Panetta tries to assuage Pentagon budget-cutting concerns

Additional $500 billion cut that would come if congressional deficit reduction committee fails to do its job is meant to be a worst-case scenario.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday attempted to assuage concerns about the debt ceiling deal's planned $350 billion cut to the Pentagon's budget over the next 10 years, stressing that military leaders have been anticipating a reduction of that size since President Obama announced a similar proposal in April.

But Panetta expressed deep reservations about the prospects for an additional $500 billion cut that would hit the Pentagon if a joint congressional committee created to find another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction savings fails to do its job.

"If that happens, it could trigger a round of dangerous across-the-board defense cuts that would do real damage to our security, our troops, and their families, and our ability to protect the nation," Panetta wrote in a lengthy letter circulated to Defense Department personnel.

That cut, or "trigger," is meant to be a worst-case scenario, forcing both parties to negotiate to find the requisite savings. Domestic discretionary funding would get a similar hit.

"It is designed to be unpalatable to spur responsible, balanced deficit reduction and avoid misguided cuts to our security," Panetta wrote.

Panetta pledged to reject "hasty, ill-conceived" cuts to the Pentagon's budget reminiscent of those put in place after the Vietnam War. Spending choices, he added, must be based on sound strategy and policy.

A former White House budget chief and House Budget Committee chairman, Panetta said he will move the Pentagon toward a successful audit of its books as quickly as possible -- a financial goal that has eluded the department for 14 years. Without an audit, many lawmakers and budget watchers worry the Pentagon cannot track how it spends its money, making the department vulnerable to wasteful spending.

"That will change," Panetta said. "I have directed that this requirement be put in place as soon as possible. America deserves nothing less."

Congress first required the Pentagon to complete an audit of its books by 1997, but the deadline was pushed back each time department officials failed to meet it. The current deadline is 2017, but lawmakers are doubtful the Pentagon can overcome its financial management problems in time.

The military, Panetta added, can no longer afford to spend more than it should on new weapons. "Going forward, we must ensure that the military gets the effective and affordable weapons it needs by redoubling our efforts to ensure procurement discipline," he wrote.

On Tuesday, President Obama nominated Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter to be the next deputy Defense secretary, signaling that further reforms to the way the Pentagon buys its weapons will be key to cost-cutting at the Defense Department.