"The Department faces the imperative of cutting more than $450 billion over the next 10 years," Panetta said. He had just one word for those who propose "draconian cuts," particularly those the Pentagon might incur if the deficit reduction super committee fails to reach an agreement: "Nuts."
Panetta vowed to avoid excessive military reductions, saying, "it will not happen on my watch."
He spoke of the need to build a flexible force to combat complex threats; the need to support veterans; and the challenge of absorbing steep budget cuts. In order to survive an era of "extraordinary fiscal pressure," Panetta said, the services must combat "parochialism."
Panetta vowed never to "break faith" with service members and their families. "You will get what was promised to you. That is my fight, that is my duty -- to watch your flank, to fight to make sure that you're protected and that you have all the resources you need to do the job."
However, Panetta also admitted that "we must make efforts to control" personnel costs, "or else we will be forced to make deeper cuts in force structure and modernization." He said his approach "will aim to grandfather benefits when I can in order to implement reforms," echoing his comments at a speech at the Wilson Center on Tuesday.
Budget cuts are inevitable, and will shape the military as it moves forward, Panetta said. He called upon the three service branches to work together to absorb the cuts, rather than fight over every last dollar. "We absolutely cannot allow budget pressures to force the services into parochialism and program survival mode," Panetta said. "Going forward, my expectation is that our military leaders will do what's best for the entire force, not just what's best for their own service."
Panetta will testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, addressing the future of national defense 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks.