care costs on a sustainable track, then Congress would be making all of this more difficult to invest in new technologies that we believe are critical to the force we need for the future.  

            I don't think any of us in the administration or on Capitol Hill want these outcomes.  Therefore, I would strongly urge the Congress to work with us to reach a consensus about our defense priorities, recognizing the budget realities that we face, not the ones that some would like to pretend are not there.  

            I understand from my own experience that Congress has the right to question some of our decisions and to make changes.  That right is inherent in the legislative process.  But Congress also has the responsibility to make sure that we protect a strong national defense.   

            The bottom line is we cannot cut a half a trillion dollars from the defense budget and not cause some pain.  But the price for that pain should be a 21st century force that can effectively defend our country in what remains a very dangerous world.  We can do this, but we have to do this together.    

            Let me say another word about sequestration.  Again, I'm grateful to the House for recognizing the importance of stopping sequestration. But by taking these funds from the poor, middle-class Americans, homeowners and other vulnerable parts of our American constituencies, the guaranteed results will be confrontation, gridlock and a greater likelihood of sequester.    

            Again, the key is to work together.  Each side can stake out its political position.  I understand that.  But the fact is that nothing will happen without compromise from both sides.    

            Before wrapping up, let me just take a moment to announce that the president has nominated General Mark Welsh to succeed Air Force Chief of Staff Norty Schwartz upon his retirement this summer.  

            General Welsh is presently the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, where he is responsible for Air Force activities covering almost one-fifth of the globe, encompassing 51 countries in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.  He's a command pilot who's flown more than 3,400 hours during the course of his career, and he's got a distinguished record that includes multiple combat missions during Operation Desert Storm.  

            I had the opportunity to work closely with General Welsh when I served as director of the CIA and he served as an associate director of the CIA for military affairs, a position where he functioned as a critical link between the military and intelligence communities.  Over the course of our time working together, I developed a deep appreciation for his wisdom and his counsel.  A former Air Force Academy commandant, I believe that he has the right leadership qualities and distinguished background to follow his extraordinary predecessor, General Schwartz.  

            I'll have the opportunity in coming months to pay a full and proper tribute to General Schwartz, but let me just say that I believe Norty has been a transformative leader in his nearly four years as Air Force chief of staff.  He came into the role at a very challenging time, but because of his leadership, the Air Force, I think, is much stronger today.  Under his watch, the Air Force has reinvigorated its stewardship of the nuclear enterprise, made important investments in the capabilities needed for the future, and excelled in a wide range of missions, from the operations over Libya to supporting our ground forces in Afghanistan with close air support and ISR.  

            I greatly appreciate his counsel, his guidance, his friendship and his dedication to the Air Force and to the United States of America.  

            GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY:  Thanks, Mr. Secretary.  

            Good afternoon, everyone.  On this day in 1775, a small force of Green Mountain Boys led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold successfully attacked the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga, New York.  At the same time, the Second Continental Congress was assembled in Philadelphia.  Their task was daunting:  field and fund an army for a war that was already under way.  

            As we sit here today, the 112th Congress has its own daunting task:  debate and decide on a defense budget with a war under way and with increasingly complex security challenges ahead.  I appreciate the difficulty of the decisions they face.  Secretary Panetta and I face them as well, and so do the service chiefs and the combatant commanders.  

            We came together to prepare and submit a budget that we firmly believe is a responsible investment in America's security.  Now we stand ready and willing to work with Congress to make sure our armed forces have what they need and no more than what we need to keep America immune from coercion.  This means working together to preserve the balance that we built into the budget.  

            Keep in mind this is a budget for a joint force.  It should not be thought of as just a set of separate service budgets, but as a comprehensive and carefully devised set of choices, choices that reflect the right mix among force structure modernization, readiness, pay and benefits.  Different choices will produce a different balance.  

            So before giving us weapons we don't need or giving up on reforms that we do need, I would only ask to make sure it's the right choice, not just for our armed forces, but for the nation. 

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